Garden Mysteries

Storm clouds brew above small plots of perennial cereal grains under development at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Scott Seirer / The Land Institute.

Garden Mysteries

By   |  Dec. 30, 2020

This piece by Bill Vitek was first published in the Green Mountain Monastery’s quarterly newsletter in November. Bill recently edited a book of essays, The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field, available for free download at New Perennials Publishing.

Every gardener and farmer receives daily and seasonal lessons from the plants in their lives. The curriculum includes stubborn, AKA “more successful than you” weeds, soil preferences, annuals versus perennials, shade or sun, tasty to critters, watering needs and tolerance for neighbors. I fought wild grape vines and their roots in my backyard garden for two decades. I suspect they are still there. I moved to another state.

Philosophers, prophets and poets have used these lessons to good effect as well. Whitman, Plato, Emerson, Thoreau, Alexander Pope, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson and so many others use the imagery and metaphors of plant life: roots, transformation, growth, seasons, resilience and temporal and spatial limits. The Genesis story of the creation begins in a garden, and the Hebrew prophet Isaiah cries out “All flesh is grass and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.” I remember as a child in Catholic school the ominous words on the first day of Lent when the ashes of last year’s palms were rubbed on my forehead in the shape of a cross: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

These are just some of the deep mysteries of the Universe available to us in the garden, and in life. Many of them connect us to those long-lived teachers called angiosperms: plants that produce the flowers we love and the fruits we consume, and that comprise nearly all of the food we grow. They emerged about 125 million years ago, transforming the planet while making warm-blooded creatures like ourselves a possibility thanks to their edible seeds crammed with high-octane energy that fuel our internal combustion metabolisms. One of the most important seed bearers in this new line of life were the grasses, emerging some 65 million years ago. About 30% of the planet’s surface is today covered in grassland ecosystems, while nearly 80% of current human caloric needs come from just three of these grass varieties that started an agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago: rice, corn and wheat. Along with other cereal grains and oil crops they require 65% of current global cropland, annual tillage and the use of herbicides. Agriculture–particularly grain agriculture–has transformed the face of the planet relying on ecologically unsustainable practice and culturally corrosive hierarchies.  We turned these wondrous grassland mysteries into machines forced to labor without rest.

Wes Jackson, co-founder in 1976 and president emeritus of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, calls it “the problem of agriculture.” He wondered if agriculture could develop perennial varieties of the annual grain crops, and grow them in diverse ecosystems. In other words, could we begin to grow food the way a Kansas prairie grows grasses? The results are now coming in. The Land Institute has developed Kernza®, a perennial intermediate wheatgrass domesticated for human consumption. As a perennial, the plant’s roots overwinter, living for multiple growing seasons and requiring less plowing of soils, irrigation, and weed control. Those long roots also store carbon. This work now has a growing list of worldwide partners collaborating in the development of perennial varieties of rice, sorghum, oilseeds and legumes. 

What new teachers and wondrous mysteries might come from a perennial and diverse agriculture slowly making its way into the modern food chain? Started in 2018, New Perennials is a multi-year project that links research and analysis on agricultural transformation with educational and community initiatives that work to grow, shape, and share expressions of perennial thought and action. It asks such questions as: What would a diverse perennial classroom and curriculum look like? How might we treat health and illness, loneliness and depression in ecosystem terms? Can this perennial approach begin to heal not only broken ground, but also individual and social ills? How can the creative arts and faith traditions contribute to this transition?

Rilke speaks of the gardener’s participation in the Universe’s Mysteries this way: “In spite of all the farmer’s work and worry, he can’t reach down to where the seed is slowly transmuted into summer. The earth bestows.” One thing is certain: perennial plants like Kernza invest first in developing root systems that are designed to last. Good advice in the garden, and for a planet in crisis.

Bill Vitek is Director of The New Perennials Project and a Scholar in Residence at Middlebury College. Vitek taught philosophy for 32 years at Clarkson University, always with the objective of helping his students understand that the philosophical imagination can, and must, do useful work in the world. Much of his work has engaged ecological issues, including collaborations with Wes Jackson and The Land Institute for over three decades. Vitek and Jackson co-edited two books, Rooted in the Land: Essays on Community and Place (1996) and The Virtues of Ignorance: Complexity, Sustainability, and the Limits of Knowledge (2008). Vitek is also a semi-professional jazz pianist (that means he plays a lot and gets paid sometimes).