Farm as ethics

 

1. Prefacing

I am, and always have been, “an activist.” All of us are. We are active beings. Always actioning: Write-ing. Be-ing. Farm-ing. Live-ing. Sleep-ing. Ethic-ing.

The current global state of affairs—epistemic, ecological, economic—is largely awful, an awfulness that is de-activating & thus life-threatening for all creatures—including our common creaturely Mother, Big Momma Earth.

She is unwell and has deep, ugly wounds. She is psychically and physically traumatized.

This is true to varying degrees of all her inhabitants. Stones, even.

That same one and only Earth has remarkable and unexpected resilience, logic and creativity. She’s a goddamned joy machine. This is true of all her creatures, including the ones dead in the ground (energy moving) and the ones who haven’t arrived yet. Inorganic life: we are part of this mineral matter called Earth.

Organic life: we are fleshy creatures of many verbs and thus totally implicated in Earth’s current & future pathologies and homeopathies. (Or, as a critical theorist might say: there
is no distance between thinking and thought-about.)

Dogs, rodeo horses, zinnias, truffle pigs, orchards, mating damselflies, water currents, glaciers, cadmium in old bones, donkeys.

I am a professor of Western humanist philosophy. I have been trained to fully inhabit and internalize all its norms: everything from worrying about translational authority to debating whether the jade plant in my office is the bearer of natural rights. I write to the wobbly thinkers, in the margins of their essays: “You must use sound argumentation.”

Engage the rational intellect first.

Late Heidegger: no, the rock simply cannot.

Humanist philosophy has played a role in making us sick in non-trivial ways; the notable etiological character = depression, sense of detachment, cynicism, overly theoretical habitus, the sickness unto death, a lack of holistic, coordinated activation through mind & body and across collectives (by which we mean organic and inorganic liaisons).

2. Supporting Holistic Approaches to Mental Wellness in Students at a Crucial
Time in Their Lives: The Resilience-Building Capacity of Urban Farming

At this point in history, more than half of the human population lives in urban centres, and this is a trend that will likely continue: our future is more urban than country, more city than village. One of the main reasons that people move from small towns and the country to live in larger cities is to obtain a post-secondary education. In my province of Ontario, the total population is fourteen million, and the number of students enrolled in post-secondary institutions in larger centres is about two million, or 14 percent of the entire population of the province. This means that many young people spend at least four to five years of their lives, and during a very formative period, in a highly urbanized setting.

Moreover, the spaces on campuses in which they live and study are themselves densely populated and highly urbanized settings: cement lanes, massive concrete libraries, shared apartments and dorms, bus shelters, classrooms that seat upwards of a thousand students, equipped with whiteboards and microphones and computer plug-ins, but without natural light or air.

The truth is that even in these highly peopled spaces, students have difficulty finding and keeping real community: they are lonely, rates of suicide on campuses are skyrocketing and more and more demands are made on campus services like psychiatric counselling and walk-in medical clinics, emergency room visits and pharmacies (legal and illegal). So what we should notice is that a considerable number of this young population find themselves, in short order, displaced psychically, materially, emotionally and socially from a space in which they grew to maturity, old enough to set out on their own. Ironically, it is exactly in these difficult, dense spaces that they are expected to learn, to reflect, to prosper, to choose their paths, to find their kin groups, to become adults. There are many factors involved, but my work focuses on the rapid and radical shift in the nature of and relation to their lived environments. I suggest that this phenomenon—this crisis, really—is the manifestation of a profound corporeal alienation, a scission between mind-body (and heart) that comes along with this rapid and radical urbanization, coupled with the current style and expectations of post-secondary education: high value placed on theory, increasing interfaces with digital platforms (“screen time”), pedagogical norms that keep students unattuned to their individual and collective well-being and the state of the (everpresent) natural world. Something unhealthy is literally cemented into their daily lives.

At my university, there is certainly an effort made to increase awareness about, and concern for, the mental and physical health of students. But for the most part, these interventions are talk-therapy or chemical. The number of counsellors on my campus has tripled in two years, and still students report to me that there are long wait times. What do they do during this time? I fear that most of them go to the mall and spend money aimlessly. Or: are they to just wait on the “Friendship Bench”—a cast-iron painted yellow bench for two persons that sits in the central courtyard “to signal and support mental health of our students.” None of this is materially enough. But worse, the imagination we collectively bring to bear on the entire question of “mental health” is limited and impoverished. As if a healthy spirit in a healthy body is a matter for commerce and information.

 

And what, then, would constitute a new and effective response? What could an institution do to shift its imaginaries toward a holistic, wise, ethical and effective support system for this gigantic population? Whatever it is, it cannot just be an occasional activity, something taking place far away that permits them to “escape” their daily lives. It has to involve
where they actually are and work with the mindset they are in and the fact that they are not alone among humans. What is needed is a permanent space or place, which combines nature-culture, open at all hours, all seasons, and hospitable to anyone wishing to avail themselves of it, where we can be both alone and with others, in an easy manner. Moreover, it needs to be a space or place with capacious enough possibility that students are able, in spending time there, to reintegrate their spirit, mind and body, both as individuals and as a collective culture.

My experience and research have shown that one very viable candidate for this sort of a “solution” is an urban organic farm on a campus. My research is studying how this particular type of space and place carries with it a unique quality and range of possibilities for wellness. An organic urban farm on a campus supports the building and maintenance of so many complex relations: between humans and non-humans, between humans and other humans, sharing food, teaching and learning, working side by side—and finally, healthier relations with one’s own self. The farm is a blueprint or model for building on our campuses a space for real healing, an urban spot of real re-enchantment for a particular, critical, vulnerable population: our young citizens.

3. A Note about Attachment

The co-evolutionary story of plants and animals is older and wider than the one of humans and canines. If it weren’t for the ability of plants to convert the sun into food energy from which we can grow, and convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, we animals would not exist at all, let alone be in attached relations with other animals. But, more than that, plants are always there, everywhere, with us and beside us, inside our homes and surrounding them. That means we are also always with them: were it not for our habits of movement, eating, exhaling, planting, digesting, selecting, transporting, tinkering, they would not exist how they exist & where they exist. Mushrooms only emerge at the edges of disturbance: paths we walk on; roads we drive on.

What does this plant note tell us about the nature of love, of attachment, of bondedness?

4. Some Observations about Farming, Philosophy, Jean Vanier & Being Together while Abusing Power

I teach “environmental philosophy.”

I have a PhD in philosophy.

I’m a blue-blooded scholar.

Many peer-reviewed articles, many books published, etc.

Lots of students want to study with me.

If they do, they will have to come and work on a farm alongside me. I will have my hands in the soil and a job to do, an important job: to grow food so we can eat. As those who have been asked to teach philosophy, we have a profound task, which is not to fill their minds with ideas, but to greet them as whole beings, without any parts or splits or individuation or rank or bodies or careers or thesis ideas or trauma or side-boob stares. Just the ones who are working together, with hands in the soil and a job to do. To offer myself as a whole being, a whole being engaged in a work of wholeness. After we finish what needs doing—it might be getting the garlic planted, it might be potting the basil, it might be mulching the raspberries—if we still have questions that still seem important, and if those questions were not fully answered that day, together, in the doing of the task, we can go sit together under the white pines or in the main greenhouse if it has become dark and cold, and we can “do some philosophy” together: we can trace out the ways that the claims in the texts we read do or do not align with what we will have just done together. We can feel how a concept serves its purposes when held up to the plain light of the outside. We might get revived and talk for three more hours. We might suddenly find it all embarrassing and banal and stupefyingly pretentious, and if so, we’ll just divide up the leftover garlic and go home.

Jean Vanier was among my small handful of heroes. He was an academic, a scholastically Parisian-trained philosopher who seemed to have manifested his ethical theorizing to be
authentically in the “pursuit of the good” in a beautiful phenomenon called L’Arche: homes where folks with and without learning and physical disabilities live together as dynamic
equals. As kin. L’Arche homes now exist the world over. When I was fifteen or eighteen, I heard about L’Arche and read up on it, and on Vanier. At that point I hadn’t noticed he
was a philosopher.

 

 

Through these thirty or so years since then, I have become one. I work in academia as a professional philosopher, which, in North America, isn’t a “public figure.” I have paid a lot
of attention to Jean Vanier (and others like him): scholars who are public figures—in his case, official ethicists—actually doing things “in the world,” presumably things that
manifest his hard-won understanding of what The Good, and The Good Life, entails. What ethics “looks like” as a human life, as human relations. Outside the classroom and library and church. Among other plain folks and plain objects: out in the open.

Since about 2001, when my career as a professional academic philosopher started, I’ve been stuck inside an infernally long-running soap opera, a show that consists of daily skits
involving stupid, gross and really bad “out in the open” behaviour of men toward the women they work with: women who are their intellectual equals if not superiors; young women who are their students, older women who are their colleagues. In the classrooms and hallowed halls of, well, philosophy. “I’m glad to see it is skirt season, Karen,” for instance (a whisper from behind in the elevator). Pictures of dicks. Sketches of dicks drawn “for shits and giggles” on the whiteboard. PowerPoint nudie jokes. Offers of sex (sometimes for money).

Pornography collections shown to fellow professor buddies behind almost-closed office doors. Off-colour jokes at the most formal moment. How so much sexual harassment and
sexual misconduct thrives in departments of philosophy in Western universities has been a puzzle I’ve noodled over for way too long. I want to understand why it happens and happens so much in a unique cultural zone where we are all, ostensibly, invested in finding out the Best Secrets: Truth, the Good, the Beautiful, the Nature of God, even? We call ourselves “Ethicists,” “Anti-Oppression Theorists,” “Feminist Philosophers,” “Equality Theorists.”

How does that fuckery work? What are its trap doors and levers hidden in the grain of its habits of thought such that, maybe even without anyone trying to, one grows a sort of
callous over the very place where one should be able to see, sense, know and revere the Good? Where one should be especially skilled at seeing and knowing and arguing for
women as full humans, equals, co-interlocutors, minds-in-bodies like the other humans have. In a state of raw wonder, my jaw has dropped open seeing that we can pass through decades of apprenticeship to the question of what it means to be profoundly answerable as a human being—to be a good person—and yet come out of that apprenticeship constantly distracted by the titillating notion that maybe the hot undergrad reading Hegel in your class would go out for coffee with you and give you all her attention and maybe you could touch her body?

 

How does someone like Jean Vanier—nearly sainted for his practical devotion on behalf of enabling any and all peoples to break bread together as equals, as kin—shut the door
behind him and trap just such a female person in his office and force her to let him touch her body and then give him oral sex? And do this all his life, right alongside all the other
truly good deeds with the “handicapped” in the kitchen next to that office? And somehow have the resources in his moral conscience to totally block the power of his being confronted by the disgusting, evil actions he was up to with women? It’s a real puzzle, a whiz-bang of a topic for moral consciousness studies, for a final essay, isn’t it, my friends?

I am ashamed of philosophy, because of Jean Vanier (and others). I am ashamed “to be” a philosopher.

And very worried. I have become worried that it is Western philosophy itself that is the set-up for the abuse of women, the abuse of bodies. And the Earth. She doesn’t count either, except as a place to stash things and poke about. Storage lockers. Dumps. Cunts.

Except that when your hands are in the dirt, working alongside others, this doesn’t even occur as a way of being, let alone a way of thinking, or a stimulating puzzle to pass the time away while thinning the carrots. I still worry that even while philosofarming, I am still an actor playing a part of that fucking endless soap opera and I don’t know it. Can’t know it because I am too well trained, too profoundly dissociated, so that as I move with the moral clarity I have, I will still be doing something terrible to or with some lovely part of the situation or the self. Not women, not cunts and tits, no. But maybe I am so cauterized by the branding iron of rational thought that I can’t even sense my hands or feet or mouth doing the cutting-up, immediately after I have finished doing what I think is the Goodness. Right in the next room. The whole beings are thinning the carrots. The equality-kin are breaking bread in the kitchen. And I’ve used my superpowers to duck out to this dirt office where it will feel good that no one will be hurt.

The worms are in the broccoli. I will eat them because no part of me wishes to make a cut against any other part. Or even muse about how that cut might be made. The Cartesian
thought experiment “on the manner in which the mind is separate from the body ...” is dangerous while chopping broccoli for dinner. Even the practice-thinking can get you very good at cutting one living tissue from another: there is no distance between the thinking and the thought-about.

This essay appears in the wondrous publication “Outdoor School: Contemporary Environmental Art”. Edited by Amish Morrell and Diane Borsato. Douglas and McIntyre (2021), pp. 88-99.

We got kicked off the campus farm in April of 2019 and threatened with trespassing if we ever visit that land again.

 

ART
SOIL
COLLECTIVE
Interkingdom Ethics