“Probably within just the last ten million years, a plant had a new idea, and instead of spreading its leaf out, it shaped it into a spine, such as those find today on the cholla cactus. It was this new idea that allowed a new kind of plant to grow preposterously large and live long in a dry place where it was also the only green thing around to eat for miles - an absurdly inconceivable success. One new idea allowed the plant to see a new world and draw sweetness out of a whole new sky.”
I open with this quote from Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl,” a novel/autobiography that shares her journey and formative choices on her way to becoming a scientist and opening three labs (currently running one in Hawai’i), along with detailing a unique friendship, and a deep-rooted love of plants and soil. Why this quote, which recalls ‘new ideas’ leading to milestones in evolutionary biology and considering life from the perspective of a plant? Because I find myself at a crossroads, with paths to walk down that will either stiffen my spine, grow a deeper taproot, surge for the light or any combination thereof.
As distinguished by Malcolm Gladwell in his Revisionist History podcast, privileged humans are blessed with second chances, and I’m not going to throw away my shot (Yes friends, podcasts and Hamilton soundtrack are still getting their deserved listens). I returned to academia after a six-year absence, through an incredible opportunity to pursue a second chance at education, to navigate and understand the ecology of food and farming systems through a higher education perspective. I aimed to make the most of this experience by being present for the educational, work and service opportunities offered through the Warren Wilson College triad, and as being an observer of the college system (which began as a farm school in the late 19th century) and its relationship to the amorphous subject called Sustainable Agriculture. Not too dissimilar from the nebulous classification of ‘Organic Farming.’ (How about ‘biological,’ ‘ecological,’ ‘regenerative,’ or ‘living systems’ farming to try a few alternatives (which inevitably, if not already, would turn into buzzwords)? Remember the context in which developed the ‘Green Revolution’? Okay, I’ll save this rant for another post.)
As an active observer, I set out and grew to witness how a hands-on livelihood such as farming is being taught in the classroom setting. Also, I aimed to learn the role of extension offices and how they inform management practices and to be aware of what questions are being asked in agricultural research and what methodology is being practiced to answer them. Such is one of the benefits of a liberal arts education; it teaches you how to think rather than what to think. And for me personally, the most compelling intersection of agriculture and academia, is how demonstration sites serve to inform production and management, education and research. Agricultural learned throug higher education fascinates me with the depths one can explore through its history, its theory, its science, its complexity and its inconsistency around acknowledging farming as a living system. (Did you know that most crop science and animal science students in 2-3 year master programs will never share a classroom together?)
How much did my curiosity grow in this pursuit over the last few years? Well, I’m currently in search for graduate school to pursue a masters or PHD related to Agroecology. To arren Wilson College and its professors – thank you for nurturing and probing my study further. There are many paths that excite me, but ultimately I have a strong-willed determination to answer, or rather approach, this research question:
Can modern society create a competitive alternative to the current high input, resource extractive agricultural model through generating viable production farming systems based on biomimicry of ecological forest succession?
I could spend pages and pages unpacking this question, discussing social and ecological implications, how the scales are weighted fairly to compare these systems due to policy and subsidized farming, but that is far from the emphasis of this post.
I’m reaching out to various programs across the United States, and to several in Europe. No system will be perfect. Any educational system is what the student makes of it, though certain professors, curriculum, facilities and general, or lack of, acceptance around interdisciplinary scientific inquiry are essential components towards the emergent property: a student’s thesis. Balancing available resources that different universities offer against a curriculum that can seem more burdensome than fostering may prove to be more of a challenge than its worth, or possibly the contrary. Additionally, I’m interested in engaging with Agriculture and Life Sciences, Plant and Soil Science, Natural Resources and/or the Community Sustainability departments. In an ideal setting, I’d find myself working with a systems ecologist, an ecological forester, an agronomist with expertise in soils and tree crop production, and an anthropologist with an interest in traditional food systems and historical land-use practices.
I'm a whole systems thinker, and exploring a specific research question through a masters program will be a great challenge to meet. I’m fortunate in my experiences and exposure to think and frame these question in such a way, through I can find myself equally aggravated when I’m being unrealistic about how the best part of each system doesn’t manifest in our lives daily. The next step is being resourceful and diligent in my undertaking to find the best path, whether it be academia or another road, to fully dedicate myself towards to engage with this topic.
So there is a brief window into how I’m spending some of my evenings. A future post on the regenerative farm, Shelterbelt Farm, that I’m staying at, and possibly the Passive House construction job, to follow. This post also marks a transition in this blog. One transition implies increased activity, with 1-2 posts a month, and also a change in content. I’ll be addressing relevant agroecological questions around food and farming systems, where I’ll continue to alternate between stories, facts and prose.
Thank you for checking in, and I always welcome comments, feedback, and dialogue on germane subjects.