It’s too easy sometimes to simply get caught up in our daily work on the farm. Viewed from the limited perspective of the immediate present, there is always a list of things to complete that seems to never end. At the end of the day, we are able to see the items that we completed from the list, but invariably, more tasks appear, sometimes before we are able to complete our intended tasks for the day. Riding the endless merry-go-round, we watch the work come at us down an assembly line, and upon completion, we send it on down that line, sometimes not giving it another thought. One of the trucks needs a clutch pedal repair, our main tractor has a coolant leak that needs to be found and fixed, the wheat is ready to be harvested, and the tomatoes need pruning. These are examples of what might be on our list of tasks to complete last week. Our list is, of course, much longer, but each item, taken in isolation, can seem to be unrelated to any larger purpose.
Our culture teaches us the myth of rugged individualism. In this fictional story, we see ourselves as independent beings who face the challenges of the world as individuals or at least as tiny isolated groups of individuals. We then believe that the forces that manifest in our individual selves that keep us alive in the wilderness, creates an orderly and just society. We tell ourselves that we are alive and thriving because of our wit and our grit, which we use on our own to battle the forces of nature. We feel a nostalgia for a lost era where a nuclear family set out from St. Louis to start a life on the frontier, surviving with only their skills and what they packed with them or perhaps we celebrate how our ancestors traveled across the the great ocean to build a modern society and democracy from ideas and the raw materials available to them. The problem, however, is that this myth is both wrong and it prevents us from seeing our purpose at times in a greater system of collaboration.
First off, our ancestors would never have survived in the new world had there not been people already thriving here who took pity upon the first pathetic immigrants from the old world who had neither the knowledge nor tools to survive a single New England winter. The family of pioneers who set out from St. Louis only stood a chance of survival because there was already a tenuous support network of supplies and military protection to assist them in their settlements. We have always needed each other, not just those who shared a common birthplace either. Without the compassion of the original inhabitants of the New World, who taught the newcomers the skills required to survive in the wilderness of North America, there would have been no survivors at Jamestown or Plymouth. There are few people on our planet (if any) who could be dropped with no clothes, tools, or supplies into a strange land and survive as a result of their own will and skill. Humbly compare that fact to a common house cat. Cats can survive as long as there is access to water and small animals. We are a species that exists because of our dependence upon each other.
Our modern world has each member of society playing a role. The oil rig worker manages the extraction of crude oil from the ground, passing the fruits of his or her labor on down to the tanker captain. The crude is moved to refineries where it will become fuel, fertilizer, and plastics, all used in the production of food. The seed grower will refine seed varieties, using the fuel and fertilizer, shipping the seed on trucks to the seed suppliers where we eventually buy the seeds for our farm. Our farm requires fuel, steel, laborers who assemble the tools that we use like shovels and hoes, engineers who design our tractors, and assembly line workers who built our trucks, tractors, planters, etc. One could go on all day about the various people and industries that make growing food on our farm possible. It is a great circle of interdependence that neither has a beginning nor end. There is no central industry either, but removing one can cause the entire system to collapse. It is as mind-boggling as it is easy to forget.
In a complex society, our roles have evolved to be highly specialized. This can lead to a myopic and limited view of our own purpose and meaning. It’s easy to just see the work coming at us and checking off our to-do lists. We miss the fact that when we fix the truck, we are able to better deliver food to people to eat. Once the wheat is harvested, we will spend a day or so screening the wheat to remove impurities. Once this is done, the wheat will cure for a few weeks, and finish drying down for storage. After that, it can be milled and made into bread. If all I see is the work of harvesting and screening wheat in front of me, without the wider view of food production, I can easily miss that the task of harvesting will lead to a meal on someone’s table. Along the way, from seed to table, there are countless and nameless people who all contributed to that meal. Some will be directly connected to our farm. Countless more will indirectly contribute by providing the various societal infrastructure components that allow us to grow and distribute food. The purpose then, is greater than the sum of the tasks. We are not lone actors conquering an untamed wilderness, but rather we are a species of interdependent beings who would not survive without each other.
Remembering this, I cam proceed into my week with a renewed purpose. My work is not just labor, but rather part of my role in a greater society. I am a farmer. Equally as important to note, however, is that we all play important parts in the world in which we live. Whether we are involved in an industry of sorts or whether we support our families in non-industrial roles is irrelevant. What matters is that as a species, we are nothing without each other. It is our strength, and remembering it can give us all purpose.