The Agricultural Art of Revision

by on August 16, 2010
in Farm Life

Agricultural Revisionists…learning how to see.

There are many things I love about being a farmer:  the sound of the cows lowing, the happy cackle of chickens, the feel of warm dirt in my hands, the smell of coriander and fennel seeds before planting, and the list goes on forever.  But probably the thing I love the most, all nostalgia put aside, is the absolute necessity of Agricultural Revision.

I read a great article this morning in the New York  Times about the effects of digital stimulation on the brain.  How the more we speed up the rate at which information becomes available the less ability we have to focus on the task at hand or the information right in front of us.  We are caught in an endless cycle of becoming smarter, quicker, wittier, and having bigger, better, faster things fill our time.  As I read it the thought struck me that what this digital overload has done for us is to undermine our understanding of and appreciation for revision.

Revision literally mean “to see again”.  If you look it up in the dictionary it seems to apply almost exclusively to writing and the process of correcting.  I revise quite a bit as I write, seldom doing rough drafts.  I write and edit as I go.   Word processing software has made it easy to do this, but as I’ve been contemplating the New York  Times article (which you can find here:  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/16/technology/16brain.html?_r=1&th&emc=th) I’ve been wondering if perhaps this isn’t a mistake.  Is there a process in the art of revising that is worth remembering?  Is the journey that leads us to our beliefs just as important as the belief itself?  I rather think that it is.

I believe revision is an art form.  I love to look at artistic “studies” created by master artists.  The drawings that Leonardo DaVinci made in preparation to paint a masterpiece are a fascinating look into the mind of  a creator.  The care taken to ensure proper veining along an arm or a leg in a sculpture or painting by Michelangelo is profound.  Were these studies mistakes?  Was the act of studying all in error until the finished work of art could be pronounced “perfect”?  I don’t believe that they were, in fact I believe that the studies themselves are valuable creations.  They are a look inside the act of creation, not simply the result.

I love to look at art, not just in a casual glance sort of way, but really LOOK at it.  The brush strokes, the blending of the colors, the texture of the paint.  There is beauty in the whole of the work because there is beauty in all of its parts.  One of Leonardo DaVinci’s mottoes was “Saper Vedere”  which translates to “knowing how to see” or “to see is to know”.  How much do we miss when we don’t know how to see?  How much beauty passes by us every day because we don’t have eyes to see it, or ears to hear it?  The great artists of the Renaissance saw beauty in the tiniest elements of their work.  They studied, revised, looked, practiced, created, and re-created until their ability to perform was equal to their ability to see.   Hence “re-vision”  is not just seeing again it is seeing, touching, thinking, and creating again.

This intense effort to create and re-create is an undeniable part of the process of farming.  Not all who look see, and therefore not all who farm see themselves as revisionists, but they are.  As Amos Bronson Alcott put it “He who loves a garden, still his Eden keeps, Perennial pleasures plants, and wholesome harvest reaps.”  Farmers by their very act of tilling the soil to bring forth life are artists and creators, taking their plot in Eden and recreating what they will in it.  It is living art, with nothing of their work left behind but harvests stored on pantry shelves.  So many people today have never seen a “fruit room” like my husband, William, grew up with; a cool place in the basement where jars upon jars of canned peaches, beans, tomatoes, and apricots (along with a host of other crops) were kept for use in the coming year.  Just like a renaissance artist studied the musculature of the human body or the layers of petaled flowers the farmer/artists that influenced William studied the weather, the soil, the mountains where the needed water would come from, the remains of last years work, and then throughout the cooler months, when the soil rested from its labors they studied.  They drew garden plans, they plotted how to glean the best harvest from the soil, they noted down where the garden needed more work, where the manure should be placed to be most effective, where the beans were located last year so that this year they could be moved to a new place.

No, they wouldn’t have called themselves artists.  To them is was simply a way of life.  And isn’t that a testament to the goodness of living close to the land?  It wasn’t going out of their way to recycle waste to improve the earth; it wasn’t going out of their way to conserve water to ensure there would be enough for the summer crops, it wasn’t going out of their way to not waste one bit of usable food to feed themselves, their families, their friends, and several complete strangers:  it very simply was their way.  Each and every year they planned which crops to plant to improve the soil.  With each harvest they preserved the seeds from the very best fruits from the field so that they could plant again next season.  Each and every year they re-created abundance without robbing the soil of it’s life.

That is what I love best about farming.  Each year, each season, with each harvested crop we have the opportunity to look for a new vision for our farm.  We have the chance to look at what we’ve done with a critical eye and find what works, what doesn’t, and improve where we can.  There is no finished and perfect work of art at the end of farming because there is no end to farming.  A crop may be harvested, but the garden goes on.  That is Agricultural Revision:  to know how to see the world around you, your place in it, and accept your responsibility to it.

It is a beautiful place to live, here in the middle of a work of art.  I’d like to pass it on.  I’d love to see a renaissance in agriculture, a Georgic Reformation in our communities.  Perhaps I can start here with a request:  find something in the natural world to touch, see, or hear today.  Spend time studying it, open your eyes and ears to it.  See it the way an artist would see it, as if you needed to recreate it in someway.  And then, when it really feels beautiful to you, pass it on.  Every bit of beauty we see and share is like a mark on an artists canvas, each part makes up the majesty of the whole.  Together I believe we have the ability to create a lasting and moving work of art.