Our relationship with the land

I recently had the opportunity to meet Dr. Britt Yamamoto while he was promoting his new book The Soil of Leadership. And he told the story of how the farmer who taught him farming said that the principal difference between conventional and sustainable farming was that conventional farmers tend plants, and sustainable farmers tend to the soil.

To tend to the soil, I believe you need a long term relationship with the land - if you own the land, and believe it will pass on to your children and grand-children, you are more likely to care about its long term viability than a temporary wage worker who may or may not be there next season, or a corporate who is expected to show profit without having to account for the harm to the land (unless the accounting practices recognise it - as far as I know there is no such practice).

But there is also another kind of long term relationship possible with the land - to see that the the land owns us, because the land will still remain after we are dead and buried; we are not owners of the land, but merely stewards or custodians. And as part of that stewardship we may till and sow and harvest the land, but in a way that does not impoverish the land by our use, and that recognises that we are not the only lives sustained by the land (which is why in Tallinn - and probably many other places - there is a preference for wildlife than neatly mowed grass).

This may be hard to imagine, especially if you have a piece of paper called a deed that sets out the extent of the land owned by you - but that ownership is a social construct. For example, those titles meant nothing when, in the aftermath of World War II, people from what used to be eastern Poland (in the land that was ceded to Ukraine, in exchange for land ceded to Russia) were uprooted and moved to the land that is now western Poland (land that was ceded from Germany).

It wasn’t always like this;

Going back to the Commons seems a distant dream - but even if we are stuck in the system of private ownership, can we think more in terms of stewardship than ownership? Focus on nurturing the soil (and everything that lives in it) rather than raping it so hard with chemicals for this year’s harvest that we have no choice but to keep raping it year after year?