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From Garden to Field: Agriculture, Geometry And The Human Future

Not quite the natural order of things
Patrick Pleul
AFP/Getty Images
Not quite the natural order of things

I put my garden in this weekend. Yes, I know, it's late. But we recently moved into a new house and there were a thousand, thousand other details that needed attention.

Starting early, I had most of the veggies into the recently overturned soil by noon. Stepping back to see the fruit of the effort, my heart caught in my throat. Where a tangle of weeds and junk trees had been a week ago, now there were clean rows of caged tomato plants, cucumber sprouts and planted beet seeds. I was 8-years-old when I laid out my first (city) garden and this miracle of seed, water, soil, time and effort has never failed to startle me: take the "chaos" of nature, impose some organization and the stuff you want to eat just grows.

Standing there, shovel in hand, the organization part of that equation really hit home for me.

In my last book About Time, I read a lot about the Neolithic Revolution that took us from hunter-gathering to a domesticated, agrarian species. In that research I was looking for ways human beings recreated time by adopting a life based on farming.

What I found was Steven Mithen in After The Ice discussing how climate change (the end of an ice age) drove our slow transition to an agrarian lifestyle. In Prehistory I found archaeologist Colin Renfrew pointing to Neolithic innovations in culture that began with the domesticated plants such as wheat, lentils, barley and flax, but extended to the use of tools for grinding those plants, the domestication of animals, the construction of monumental tombs and the development of long-distance procurement systems for raw materials such as obsidian (volcanic glass). From Inside the Neolithic Mind by David Lewis-Williams and David Pierce, I learned how human coconsciousness itself was reshaped by the redefinitions of "nature" that followed our domestication of plants, animals and ourselves.

Each of these cultural innovations required fundamentally new ways of organizing human activities. They also required new ways of imagining culture and its place in the cosmos. And, just as important, each one required a daily engagement with time unlike anything that had come before. By shaping the day around tending fields, long-term dwellings and the intricacies of politics in large villages, the daily life (and time) of the new farmers looked nothing like their hunter-gathering ancestors. Time had been "colonized" in entirely novel ways.

But space has changed as well.

Anyone flying above rich agriculture regions like those of the American Midwest gets an immediate lesson in Euclidian geometry. Fields are laid out in a perfect patchwork of straight lines and ninety-degree angles. It is a startling sight. The platonic order our agriculture imposes on the landscape becomes even more startling when natural feature like a meandering river or crumpled foothills intrudes upon it.

That order was first laid down in small patches outside Neolithic villages and it has been the hallmark of the human species ever since. Now we have colonized great swaths of the planet (and even the skies) with our geometry of straight lines. In the long run it is not at all clear if it was a good idea. I am no advocate of a return to hunting and gathering (who wants to volunteer for a great die-off?). But, from an astro-biological perspective, it just may be that these kinds of geometries are unstable when imposed on top of a complex natural system like a planet.

Nature just doesn't have much use for straight lines. Mountains are jagged, clouds are puffy and trees are, well, trees. The architecture of nature doesn't rely much on linear runs and right angles (lots of fractals). That is why those first neat rows of tilled Earth must have seemed strange even to the Neolithic people who created them.

The climate change we are just beginning to experience is, in many ways, a consequence of the culture we invented in the Neolithic. The depletion of "natural" resources from fresh water to forests began when we started to clear the way for our fields and then learned to divert water for their irrigation. In this way the colonization of space with straight lines (so startling to me in my garden) comes full circle with our colonization of time.

Agriculture has been a 10,000-year long experiment and, like any experiment, we are going to have to wait to see how it plays out.

You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @AdamFrank4. His latest book is About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang.

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Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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