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 Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.