The seasonally hot and dry weather predicted for this week will be welcome, but it will require us to begin irrigating our crops. It will be the first time all season that we have had to irrigate. The drier weather will also help us to begin to recover some of our flooded land for next season. Also, it will help us to harvest our wheat this next week. For the past several seasons, it has been very rainy during this period of time in July, when the wheat is dying down, and it will be nice to harvest our crop on time for a change without worrying about complications brought on by too much moisture.
Wheat is an interesting crop. About 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent, a region located in the modern Middle East, wheat and humans domesticated each other, forever changing each other in the process. Teosinte, which became maize, did the same for the people of the New World, and rice and humans formed a similar relationship in early China. These grasses, wheat, corn, and rice, changed our species profoundly.
Humans were nomadic before agriculture, moving with the seasons. As gatherers and hunters, we followed our food, moving as our food either ripened naturally or traveled afoot in herds. When the first humans planted fields of grains, we were required to remain in one location until the crop was harvested. We needed to remove weeds, defend against invaders of our own species and others, and we needed to harvest our crop when it was ripe. We likely maintained our nomadic lifestyle during the winters, but during the growing season, we would return to the same locations to plant our crops.
Eventually, we decided that there was no reason to wander, as we invested in more of our energy in our crops. We selected the plants with the largest seeds, the part of these crops that we eat, and we changed them as well. Instead of the tiny seeds that these crops have in the wild, they started producing more seeds per plant and ultimately we could grow more calories per acre than ever before. Instead of requiring several square miles of land to support a small group, we could support several people per acre of land. We settled. Now large groups of people, provided that there was a source of water, could inhabit smaller tracts of land, permanently. This situation gave birth to societies, chiefdoms, and eventually nation states, as we know them. With it,we gained some things and lost many others.
We gave up diversity in our diet for a steady food source. This, however, led to diseases never before known to our species like diabetes. We gave up freedom for the ability to acquire things. Being sedentary, we no longer had limitations about what we could possess. Before agriculture, we could possess only what we could carry. The final perversion of our species in this category was to fill our dwellings with all of our stuff, and then rent another dwelling to store the stuff we use less frequently. We became possessed by our possessions. We gave up our families to acquire stature in our newly formed societies. We developed social hierarchies that plague us still today. We coveted the resources of our neighboring states, and we invaded and conquered, sometimes because we were starving ourselves due to famine or because we were envious that our neighbors had more. This eventually led to sophisticated and industrialized warfare.
The result of agriculture was not all bad. We freed many and eventually most in our society to pursue endeavors beyond food acquisition. Science, art, music, literature, and philosophy were free to blossom and thrive. We ate of the tree of knowledge. It truly is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We can create artificial intelligence systems that could free all of us of further monotony of meaningless employment, solving many of the plagues of humanity, yet sadly, we are most likely going to use that knowledge for war and the pursuit of the acquisition of things. All of our potential, however, whether it be for good or evil, lies in the food that we eat. A handful of humble grains, growing on the prairies of our infancy as a species, offered to us the opportunity to learn and do great things. There is still time left to use our gift for the greater good! Perhaps it will be easier for us to be better versions of ourselves in the collective, if we humbly remember that all of our potential for good (and evil) is directly linked to our ancestors’ chance encounter with a handful of grasses that promised to feed us if we cared for them. These are the thoughts that I ponder as we prepare to harvest this ancient crop from our fields this week.