Culture and the Land (part 1/4)

What the double chocolate fudge is that supposed to mean?
What the double chocolate fudge is that supposed to mean?

Back in 2005-06 and after having finally decided to ditch university and a career in the film industry, I spent the better part of a year volunteering and working on a variety of farms in New Zealand. One result of this, amongst many others, was a rather funny question that came to me.

To give a bit of back story, whenever I volunteered on farms and such (via the WWOOF program – Willing Workers on Organic Farms) they were nearly always broadly diversified systems – be it with fruit and nut trees, animals, honeybees, vegetables, and so forth. Whenever I worked for money, the only opportunities were on monoculture farms – just apples, or just asparagus, or just grapes, etc. Within a week of returning home to Toronto, a place that is often referred to as "the most multicultural city in the world," a seemingly odd question then popped into my head:

It's often said that 'we are what we eat.' But since the majority of the food that the majority of us eat is grown in monocultures, would that not then make us monoculturalist rather than multiculturalist?

Funny question, I figured, particularly when I noticed that I was looking at the topics of agriculture, monocultures, and multiculturalism. So off I went to take a closer look at the term culture, a term which over the years I'd often noticed used in so many ways and so loosely thrown around that it seemed to me as if it had attained a rather ambiguous standing.

For starters, one often finds the term culture used in reference to the customs and traditions of a particular society, other times in regards to the "artistic" styles and creations of these societies. Similarly, travellers and vacationers are said to visit various countries in order to experience the "cultures" of other peoples.

One also hears the term culture used in conjunction with a myriad of human activities. There are the cultures of music, automobiles, books, sports, fashion, etc., all of which can be further broken down into specifics such as opera, hot-rods, antiquarian books, antiquarian baseball cards, ping-pong, pom-poms, etc. Then there is nightlife culture, bar culture, pub culture, club culture, rave culture, underground culture, cyberculture, and so on. As far as I'd noticed, one can take any activity partaken by a group of people and label it as a culture of its own.

Furthermore, while studying and making films in university, I was lectured on and read about high culture, low culture, popular culture, mass culture, sub culture, counter culture, "culture as a production of meaning," "culture as a signifying practice," and more.

Basically, I'd been lectured on culture so much, overheard the term used in association with so many activities, and read about it in so many contexts that it'd all been enough to throw me into utter incomprehension.

What finally led to the alleviation of my confusion were the very things I was pondering in regards to my book: agriculture, monocultures, and multiculturalism.

"Huh, interesting."

The first thing I did was go back and reference one of my first-year university texts, An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Bad idea. That just brought me back into the realm of confusion.

A short time later while in the Toronto Reference Library I came across the book Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture. With hopeful curiosity I looked up the term culture, and these are the first paragraphs from the first two definitions:

1) From the Latin verb colere, to cultivate and the noun cultura, the term "culture" is used today mainly with two meanings; the first and the most ancient of these, taken up at the beginning of the seventeenth century by Francis Bacon, refers to the body of knowledge and manners acquired by an individual, while the second describes the shared customs, values and beliefs which characterize a given social group, and which are passed down from generation to generation.

2) The oldest definition of the term "culture" refers to the cultivation of soil or the raising of plants or animals. However, two different meanings of the term are most in use today. The first of these, "the training, development and refinement of mind, tastes and manners" (Oxford English Dictionary) had already begun to take precedence over the old Latin meaning by the 1950s. The second, which has grown in common usage since the nineteenth century, chiefly owes its increase in popularity to the sciences of sociology and anthropology...

What initially caught my attention were the first one or two lines from each definition. In the first definition the origin of the term culture is located in "the Latin verb colere, to cultivate." In the second it is stated that "The oldest definition of the term 'culture' refers to the cultivation of soil or the raising of plants or animals," all the while noting that this definition is not in common usage today without giving any explanation as to why this is (almost suggesting that it was now some kind of archaic and outmoded way of thinking that needn't be considered or even addressed anymore).

This was all new to me as I had never been taught (in university or otherwise) about any relation between culture and cultivation and nor had I ever thought about their similarity in word structure. Having noted all this, particularly the idea of cultivating soil, I couldn't help but wonder if this implied some importance and connection between culture and agriculture.

Soon thereafter (in October of 2006), while reading up on Thanksgiving at the Toronto Reference Library, it was announced over the P.A. system that author and cultural critic Hal Niedzviecki was about to give a little talk. I'd previously read two of his non-fiction books and so figured it couldn't hurt to stop over and listen to what he had to say.

It was about halfway through his talk on blogs (a topic that bored me and didn't interest me in the slightest – although I did end up reading my first blog post in 2013, and, well, now have a blog) when it dawned on me that I was right in front of a cultural theorist whom I could query about the term culture. I waited until what I figured to be the closing of the question and answer period, put up my hand, and when motioned to I roughly mentioned to him the definitions of culture that regarded cultivation and asked him what his opinions were on this.

He replied by saying that this was a fantastic question to finish the night with, and proceeded to respond by saying – with metaphorical rhetoric – that "this is how things grow, from the ground up," and in relating this to "communities of blogs" said that it is something he firmly believes in. He didn't address what I wanted him to, essentially due to me not stating my question properly, or even at all.

So I walked up to him afterwards and, having clarified my question in my head, asked him, "as a cultural theorist, what do you see as being – if any at all – the relationship between culture and agriculture, metaphors aside?" To this he replied,

I don't know if there is any relationship besides metaphor. I mean, when was the last time any of us saw a cow? You know, there were folk cultures and they'd do their work and play the banjo singing songs about various stories and endure long cold winters, and that's how cultures arose, but I don't think there's any relationship between culture and agriculture. Nowadays agriculture is done with big machines and uses all the newest sprays. I don't know, but maybe there are cultural theorists specializing in agriculture that you could find.

These were thoughts I could certainly relate to. I can clearly remember being in a car as a child and often pointing out the window proclaiming "vaca!" (that's Spanish for cow). Although there are many variables at play here, roughly thirty years later I find it a rarity to see cows grazing on fields in the area of Ontario where I grew up.

However, just because I no longer readily see cows grazing, and just because the modern conventional usages of the term culture rarely relate to the cultivation of soil, plants, or animals, this does not mean that the oldest definition has automatically expired past any period of significant application or that thinking about such things is mere nostalgia. In fact, it's quite possible that culture and agriculture are innately related in ways that we no longer readily realize or comprehend.

Thinking that it was worth a more thorough look, I picked up a book that I'd come across and intermittently read while perusing through the library at the University of Auckland, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Not until this more thorough reading did I notice a passage that I obviously hadn't paid much attention to – or perhaps hadn't even read – the first time around.

The word agriculture... means "cultivation of the land." And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and of cult. The ideas of tillage and worship are thus joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both "to revolve" and "to dwell." To live, to survive on the earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, all are bound at the root to the idea of a cycle.

What the poet, novelist, essayist and farmer Wendell Berry thus conveyed appeared to be an elaboration of what "the oldest definition of the term 'culture' refers to," and compared to other definitions I'd been exposed to, bore little if any resemblance. What remained to be seen of course was whether or not this definition had any relevance in our present, modern-day world.

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