The Call, Column 73 – “A Species Out of Context”

4 06 2017

(June 4, 2017)

The Urban Farmer

“A Species Out of Context”

Last fall, I ventured way out to Western Mass, to attend a talk given Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. I wrote a column about this in January, reposted on my blog in case you’re interested in reading more detail.

One of the most inspiring ideas that I took away from this conversation, was something that Wes Jackson said on the topic of agriculture. “Starting 10,000 years ago with the beginning of agriculture,” he explained, “we became a species out of context.”

A species out of context. A vague form of this idea has been the basis for my understanding of the world for many years, long before attending that talk. But Wes Jackson put it into words more effectively than I ever could have, and helped me to understand it as one of the underlying reasons for many of the things we do and experience.

Most broadly, this idea perfectly characterizes our species’ overall negative interactions with our environment. Each and every harmful aspect of industrial agriculture – the artificial soil fertility, the toxins sprayed into the environment, the horrible conditions of factory animal farms, the treatment of laborers, the vast amounts of energy being wasted – is best described as a deviation from ecologically-appropriate farming methods, as food production “out of context”.

Beyond just agriculture, this characterization is true of any and every damaging interaction we have with the natural world; from we in the developed world causing dangerous climate change by using fossil fuels for energy to releasing pollutants into the air, water, and soil, and dumping massive amounts of garbage into landfills to clear cutting forests; every case of pollution and ecological destruction is just a big sign that we forgot how to live in relative harmony with our environment.

Jackson’s description of “a species out of context” is intriguing from a biological standpoint as well. This is the basic principle behind the Paleo diet, which I have followed for over two years (and suggest that you should, too). It is the idea that our evolutionary development as a species was driven by our natural context over many millions of years, and that the start of agriculture removed us from that context.

Our diets, our movements, our sleep patterns, our stress triggers, and even our communities and cultures, began to adhere to a set of rules written by our human society, rather than those implicit in the natural world. The start of agriculture changed the way we interface with the environment, each other, and our own minds, and introduced a whole plethora of health woes – some might argue, most of the chronic diseases we experience as a species.

Finally, we are “a species out of context” in the ways that we, as individuals, live our day-to-day lives and interact with our culture and society, our “human world”. We spend nearly all of our time in large, climate-controlled boxes (houses, cars, workplaces, stores), and the things that we experience and consume are pretty much all human-made. It is culturally standard to live by the words of Sheldon Cooper’s character on The Big Bang Theory (the irony of quoting a TV show is not lost on me): “If outside is so good, why has mankind spent thousands of years trying to perfect inside?”

And that, my friends, brings us to my true motivation for writing this column. You see, as has been the case with countless other of my columns, I think exploring this idea together could help us deal with a little problem in our lives; one I started noticing in myself a few weeks ago.

The transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture, and the subsequent start of civilization, shifted the context of a human life from a completely natural environment to an almost completely artificial one.

As hunter-gatherers, we ate from nature; we procreated in nature; we lived and experienced only natural surroundings. The sound of the birds singing, the visuals of green plant life, the scents of soil and flowers and animals, the feelings of the rain and wind and sun and snow – for better and worse, these were our bodies’ biological context. And they were our minds’ sensory context, too. Whatever we were doing at any given time, be it hunting, gathering, building fires, recreating, sleeping – it was in the context of a natural environment. From an evolutionary standpoint, the world around us, the landscape and “space” that our species should passively consume as we go about living our lives, is supposed to be a natural one. We are supposed to live in the wild.

But now, it isn’t. And we don’t. For the first time in a very lengthy human history, agriculture – civilization – has resulted in a world where, in complete defiance of what is natural to our bodies and minds, the “surroundings” that we passively consume as we live our lives is the built environment; it is completely artificial, controlled by our own species.

It’s difficult to make a scientific argument as to why exactly this is not a good thing. The closest we can come is to measure our emotional response to built versus natural environments. A team at Exeter University in the UK did just that (https://tinyurl.com/y8xb5ccf), measuring brain activity in response to urban (effectively artificial) environments versus rural (effectively natural) ones. They found that human brains responded much more calmly and meditatively to natural environments, including dull ones, and exhibited an alarming delay in response time (indicating more arduous processing) to built environments, including visually appealing ones. Our brains are much more at ease with nature as the passive backdrop to our lives. Who would have expected that?

Beyond this, though, I think anecdotal evidence may be enough to prove to ourselves that what I’m suggesting is true. I have two personal stories that might get the ball rolling.

I first had the idea for this column while sitting on the bank of the Blackstone River, in Cold Spring Park. It began while I was driving home from an evening out with friends a few weeks ago. The sunset was so beautiful, but all I had on my mind was my to-do list once I got home. And then, I just stopped the car on the side of the road and watched the sky in awe. And when I got home, instead of doing the things on that list, I walked around my neighborhood to get the best view of the sky, and ultimately ended up on the bank of the Blackstone River. I sat there for an hour, listening to a few clips of Wendell Berry reading his poetry, but mostly just taking in the sounds, smells, and sights of nature, and watching the sun’s light disappear behind the horizon.

This experience was so…deliberate. I was controlling precisely nothing about the environment, other than allowing my mind to be present, to passively consume my natural context. This improved my mood immensely in the days following, and it’s something I’ve done a few times since.

My second anecdote is a more regular occurrence. When I get to my (standing) desk at work each morning, I have a mental checklist of things to do – changing my calendar, updating my planner, checking emails, etc. I work “inward”, towards my computer, in a subconscious attempt to minimize the scope of artificial things over which my mind has to exert control. By condensing the things I need to do to a limited physical and therefore mental space, and allowing the rest of my environment to just…Be, without my intervention…my mind is calmer.

What all of this means, I think, is that in order to be most happy, we need to limit the scope of the things that we control to the smallest size practical, and surround ourselves as much as possible with nature as our life’s context. As we in the West live our lives right now, this is very much not the case. We live almost completely in artificial environments, passively consuming built things instead of natural ones. There would be measurable benefits to changing the way we do things.

This is true on an individual scale, where even the smallest actions – opening the windows of your house or car or office, to let in the breeze, and the sounds and smells of outside; eating meals outside whenever possible; spending time in nature instead of watching TV – bring notably more peace.

And it is true on a societal scale. Now, it’s not practical or desirable to take this idea to its extreme and reject all of civilization. Architecture and other elements of the built environment are important, valuable human achievements, and agriculture is necessary since there are too many of us to be true hunter-gatherers. But we can use this awareness to effectively change our context, to the advantage of our mental and physical health.

On a societal scale, we must use the built environment insofar as it is beneficial to us – for safety and shelter, for community-building recreation, for art – and make sure much of the rest of our time is spent in a natural context. We must restructure our agriculture to operate more in line with nature, taking advantage of the environment’s inherent productive potential and allowing wild things to coexist alongside our cultivated things.

And as individuals, we must allow our interaction with the environment – our sensory perception of our surroundings and the minimal level of control we exert on them – to be in line with what our Paleolithic ancestors would have experienced. Go barefoot as often as possible; eat a Paleo-style diet comprised mostly of vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, and nuts; get as much bare skin sun exposure as possible every day (without allowing yourself to burn); exercise with short bursts of cardio and longer sessions of muscle-building; let your eyes see the sun in the  morning and midday, and minimize artificial light at night (or wear a pair of blue-blocking glasses); spend as much time as you can, outside, away from technological stimuli.

We are hunter-gatherers in every respect but behavior, and our minds are hardwired to exist in the context of nature. As I said in my favorite column about a year ago: “We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.” So what are you waiting for? Get outside and be free.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.