1 : a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole (Merriam Webster online)
I graduated last year with two masters degrees and became a farmhand. Most people don’t seem very surprised, but I’ve been working to make the connection. I finally made it:
Masters of Social Work = people within systems
Masters of Public Administration = systems that shape systems
My new favorite description when people ask what I studied is “human beings, organizations, and governance”. In other words, I studied systems within systems within systems (people are systems, too). And since they’re all living systems – adaptive, responsive, morphic – I like to think I studied – and still study – organisms within organisms within organisms.
The world’s amazing!!! Nested heirarchies of holons – complex, interrelated systems – wholes which are greater than the sum of their parts, parts which are wholes unto themselves: meta-metaorganisms.
An organism is a bounded system. See above definition. Where one decides to draw the boundary around the system can be a bit arbitrary. That link to “metaorganisms” in the last paragraph goes right to a paper from Zoology called Metaorganisms as the new frontier (Bosch & Ngai).
Today we realize that any multicellular organism must be considered a metaorganism comprising the macroscopic host and its synergistic interdependence with bacteria, archaea, fungi, and numerous other microbial and eukaryotic species including algal symbionts.
This is why I’m a Helminthic therapy neophyte, but that’s another story. –> IF our bodies are not just an organism, but also a metaorganism composed of other, necessary organisms, then what is our society? A meta-metaorganism. And our economy? Our ecosystem? Meta-meta-meta-meta organism?? Whew, baby! It’s amazing to think about, and what’s more with all organisms THE PARTS ARE NEEDED TO MAINTAIN THE WHOLE, and THE WHOLE IS NEEDED TO MAINTAIN THE PARTS. Chew on that for a minute before you try to get lonely again.
It’s not odd at all, then, that I gravitated toward a farming tradition that holds, as one of its central tenets, the idea that the farmer should aspire to create a ‘whole farm organism’.
Biodynamic farmers emphasize farm self-sufficiency, or agricultural individuality. Practically, this is understood to mean generating the fertility needs for your farm within the farm itself, through the cycling of livestock manure and cover-cropping systems. This is not new, of course. Peasants have been meeting their own fertility needs (if they managed to meet them at all) since the neolithic right up until the early 20th century. They’ve also been feeding the farmers from the farm itself, growing their your own seed, their fuel, fiber, medicine, and their transportation. Holy hot dam, that is a hell of an organism.
I am a sucker for survivalist-style self-sufficiency – the kind that grants end-of-the-world immunity – so these things appeal to my inner disaster-apocalypse-loving child. My enthusiasm is tempered, though, by my experience with interdependency (part of growing up and gettin’ hitched, I guess) and my comprehension of nested systems – organisms within organisms within organisms. Ecology. Economics. Etc. etc. The reality is that all organisms are permeable. Flows go in and out. Things are needed, and other things are given which are needed by someone(thing) else. So where do you draw the boundary around an organism?
Henning Sehmsdorf, a mentor of mine, once described what he believed made for a healthy farm organism. He identified two organizational qualities:
1. Self-organization and self-correction: While natural systems are inherently balanced, agricultural systems achieve equilibrium through the farmer’s developing ability to observe and support symbiotic energies between diverse species – human, animal, plant, and soil organisms – as revealed in the structured and increasingly complex farm organism over time. A complex, diversified farm system is vigorously self-renewing and resilient to catastrophic failure and disease as the organism continuously replenishes itself in response to the farmer’s balancing of inter-dependent components to maintain the health of the whole. The farmer’s role in establishing response-ability is crucial.
2. Self-sufficiency and self-capitalization: The self-sufficient farm feeds itself (family, trainees, farmers), and sells the surplus to the local community; it feeds animals and soils from farm-produced inputs; and produces and cycles required inputs (fertility, water, energy, wood) on the farm. The self-capitalizing farm pays for production and maintenance costs from current income and for improvements from infrastructure set- asides; debt is avoided as far as possible. Labor is provided by the people living on the farm who benefit from farm production on a shared, ‘associative,’ basis.
Truth be told, conceiving of a farm as a self-contained organism is compelling less because it makes surviving the end of the world a fraction more likely, and more because an organism, by its nature, is a complex, interrelated system, and conceiving of a farm in this way compels the farmer to use her imagination, her observational skills, her understanding of natural, technological, and human systems, and her strength and capability to sustain the farm in the most healthful, enduring way. Ah, it’s a mouthful I know, but the complexity of the task calls forth the spirit, entertains the mind, and challenges the body. The art of close observation and natural modeling offers an inroad into nature and natural laws and relationships, which, if you’re even 1-ounce Taoist (which most of you are, I bet), you can appreciate.
Ecology. Economics. Relationships. Survival. It all happens here, managed by organisms embedded in organisms embedded in organisms embedded in organisms and so on, ad infinitum.
Down to Earth
How does one begin to acquire the skills and will required to develop and steward a whole farm organism? So far, I’m learning about soil health, compost & fertility, plant breeding, seed saving, animal husbandry, and slopping through swamps to set up cow fences through looong afternoons. Some day I’d love to learn how to work with oxen or horses, but for now I’m happily learning tractors.
I’m also learning business planning, budgeting, marketing, social media, and financial management. I’ve been nerding out generating stats of our labor output, for future planning needs. Actually, I already used it to calculate the labor requirements for planting my garden this year. This is just as important to the survival of the organism. After all, if it doesn’t survive – both economically and ecologically – the boundaries around the organism are sure to dissolve, leaving, well, a bunch of parts, embedded in a bunch of other organisms.
I leave you with this spell-binding spreadsheet. Ooh. Ahh…