Living by Metaphor

We had last week the first session of Food Culture and Agriculture, a course on how societies view the growth of food and the customs that surround it. “Customs” here are far-reaching; we are not merely discussing table customs, but the cycles of consumption and waste that are necessarily connected to our “modern” food “industry” (perhaps food should also be in quotes as the pre-packaged frozen salted preserved irradiated bar-coded best-by dated substance purchased in the supermarket bears little resemblance to what was once considered cuisine).

There are any number of criticisms one can raise concerning food culture; there are arguments that we have larger issues at hand to consider. However, until the Industrial Revolution, the world was based on agrarian societies. We planned our years based on agricultural cycles; we lived near the soil. Now we think of soil as something dirty. It is something dead and dusty that gets tracked into the house and must be vacuumed up and disposed of (as an aside, most of the dust in one’s home is dander or the faecal material of dust mites who have fed on sloughed off skin). At best, we look upon soil as an inert medium in which we grow plants.

We consider ourselves the benefactor of the agricultural cycle. However, we are not the end product of agriculture; plants and produce are not the final product either. Soil is the product of agriculture. Without the regeneration of soil, agriculture is impossible.

I’m going to meander and come back to this in later postings as I’m interested in the interplay between the environment and religious belief.

We all live by metaphors; societies function by the consensus of ideas (or, to be harsher, often we live by the consensus of delusion). The primary metaphor of western society is that humankind is cursed and in need of redemption; we’ve been developing the components of this metaphor for the past several thousand years and its influence and consequences have now spread over all the Earth. We are a fallen race; the consequence of the fall is this:

And unto Adam He said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
—Genesis 3:17-19 KJV

This has been the basis for social custom and cohesion for millennia; the primary activity of humankind has been to toil in the fields. Yet, suddenly, within a few generations, we have surpassed this original curse (and burdened ourselves with a new one). These verses tend to get read through quickly, as if they are of secondary importance to the whole “we’ll be fighting against Satan till the end of time” thing. But, what we fight against is dust. The felt consequence of the curse are not primarily the fight against cosmic forces or the fact that we have to wear clothing; it’s that we will forever struggle against dust. And we are made of dust; we face an intractable situation. We are bound to tend the soil till we return to it; or, at least, we were until we unleashed the powers of industry on the world.

I wonder if the environmental and societal issues we face now are rooted in a grand attempt to abandon the metaphor of dust. What greater power could our species show than to gain the upper hand on God and his feeble curse? What greater expression of pride could we display?

Yet, in this attempt, we drain life from soil. We have replaced life with chemistry and killed the mystery. The substance of our lives is humus; but it is this substance we seem to disdain and distance ourselves from. I think that, unless we return to a closer understanding of soil and the consequences of its loss, we can never have a healthy respect for others (or for ourselves, for the future, for the environment). If we do not consider or respect the base substance of life, there can be no respect of any living thing.