Moving from Control toward Intelligent Interaction, in Gardening and in Life
About a 10 minute read
31st January, 2022
What gardeners do is somewhere on a continuum from controlling the life (and death) cycles in the garden, to managing them, to interacting intelligently with them. We tend to default to control because of our culturally ingrained assumption that without control there will be chaos and anarchy.
This has implications far beyond the garden. How do our assumptions about the need for control shape our world?
Life-cycles in your food garden
If I were to grow an ornamental garden, I'd choose plants that live a long time and don't need much maintenance. I'd try to plan a garden that doesn’t change much.
But that doesn’t work for a food garden because if you want to eat from it, you need it to be changing constantly. Short lived annual food plants need to be harvested when they’re ready and then something else needs to be coming in to replace them. (Especially in the tropics where something is growing all year round.)
You might keep a few of each annual plant for seed production, but you want most of your annual food plant space to be filled with a constant turn-over of new life.
Life cycles roll on; if you miss the harvest window, annual food plants become unpalatable and insects move in to feast on what you came too late to eat.
Perennial food plants can help with this – the rate of change is slower and they last longer before needing to be replanted or replaced, and of course many perennials can be planted once and produce food for decades.
But even with perennial food plants and even in the tropics, the more you want to eat and especially the more variety you want, the more your interaction is required.
Garden elements like healthy soil, inputs such as manures or composts, knowledge, even experience, are all useless unless the gardener is consistently present in the garden.
Death feeds life
One of the reasons food gardens require gardeners to interact with them has to do with life cycles — which include death.
It’s not life that feeds life. Death feeds life1.
The whole crux of life is nourishment. Nourishment comes in many forms and not all of them are physical, but all physical forms of nourishment require that some living thing must die and be digested in some way by some other living thing.
(In a sense, some non-physical forms of nourishment also involve death if we accept that "deathlike" experiences of failure, grief, regrets, and loss, if we are able to be with them and to integrate or "digest" the gifts they have to offer, can become nourishment for our growth toward wiser, stronger, more loving versions of our selves.)
But back to physical nourishment. If it’s a lettuce you want to eat, then something (a grain plant, an insect) must die to feed the chicken that produces the manure that feeds microorganisms that feed the lettuce. And then of course the lettuce dies to feed you.
You want lettuce unlinked to chickens? Then other plants must die (as they would regardless of your lettuce eating habits) to make the compost that will feed the lettuce. And there must be an intact cycle of life-death-life in the compost heap, involving the myriad tiny organisms that turn that dead plant matter into food.
What about avocados? Can’t you eat avocado without anything dying to feed the avocado tree?
(Don’t get me started on the effects of avocado mono-cultures, which are completely severed from the true nourishment of the life-death-life cycle and instead bring horrific linear devastation to entire ecosystems and water systems.)
But even if you eat an organic avocado from the tree in your back yard or your friends’ food forest, you still need to feed the avocado tree or allow it to be fed by similar processes to the ones that feed the lettuce. Processes that involve life and death in a repeating cycle and in an almost incomprehensible network of relationships.
What are we managing, when we interact with a garden?
So, returning to our presence as managers in our gardens. All this life and death complexity needs us to be interacting with it frequently and consistently if we are to steer our gardens in the direction of sustained and varied food sources for ourselves.
Management is as complex and nuanced as the garden under management but to try to simplify it, managing a garden is about attending to the life cycles of the living things in it, and the relationships between them.
Regarding the life cycle aspect, nothing stays at peak productivity; everything goes through a beginning, a growth phase, a peak, a dissolution phase, an ending (death), and then a new beginning. We must manage our food-producing systems so that there are enough new beginnings happening continually to balance out the endings.
Regarding the relationship aspect, we must manage for balance and mutual benefit in the relationships so that the life-forms in the garden meet each other’s needs, and ours.
We try to arrange things so that the ending of one life cycle feeds the beginning of another, and so that a given life-form has a beneficial and/or balancing effect on other lifeforms.
From control to intelligent interaction
The ways in which we manage our gardens could be placed on a continuum, with control at one end of it, management in the middle of it, and intelligent interaction at the other end.
I’d place regenerative gardening approaches (Permaculture, Syntropics, etc.) at the “intelligent interaction” end of the spectrum. I'd place industrial approaches, including the use of herbicides and pesticides, at the “control” end.
In the dominant culture on earth today, control is the option we tend to default toward, often without realizing that that is what we’re doing. (I touch on some of the effects of this in “Empowered Thinking for Deep Change.”)
Controlling the “other”
One of the reasons we’re so obsessed with control has to do with the worldview that we (by "we," I mean the dominant culture on earth) have been accepting without question since the industrial and scientific revolutions.
This worldview says that we are alone in a universe ruled by chance, that every individual life-form is only interested in its own survival, and that fierce competition for limited resources is just the way things are.
This is an “us vs them” world. There is me, and then there is the “other.” Or my group, the “good guys,” and the other group: the “bad guys.”
In such a world, it’s imperative that the good guys control the bad guys, otherwise there will be chaos and anarchy.
And thus, we have the wars on all the “bad guys.” We have wars on weeds, on insect pests, on drugs, on cancer, on crime, on terrorists...
Any bad guy you care to name illuminates the good guy in opposition to it –and vice versa.
As soon as you have a "good" (me, us, our group, the things we want in the garden vs the things we don't want) then you automatically also have a "bad" (the "other,” the weeds, the pests, the unwanted).
What happens if there is no good guy?
Maybe you're thinking, "Kate, are you crazy? We NEED good guys!"
But I'd like to ask you:
If I were to let go of my insistence that I'm the "good guy," then there wouldn't need to be a bad guy to fill the role opposite mine and make it clear that compared to that I am, indeed, "good."
Without good guys and bad guys, there there would be no “us vs them."
Without an “other,” snails in the garden (to borrow from Permaculture founder Bill Mollison’s famous quote) are not a pest but just an indication of a duck deficiency. An imbalance.
If we stop labeling the things that seem to get in our way as "bad," we become free to see (for example) that all insects play vital roles in the grand scheme of things, and that trying to wipe out certain categories of them is a dangerously foolish thing to do.
It takes an extremely counter-cultural mindset to step out of the control/domination paradigm and look for ways to partner up with the “other” instead of labeling it as bad and going to war with it.
Our control paradigm
One reason why regenerative or partnership-style approaches to growing food aren’t more widely recognized and used is that they don’t fit into our control paradigm.
People simply assume that “since I’m the good guy, the other guy must be bad.” And that "since that’s the bad guy, it’s my job to control him before he gets the better of me."
How can you have something that works if you don’t control the bad guys?
The control-based worldview says you simply can’t. You have to have a bad guy in the story, and you have to have a hero, and the hero has to control the bad guy. No questions asked; that’s just the way it is.
It’s the "good vs evil" worldview and it's been in the making for thousands and thousands of years. It’s at the root of how all of the institutions, organizations, social structures in our society work.
It directs (very often entirely without our awareness) everything from our individual relationship with ourselves (“If only I’d had more self-control, I wouldn’t have eaten the whole tub/jar/packet…”) to that between parents and children, to our schools, governments, and other institutions.
Control is everywhere, and most of us don’t even notice it. It is the water in which the fish swims.
A death-phobic culture
In one of its most extreme expressions, our obsession with controlling everything that might be a threat to “me, the good guy” shows up as a phobia of death.
This is why I recoiled the first time I heard Stephen Jenkinson say, “Life does not feed life. Death feeds life.” Shocking, isn’t it, to realize that it’s actually death that feeds life?
I asked a friend a while back, what do you think happens to you when you die? He replied, “You get eaten by worms.”
That about sums it up: in the world of lonely “good guy self” versus threatening “bad guy other,” you must do anything in your power to prolong your physical youth and to avoid illness, old age, and death because when you die, you will cease to exist.
That (I think) is part of what is shocking to us about death: the fear of ceasing to exist.
It is so very lonely and terrifying to be a human in this “us vs other” world.
There are other worldviews in which we are not so alone. In which our ancestors are still with us in an unseen plane of existence, cheering us on. In which our distant descendants are watching to see what we will do next with the life-force and resources that they will inherit from us.
To a person with this kind of understanding of life, humans are not superior to the rest of life but in kinship with it, and the world is populated with unseen beings that modern science knows nothing of.
In this world no-one is ever alone, and the relationships between the parts are at least as important to the whole as the individual parts are.
But our dominant scientific paradigm does not allow us such comforts.
So, to protect our lonely, fearful selves, we have tried to disengage from death.
We have old people homes so we won’t be inconvenienced by daily reminders of senescence and approaching death.
We eat vegetarian so we won’t have to get blood on our hands. Or at least, not blood that we have to be directly confronted by.
We grow our food in mono-cultures so we can control the messiness of all the life-death-life stuff that happens in a real garden.
Manifestations of control
So what, in the world right now, are the most obvious manifestations of our compulsions for control and trying to avoid death?
If you said mask and vaccine mandates and people’s willingness to submit to the loss of their personal freedoms for the sake of controlling a virus, that’s what I was thinking too. (I didn’t start thinking along these lines all by myself, by the way. Charles Eisenstein put me onto it2.)
I don’t care whether or not you choose to get vaccinated or wear a mask – that decision is your business, not mine.
To tell the truth I have more important things to worry about, like how to organize things so I can spend more time in the garden.
But not everyone feels that way, right? Some folks feel extremely threatened by the thought of being forced to receive the vaccination, and some folks feel extremely threatened by the presence of unvaccinated people.
If you’re vaxed and masked, then the unvaccinated and free-faced become the threatening “other.” And vice versa.
We shake our heads and feel bemused at the “others’” stupidity. And in so doing, we further fuel the vehicles of control and put the brakes on partnership.
“Anything can be possible if we could find ways to work together. Nothing is possible if we don’t.” Charles Eisenstein said words to that effect, somewhere in my recent memories of things that people wiser than me have said.
How might we relax our need for control?
I know. Our responses or reactions to viruses have nothing to do with gardening. But they have everything to do with our deep need for control.
This deep need for control arises out of our illusion that we are separate (because otherwise we would recognize that what we do to another we are doing to ourselves).
And this deep need for control touches everything.
What ways or ideas or understandings or interpretations could we consider exploring that might help us relax our need for control?
What practices could we explore or consider that might support us to feel more trusting toward life, toward each other? More willing to explore ways we could act together as “us,” instead of “us vs them?”
How might we nudge ourselves toward a world in which there is no “them,” only "us?"
Please leave a comment...
Can you recognize how the control and domination paradigm touches every area of your life, from insect pests in the garden to your closest personal relationships? Have you looked for ways to relax your need for control? It's not easy! Please share your thoughts about it below the Endnotes.
- I'm quoting Stephen Jenkinson in his short video, "The Meaning of Death"
- Scroll down to the subheading "The War on Death,"
Thanks Kate, I continue to appreciate your thoughtful and thought provoking writings. Here’s another tidbit to add to your conversation here, from David Fleming, who was a British guy involved in Transition Towns etc so spent many decades stewing on similar topics to those you address. Have you seen his dictionary? This entry online here: https://leanlogic.online/glossary/death/
The means by which an ecosystem keeps itself alive, selects its fittest, controls its scale, gives peace to the tormented, enables young life, and accumulates a grammar of inherited meaning as generations change places.
A natural system lies in tension between life and death: death is as important to it as life. A lot of death is a sign of a healthy large population. Too much death is a sign that it is in danger; it is not coping; its terms of coexistence with its habitat are breaking down. Too little death is a sign of the population exploding to levels which will destroy it and the ecology that supports it. No death means that the system is already dead.
The reduction of life to an icon—the assertion that life (viz, human life) is sacred—disconnects the mind from the ecosystem to which it belongs. It is a fertile error. Beneath the exaggerated regard for life lies an impatience with, a disdain for, the actual processes that sustain the ecology that sustains us. Expressing faith in the sanctity of human life is a licence—in a series of little, well-intentioned, self-evident steps—to kill the ecology that supports it.
The large-scale system, relying on its size and technology, and making an enemy of death which should be its friend, joins a battle which it cannot win. In systems thinking, death is sacred.
Wow. Hilary, thank you so much for the link and the quote. I wasn’t aware of this resource; I’ll most certainly be spending some time exploring it.