I’ve had a relationship with islands since I was a young man. My attraction has not been to the clichéd tropical fantasy of palm trees and white sand: it is something deeper - island as metaphor for our existence on Earth, representing independence and interdependence, natural limits and boundless space. Island as paradox.
Living on an island as I have the last ten years, I’ve realized that you can’t get away with anything. The feedback loop is pretty immediate: there is no vast landmass where the ripples of one’s action and interaction can radiate over long distances and large population in a grand anonymous dilution. If we consider the Earth itself as an island floating in a sea of space, in fact “our only ship at sea”, as my friend David Bower described it, we might reconsider how we take care of it.
One of the most emblematic places to start, I believe is with our food. There may be nothing more central to our lives than how we secure our food. Yet the responsibility has been handed over to an industrial system where farms have become factories and food has become a faceless commodity. The results have been disastrous: epidemic levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, polluted groundwater, soil degradation, food that no longer tastes good or is good, and - most profoundly – an almost complete disconnection from the social, cultural and ecological connections that were once part of agrarian life.
The Polynesian people who first settled the Hawaiian Island understood how to live within ecological limits. They supported a population of a million people on those islands without any outside inputs. There was a well-prescribed way of living and of managing resources. If someone caught a species of fish out of season, that person was punished. Sounds pretty radical, but they understood something that we have forgotten: that the survival of each one of us is inextricably tied to that of the others and to the natural world we live in. Those original island peoples knew that the greed of a few could unravel the survival of an entire society.
Hawaii is the most remote populated landmass on Earth, and yet it now imports close to 80% of its food from mainland USA. Food is traveling close to 3,000 miles to reach its shores. The costs of this system go well beyond what is being paid at the checkout counter. A place that has such a feeling of wealth and fecundity has become one of the most food-insecure places on Earth.
When I was sixteen years old, I spent time on another island, the island of Jamaica. My brother and I were taken in by Gretel Hilton and her partner Uncle Will who patiently instructed us in some basic survival: how to sharpen a machete, how to open a coconut, what herbs to use if we were injured or sick, how to cook breadfruit, and how to fish from the cliffs along the sea.
I had no idea that I would eventually devote my entire life to learning those very skills, writing about and teaching the critical importance of rediscovering our place in Nature and knowing how to grow food. My generation was in the early stages of what is now a total worship of technology; where we invested in our own cleverness, abandoning the intelligence of Nature that had guided humans for thousands of years. We didn’t realize the ecological and social price we all would pay for this arrogance.
But Gretel and Uncle Will were still immersed in the natural history of a place and they were not alone. At that time, most rural families in Jamaica were fairly self–sufficient, still had chickens and goats, a breadfruit tree, coconut trees, mango, a little cultivated yam and greens, and, if lived near the coast or a river, they fished.
I returned to Jamaica several years ago, after more than thirty years away, to work on an agriculture and community development project, and much has changed, as it has everywhere. Most profound is that natural self-sufficiency that was so much a part of my experience back then is now the exception rather than the norm.
Taste and smell have an uncanny ability to form the basis for memory. Prior to my return from Jamaica I looked forward to the taste of a nation that had so acutely lodged in my subconscious. I had missed the intense rich flavour of real banana and pineapple, oranges so ugly but so incredibly rich in flavour, and “mango like dirt mon”.
And while poverty in the economic sense of the work was endemic then as it is now, this diversity and food quality were a form of national wealth embodied by rural communities that prided themselves on the variety and quality of their fruits, and knowledge of and intimacy with a place.
The potential for abundance is still there, supported by a tropical climate, rich soils, and plentiful water, but that self-reliance, especially with regard to food had been replaced by a total dependency on imports from abroad.
Thinking like an island requires that we accept conflict and contradiction, accept that there is nowhere to go, nowhere to run. We also have to accept the fact that, as Wes Jackson, founder and current president of The Lane Institute so aptly put it, we are more ignorant than knowledgeable and that we need to act accordingly.
A farm is like an island: when well run, a farm should be self-contained, self–sustained, its nutrient loop closed and fulfilled from within, not reliant on external inputs. This is farm as ecological system, but in a world where only 1% of us are growing the food for the rest, farms have a cultural and educational role as well.
I spent twenty–five years developing a small twelve-and a half acre farm and education centre in California. Floating in a sea of track homes and shopping centers, this farm was another type of island. During its heyday, those twelve and a half acres produced 100 different fruits and vegetables, employed thirty people, provided food for 500 families, and generated close to a million US dollars in gross income.
Threatened with development, we formed a non-profit organization – the Centre for Urban Agriculture – and against all odds raised a million dollars to save that land, placing it under one of the first active agricultural conservation easements in the country.
But the internal struggles of farming in a suburban environment eventually got to me. I found myself longing to live and farm in a place where one’s sense of responsibility extended beyond the edge of the lawn. So we moved 1,200 miles north, to an island in British Columbia, Canada. Boarding the ferry to get to that island was like pulling up the drawbridge. There was this sense that we were leaving the madness of the world behind; Island as refuge. But I soon discovered the great paradox: that those things I thought I was leaving behind were right there as well, and in ways that were more difficult to ignore. Living on an island, I discovered, does not allow for escape – it forces engagement more than disengagement.
For our first six years on this island, we developed a wonderful small piece of bottomland, before moving to Foxglove Farm on Mount Maxwell. We have established the Centre for Arts, Ecology and Agriculture, which now brings artists, writers, musicians, foresters, farmers, chefs and watershed experts to share their knowledge within the context of a 120 acre working landscape.
One of the most wonderful aspects of living on this land are quiet glimpses into the past that appear in unexpected ways; the sense that we are a part of a long chain of humans on the land, from the native people who first fished its creeks and lake, to those who built the original homestead, to ourselves, each link informed by the past and by the land itself.
I have always emphasized importance of land tenure as a crucial principle for creating a truly sustainable food system, but now I wonder what land tenure really means. After all, we are just passing through, temporary tenants and caretakers of a larger force. All that will ultimately remain is the land, and the best we can do is to leave it more fertile, more alive and more biologically diverse than we found it, and to use our brief time on the land to feed and to nourish and to inspire.
We are living on the cusp of one of the most significant global changes since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. We are all acutely aware of increasing climate change, looming energy crises and populations increasing in parts of the world at staggering rates. We know that the most fundamental elements of life, such as soil and water and clean air, are under unprecedented assault. Unlike Polynesians, who had evolved a closed system on their islands, most islanders are now wholly dependent on the outside for most of their basic needs.
But if we are going to be able to move through and survive the massive changes that are taking place in the world, many more of us are going to have to find our way back to the art and craft of growing food.
In October 2001, I gave a speech to the Bioneers conference in San Francisco, in which I proposed that, in memory of the thousands of people who lost their lives at the World Trade Centre, portion of that site be converted to an urban farm, replete with greenhouses and kitchens and an education centre; that this farm be established to provide food and jobs year round to those in need; and that it become a model of a local agricultural-based economy on the grounds of what used to a monument to the global economy.
My idea was put forth more as metaphor than with any expectation that it would be seriously considered, but a couple of organizations in NYC picked it up and the proposal was officially submitted. The New York Times covered the idea and there were hundreds of letters in support, but in the end what was approved was 1,492 storeys of cold steel, glass and concrete, and it was business as usual.
Had that proposal been put forth today, it would have received a more positive reception. Awareness around food – its place in our lives and the precarious nature of the system that brings it to us – has exploded. But, while there is an overwhelming embrace of local food and agriculture, there is an enormous chasm between those who eat well and locally and can afford to do so, and those who cannot. But, there is a far greater gap between the number of eaters who are passionate and enthusiastic and inspired by this movement, and the number of people whose hands are actually in the soil doing the work.
In the end there is not so much a food crisis or an environmental crisis as there is a crisis in participation. We now have a couple of generations of young people who are not only completely denatured, but they no longer know how to use their hands for anything other than pushing keys on a keyboard. The revolution may be talked about online but it cannot take place online.
In 1989, the island of Cuba faced mass starvation, the result of having lost access to food and agricultural supplies from the Soviet Union. Cuba responded by creating a world-class model of urban and rural agriculture based on low inputs. Cubans did not ‘green’ their agricultural system because it was the right thing to do: they did it because they had to.
I don’t believe that the kind of major structural change that will be required to turn things around in industrialized countries will happen until it has to either – until the impacts become personal. But the hopeful notion is that humans have an incredible capacity for compassion, ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness: qualities that come out especially under duress and crisis. There are many historical examples of this when normal day-to-day reality is suspended; Cuba is but one.
I used to say chefs had received almost mythical rock ‘n’ roll status and that it was time for farmers to receive that same attention. But the real shift we need cannot take place when only 1% of us is doing the work to grow the food for the rest, while everyone else is cheering us on. I love the attention, but farming is not a spectator sport.
So I’ve been telling folks to “make friends with a farmer – you’re going to need them”. For I am certain that as the current global industrial experiment continues to unravel, agriculture will once again return to its rightful place: to the heart, the centre of our society.
So those of us who are re-educating ourselves, rediscovering our place in Nature, must work to refine our skills and diligently work to create the local and regional models.
I am sure that day will come when we will be sought after, looked to for leadership and guidance, when our farms will be the living models, the repositories that kept this sacred and essential knowledge alive.
Thinking like an island, imagining our world floating like a ship in an infinite sea of space, its soils and water and atmosphere finely tuned and carefully balanced to support life, provides us with some sense of boundaries, and hopefully the humility to recognize the fragile nature of existence.
This article is published with permission from Resurgence Magazine, UK.