Your 200,000-year-old arm pit

Picture a simple graph with two intersecting lines. One starts at the upper left corner and slopes downward in a steady decline. This line represents the decreasing number of small farms in America from around 1950 to present. The other line looks exactly opposite: it starts in the lower left corner and spikes upward to the right. This line represents the sharp increase in the rise of anxiety among children in the last 50 to 70 years. There is a connection, direct or implicit, between living off the land and emotional health.

How else can we gain some perspective on this phenomenon?

I work at a Montessori school, where timelines are all over the place. Children learn at a very young age how to create convincing timelines that are fairly accurate to scale. The actual physical relationship between significant points in the past seems to help children understand history and their place within it. Check out this sweet geologic timeline.

One day I would like to challenge my students to create a timeline of agriculture, starting with the origin of humans to the present. Here’s my stab at a model of that timeline, using nothing but my own arm.

Play alone at home if you’d like. Hold your arm out straight. Imagine that the entire length of your arm is equivalent to the entire plight of homo sapiens. Your armpit, where our species begins, is roughly 200,000 years ago. The tip of your middle finger is today.

Humans started to wear clothing somewhere between your armpit and your elbow (170,000 years ago). Just past your elbow toward your hand, the first crude abstract carvings were etched onto cave walls (70,000 years ago). In the soft pad of your hand, twisted rope appeared (28,000 years ago). Pigs were first domesticated near the start of your fingers (15,000 years ago). A little further down your finger, people started keeping goats (12,000 years ago). Now at your last articulated joint of your finger, people in present-day Iraq began to cultivate wheat and barley (10,000 years ago). At your cuticles, the domestication of the chicken (6,000 years ago).

Now zoom in on your fingernail. Within that fingernail is all of agriculture as we know it, from the first time people started organizing the way they grow crops to today: where the genetic structure of seeds can be sliced and grafted at our will, where experiments growing food in martian soil is happening in laboratories right now.

Still holding your arm out straight (I promise you get to put it down soon), ponder that fingernail and all that it contains. Within a nearly microscopic sliver of that fingernail, humans went from small-scale, peasant style agroecology to full-on industrialized monocrop operations that exist thanks to satellite positioning systems, chemicals, and the lifeblood of money.

When BigAg finally collapses under the weight of its own wildly mis-proportioned girth, and the dust settles, the tragedy will read as the blip of a footnote in the history of humankind. People will then return to what they’ve done for a long, long time – namely growing food on relatively small, diversified farms for a relatively tight radius of distribution – resulting in vastly improved efficiency and (to use an almost played-out term) sustainability.
It is very clear that as a species of farm people, who are intimately connected with the creation of their own food, we are just getting warmed up.

Some people like to think of urban farming as a quaint demonstration of a life that is all but lost, like a diorama at the natural history museum. Schools often view gardening as an extension of the math textbook rather than as a way to cultivate children into self-sufficient contributors to the welfare of society as a whole.

The timeline of our future farmers is being written right under our noses. All we have to do is get out of the way of progress that might seem to be masquerading as a throw-back. If humans are to survive for any length of time into the foreseeable Anthropocene, it would behoove us to support our nearest radical metropolitan vegetable grower. Or better yet, plant your own seeds and be part of history in the making.

When Krista Tippett interviewed the musician Craig Minowa, this response stuck with me.

There’s the Carl Sagan book where he talks about how if you walked into a room and then your father walked into the room right behind you, and then your grandfather walked into the room right behind you, how long it would take before you hit an ancestor who was down on all fours.

And he was discussing it on the level of just evolution in general, but I was thinking about it in the context of, OK what if that did happen? And ultimately what you end up with is about 250,000 people. Your dad, your grandfather, your great-grandfather, all of them in there, 250 — quarter of a million people. And represented in that three million years of that would be hunter-gatherers, 10,000 years of that would be farmers, and, depending on your family, for my family, it would just be the last two generations that haven’t lived off the land.

So you’ve got a quarter of a million people that are your direct lineage, that if they could all speak the same language, they’d all be able to sit down and talk about living off the land and jabber on, and on, and on. And it would just be me and my dad sitting there [laughter] not knowing what to talk about. [laughter]

Let’s keep some perspective, and know what to talk about.

(image: agricultural tools from Hesiod, Venice, 1587)

 

 

 

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