A celebration without food is a sure-fire way to displease a crowd. As with the gathering to celebrate a significant change such as a birth or a marriage, the cultivating and harvesting of land is an act of caring. At a time when many great, inspiring thinkers are putting energy towards analyzing and proposing solutions for our broken global food system, I’m celebrating Panama with my fork.
By sampling wonderful cuisine that includes sancocho, ceviche, and tropical fruit galore, I am experiencing nature through a new perspective. Beyond that, I have the opportunity to critically think forward. As we in the Agriculture and Animal Sciences program aim to build a sturdy, healthy food base for the future community of Kalu Yala, we are trying to problem solve with the help of local farmers, international research, and common sense. Melding these isn’t so easy, as we’ve found out. Here are some thoughts that I’m juggling in consideration:
- The concept of what is natural is culturally based and is ever shifting.
- Our act of manipulating nature has been driven by our demand for food. Our landscapes reflect and dictate what is on our forks.
- We have tools, both technical and ideological, that can enable us to considerably improve landscapes and thereby our food system.
To the first point, I came to feel this and not simply intellectually accept my biases. What sparked it? My intense sensitivity to seeing a piece of non-compostable trash while in the valley, whether it’s one chip bag, one cigarette butt, or one soda can, has motivated me to step back. What’s in front of me is tainted, even with the butterflies fluttering about. Similarly, I was challenged to celebrate with a local farmer friend when he nearly gloated about having killed and eaten a panther. To him, it is a delicacy; to me and my fellow Western environmentalists, the act of killing the endangered and keystone species is atrocious. These are concepts that we’re coming in with that are rooted in research that is attached to our society, and thereby in some ways detached from the local culture we are experiencing.
The American fascination with pristine nature has created a framework that imposes judgment on a well-functioning, close-to-symbiotic relationship with nature. John Dixon Hunt, a contemporary landscape historian and theorist, wrote about the categories of landscape defined during the Renaissance. The first is wilderness, the land of the gods and raw materials for the other natures; the second is cultivated land; the third is the garden that combines nature and culture. I see more of first nature as I explore the valley, while the surrounding cattle, citrus, and chicken farmers rely on the productivity of the second nature. My expectation is that there should be no urban issues, such as the existence of non-biodegradable materials, in the rainforest of Panama. Aren’t people who live directly off the land, meaning those who cultivate food, more connected to it than urbanites?
Wendell Berry speaks of his concern about “the failure of the environmental movement to envision and promote a conserving, land-based economy. The movement has failed to foresee or envision a mean between the pristine and the utterly spoiled. There’s talk now among biologists of dividing the world 50-50 between nature preserves and industrial farming and forestry. But this abandons any hope of harmony between human life and the life of the world. Without which neither can be preserved.” The food system is a motivating link to reimburse nature for our output-driven relationship with it.
Recently, there is talk of a fourth nature, the mediated landscape (check it out). Over the course of the 20th century, humans have been able to expanded the scale and complexity of landscapes. We have tools that enable us to control our actions and potential consequences, including the collection of data, the management of the flow of resources, and the ability to redress environmental imbalances. This gives heated hope for us working to foster a sustainable community.
We can question, learn, research, and act. The framework of the fourth nature, the mediated landscape, offers an opportunity to revisit our relationship with all three natures. I hope to see a more symbiotic relationship with nature. To piggyback off of the concepts of biophilia and biomimicry, I turn to the eusocial insect, the ant. “[T]he interdependence of the leafcutters and their fungus is one of the most successful symbioses of all time.” The transfer of food is the connection they have with one another. We have this with the earth and its diverse energy supplies. Whether you explore, pick, or vote with your fork…it matters.
Thanks to Terra Hope for her photo!
 Hunt, John Dixon. Great Perfections: The Practice of Garden Theory. Philadelphia: UPenn Press, 2000.
 TUC Radio. Fast Food World. San Francisco: TUC Radio. (podcast)
 (3) Holldobler, Bert & Wilson, Edward . The Leafcutter Ants: Civiliation by Instinct. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2011.