donderdag 11 augustus 2011

The marginal is central [Andean Farming]

Andean potato harvest
The best chapter in Wendell Berry's 'The Unsettling of America', an agro-isolationist tract well worth your time, is the one where he discusses farming in the Andes. The Andes has the steepest mountains in the world and farms in Uchucmarca in North Peru cover 4 different climatic zones (tropical, middle,high and higher mountain zones). The risk of Erosion is always looming if it weren't for the deep knowledge of the farmer and the diversity of his crops. Berry bases the chapter on an unnamed paper by Stephen Brush that I haven't been able to find but do read this (PDF) if you are interested. Here is the key segment and it deal with the nature, use and understanding of marginal lands:   
The sophistication and durability of Andean agriculture,"he writes, is not fully appreciated until one has understood the way it utilizes -- indeed, depends upon -- its margins. The fifty potato varieties used in Uchucmarca are not a stable quantity, but rather a sort of genetic vocabulary in a state of continues revision. Professor Brush says that ‘new varieties are constantly being created through crosspollination between cultivated, wild and semidomesticated (weedy) species. . . . These wild and semidomesticated species thrive in the hedgerow around fields, and birds and insects living there assist cross-pollination.' Thus, if an Andean farmer loses a crop because of an extremity of the weather or an infestation of insects or disease, he may find a plant of a new variety that has survived the calamity and produced in spite of it. If he finds such a plant, he may add it to his collection of domesticated varieties or substitute it for the one that has failed.

This Andean agriculture, then, does not push its margins back to land unsuitable for farming, as ours does, but incorporates them into the very structure of the farm. The hedgerows are marginal areas, little thoroughfares of wilderness closely crisscrossing the farmland, and in them agriculture is constantly renewing itself in direct response to what threatens it. This network of wilderness treading through the fields serves the Andean farmer as a college of agriculture and experiment station. And at least in one respect it serves him better: whatever is discovered there has already been tested in the circumstances of the farm itself, and its worth or worthlessness proven. 

This integration of Andean farming with its margins may serve us in another way. It offers an example of a sort of reconciliation by which we might escape the endless swinging between center and margins, rigidity and revolt, that has dominated our culture for so long. The remedy is to accommodate the margin within the form, to allow the wilderness or nature to thrive in domesticity, to accommodate diversity within unity.

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