Remembering the ‘Spooky Wisdom’ of Our Agrarian Past

For millennia, humans have followed specific patterns passed down by their forbears without always knowing why.

On a recent trip home to Idaho, I talked to a farmer who’d known my great-grandfather. He told me that, long after his neighbors had traded in old-fashioned pasturing methods for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), my great-grandfather continued to graze his cows along the ditch banks and corners of his land. When asked why, Grandpa Walter replied that it made the animals happy and kept the land pretty.

These days, we know that old-fashioned pasturing methods encourage much more than aesthetic charm. A long feature published in New York Times Magazine this past week considers the numerous benefits pasture grazing (especially rotational grazing) has for the plants, soil, and climate of a place. It would appear that modernity is finally catching up to my great-grandpa—and that an agriculture that is beautiful and humane may actually, in a karmic or providential twist, be more vibrant and profitable long-term.

In his latest book The Art of Loading Brush, Wendell Berry talks about the intuitive aspects of agrarianism: that there are many things agrarians do and uphold not for specific scientific reasons, but because they know in their bones that it’s “best.”

“I think that agrarianism had, and where it survives it still has, a sort of summary existence as a feeling—an instinct, an excitement, a passion, a tenderness—for the living earth and its creatures,” he writes in his introduction.

Chuck Marohn highlighted this same intuitive genius in ancient urban planning during his most recent podcast for Strong Towns. As a history lover and engineer, Marohn has observed patterns in urban planning that have been passed down through millennia, patterns that built a deep logic and beauty into the places they sculpted. “Human habitat is pretty ordinary,” he notes. “We need certain things, and those’ll be within a certain distance of each other. Buildings will be arranged in certain ways and will have certain attributes, because it makes places safer, and it makes places more social. It has all this ‘spooky wisdom’ built into it.”

“Spooky wisdom” is the term Marohn employs: “the idea in quantum mechanics, at least as it’s developed today, is that we know these things work—but we really don’t know why.” “We write equations out of our understanding of quantum mechanics,” he explains, “we can test those equations, they test out true—so clearly we’re onto something—but we don’t know why it works. …And what I’m suggesting is that the more I have studied and looked at human development patterns pre-modernity, the more I just find spooky wisdom. Things that work, and I can’t really explain or understand why.”

For millennia, humans have followed specific patterns passed down by their forbears without always knowing why. This is the essence of culture: the layers of belief and precedent, ritual and intuition that guide societal life and practice. As Maurice Telleen once put it, “A funny thing about cultures is that they produce people who understand more than they know. Sort of like osmosis.”

But in modernity, as Marohn notes in his podcast, we chose to dispense with precedent and tradition. We decided to distrust the “spooky wisdom” of the past—whether it had to do with old-fashioned agrarianism or dense walkability—and instead start from scratch, inventing our own way of doing things. Thus, freeways cut through the core of our cities, severing neighborhoods and communities. Suburbs sprung up around cosmopolitan centers, fashioning their own car-centric rhythms and culture. Farmers, meanwhile, were told to “get big or get out,” to trade diversity and sustainability for homogeneity and profit. Small to midscale farms steadily lost land and resources to their larger, industrialized counterparts.

Some of these seismic transformations came in response to new technologies, like the automobile and the combine. We refashioned industry around the “future” as we imagined it.

But there’s a reason cities were designed a certain way for centuries. There’s a reason, insofar as we’ve diverged from that pattern here in the U.S., that we have recently found ourselves gravitating back to it. If Marohn is right, then humans know—even if only on a deeply visceral, subconscious level—that they’re suited for a specific sort of habitat. And they’re going to seek out and crave that habitat, whether they find it in an old European city or in the walkable neighborhoods of small-town Michigan.

Similarly, we humans are beginning to react against our agricultural experimentations—and when we do, it’s often on an instinctual level. There’s a reason that, even though a lot of farms are large and industrialized, their appearances in TV commercials always reflect a small-town, mom-and-pop sort of charm. There’s a reason egg cartons at the grocery store portray happy, plump chickens walking through a meadow—even if the eggs contained therein were produced by caged, stressed birds. There’s a reason farmers I talk to about their polyculture operations are always stressing the smell of the air, the beauty of the land, and the happiness of their animals. These people know in their guts that these things matter. The osmosis of culture is still impacting their tastes, instincts, and desires. They’re still attuned to the “spooky wisdom” of the past.

We can still use newfound knowledge to make improvements or tweaks to old forms. I’m not saying all change is bad. Many farmers are using innovative new electric fencing to foster better grazing methods. The Land Institute is striving to breed perennial grain crops that will build sustainability and land health alongside the financial viability of farmers. Not all new things are unhealthy or unwise—but the best “new” things contain seeds of truth and wisdom that have been passed down for generations. They do not discard precedent.

In many ways, this is what conservatism is about: a respect for handed-down traditions and customs, even when we don’t entirely understand them. As Patrick Deneen writes in Why Liberalism Failed, liberalism was “a titanic wager that ancient norms of behavior could be lifted in the name of a new form of liberation and that conquering nature would supply the fuel to permit nearly infinite choices.” This sort of radicalized independence has infiltrated both left and right in our era. Whether we’re applauding the encroachments of big government or the unbridled license of free market capitalism, the root instincts involved are often the same: we’ve decided that scale and limits, norms and traditions, no longer matter. “Progress” is the only virtue worth pursuing.

In his “Ten Conservative Principles,” Russell Kirk warned that “the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire.” Perhaps broken cities, stressed people, depleted soil, suffering animals, and contaminated water are telling us something we increasingly must listen to, whether we like it or not. Perhaps in our time, the nostalgia for vinyl records and craft beer will morph into something deeper and more philosophical: an understanding that the treasures of the past are treasures for a reason. As scientific knowledge “catches up” with spooky wisdom, we may come to understand and appreciate the thinking of the ancients in greater depth.

To quote T.S. Eliot, perhaps “the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

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18 Responses to Remembering the ‘Spooky Wisdom’ of Our Agrarian Past

  1. M.C. Tuggle says:

    An inspiring and hopeful article. Many have argued that beauty is a natural product of the vital and sustainable. I think this attitude is indeed making a comeback, not just on farms, but in cities. It’s certainly true here in Charlotte, where greenways along our many creeks are beckoning folks out of their cars.

  2. Written by yours truly:

    “If the United States were a garden or a field, it would not be a healthy plot of dirt. America is like a 1930s dryland farm in the Oklahoma panhandle. Back then, unknowing farmers recklessly stripped the land down, turning it into massive fields of dirt deserts. This is how the 1930’s Dust Bowl came to exist. Farmers plowed deeply and extensively into the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains. They did not give back to the ground, and they failed to prevent wind erosion.”

    http://forge-and-anvil.com/2018/04/17/america-the-unsustainable/

  3. Kent says:

    “Progress” is the only virtue worth pursuing.”

    Progress is in the eye of the beholder. So it is not something that can be pursued by a society. However, maximizing shareholder value is something that can be pursued.

  4. Ken T says:

    Gracie:

    You make many good points here. But in your last two paragraphs, when you relate it to “conservatism” and “liberalism”, you get it completely backwards, at least with respect to US politics. The large industrial farms and CAFOs you decry are uniformly found in the reddest of red states; the agricultural policies that support them are uniformly supported by the so-called “conservative” GOP. Whereas here in the heart of liberalism, we go to the local farm market every week to buy as much of our food as we possibly can from those small, traditional agrarian family farms. No liberal talks about “conquering nature” – just the opposite. It is liberals who strive to protect nature and the environment, while conservatives see it as a commodity to be exploited and used up as quickly as possible. It is conservatives, not liberals, who argue that there are no limits to expansion and development.

  5. Jones says:

    Fantastic — an excellent summation of what conservatism is really all about.

  6. mrscracker says:

    Well, I think farmers and ranchers in previous generations had wisdom and commonsense but they could also employ practices that we now know were wasteful and promoted erosion.
    There are cattle producers today who still allow their animals free access to streams, which destroys and pollutes riparian areas.
    As you say, I don’t see why we can’t embrace best practices from all eras, including the present.
    Checkout your local extension service’s resources. They have plenty of “spooky wisdom”, too.
    🙂

  7. polistra says:

    In fact scientific knowledge is finally starting to understand how collective wisdom works. Part of the genome is variable. Experience turns knobs and switches on genes, and the dials remain set that way for (at least) several generations. Lamarck and Lysenko were right. Acquired characteristics can be inherited.

  8. Will Harrington says:

    Ken T

    You misunderstand, I think. Conservative and Liberal now have absolutely no relation to Republican or Democrat or Left and Right. The latter two are limply the two sides of the false dilemma that the people are presented so that the oligarchs can contain their wealth and power. Liberalism and Conservatism both have something valuable to offer, but the Republicans and the Democrats? Not so much.

  9. Will Saunders says:

    Wonderful article. Louis Bromfield preached the same things about farming in the 1940’s Jane
    Jacobs preached the same thing about communities in the 1960’s. I hope this time
    we’ve learned their lessons at last

  10. Corwin says:

    While this sounds nice, it is unrealistic given the increased demand on productive farming. We have a population of approximately 325 million in the US, and over 7.5 billion around the world. In order to feed everyone with enough nutritional value, the old ways of farming are having to be tossed aside. We need far more in the way of irrigation, fertilizers, and pest control than what farmers could have dealt with just a few decades ago. We are also facing some very serious problems with crops that could endanger our food supplies without even more radical changes, such as climate change, water shortages, biological infestations (insects, microbes), and potentially a shortage of phosphorus (http://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2016/finalwebsite/solutions/phosphorus.html).

    At a certain point, the family farm, even with every technological advance available may still not produce enough food for everyone. While there are some other options, such as vertical farming systems, a return to the historical way of farming will simply not be possible.

  11. EarlyBird says:

    This: “In many ways, this is what conservatism is about: a respect for handed-down traditions and customs, even when we don’t entirely understand them.”

    I can see liberals saying that this statement epitomizes everything wrong with conservatism, but they misunderstand the sentiment.

    My parents, born in the 1932 Midwest, raising kids in Southern California 1970s – 1980s, held conservative values in a very gut-sense. It is not that they were reactionary or rigid. In fact, in some ways they were very free thinkers. But their conservatism was more than mere common sense, but a kind of gut morality for lack of a better term. They couldn’t always intellectually explain the prohibitions or admonitions they gave their children, but they knew these were age-old proven things that should be done if for no better reason that there were not better alternatives yet discovered.

    This inability to always properly elucidate these in-the-guts traditional morality is one way that it was so easily ran over by the over-intellectualized, disconnected vandals of the later 20th Century.

  12. Magolia says:

    End taxpayer funded subsidies and subsidized crop insurance and within a few decades Amish and Mennonites will control vast swathes of rural America. They already dominate townships and entire counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. They accept no subsidies.

  13. Benjamin Glaser says:

    Everyone would benefit from reading “The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver” to see the argument of this piece in the words of the great Kentucky/North Carolina essayist, spelled out in beautiful prose.

  14. Russell Seitz says:

    Please please, let polistra be a Poe !

  15. Nice piece. Gracy might get a kick out of looking into Christopher Alexander, whose “A Pattern Language” and “The Timeless Way of Building” are key reading along these lines.

  16. Ken T says:

    Will Harrington:

    I did not misunderstand – that’s why I said my comment was “in respect to US politics”. I fully get that Gracie is describing philosophical conservatism, which has no resemblance to political conservatism in the US. And in a publication titled “The American Conservative” I think it is vital to draw that distinction. The simple fact is that the ONLY place in the US you will find political support for the values Gracie is expressing is within the nominal “liberal” party – the nominal “conservative” party is not merely indifferent, it is actively viscerally hostile to those values. And on this topic at least, your cynical “both-sider-ism” could not be more false.

    Will Saunders:

    I first read Bromfield’s “Malabar Farm” about 50 years ago. And this suburban kid who had never been on a farm in his life found it fascinating; it triggered a life-long interest in these issues, even though I have never been a farmer.

  17. River Song says:

    Gracy, (not Gracie)

    That was a beautifully written article! The quote, “the more things change, the more things stay the same” kept entering into my thoughts as I read your article and I loved everything you said! The “spooky wisdom” you spoke of I know it is true! It has run in the veins on my mother’s side of the family for generations and also in my father’s to a lesser extent, with the funny part being, my father was actually raised on a farm!

    I didn’t take your article “politically” really at all, where I noticed another commentor took serious issue with it. When you were writing of “conservatism”, I took that as you speaking more of the conservation of our farming (agragarian) and “progressive” as the evolution or progress to newer and faster ways to streamline farming. Perhaps I was wrong in my personal assessment, but I certainly didn’t think you got anything “backward” in describing the two.

    To EarlyBird: We might be related! Dad born in ’32, Mom in ’34 in the Midwest, moved to NorCal in the mid-60’s when I was 10. They raised me, my older brother and sister, and had one more Cali baby after we got there! I know exactly of what you speak when talking about the “gut morality” of conservatism! :~D

  18. Dominique Watkins says:

    Great article!

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