Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Dragonflies and Pepper Pods: Turning Around Agricultural Metaphors

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Winter 01-02 \ Lansky Editorial

By Mitch Lansky

A story about Basho (Japanese Haiku poet from the late 1600s) illustrates a problem with Western approaches to nature. Basho was out riding with one of his pupils when the pupil got very excited about an idea for a poem, which he shared with Basho:

“A red dragonfly; If you would but pluck its wings – Look, a pepper pod! “

To the pupil’s surprise, Basho’s response was not praise for the cleverness of the poem, but anger. “You are not fit to be a student of mine if you write such cruel verses,” said the master. The student still did not understand his mistake.

“In your poem, you are pulling the wings from a dragonfly. What you should have said,” continued Basho is:

“A red pepper pod; If you would but add some wings – Look, a dragonfly!”

Most people, as did Basho’s student, use metaphors to describe what is lesser known in terms of what is better known. For hunters and gatherers, the gods who influenced human events (and who had to be appeased) were often portrayed as animals, such as mischievous Coyote among Native Americans. In the Bible, God is “Lord” or “King,” because these were the positions of highest authority and power at the time. Interestingly, worldly kings, turning the metaphor around, claimed that their rule was an extension of God’s rule – the principle of authority by divine right. The Bible also used familiar pastoral metaphors. The Lord is our shepherd, and we are his flock.

As technology started to become more complex and more dominant in people’s lives, it became a potent source of metaphors. From the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s, mechanical clock-making gained greatly in sophistication. Not surprisingly, scientists of the time had great “insights” into the clockwork nature of the universe. God became the master craftsman who wound up the great mechanism.

Further technological developments yielded further metaphorical “insights.” The body is a magnificent “machine,” or the mind is a complex “computer,” or nature is an “ecosystem” that can be modeled in a computer program, aiding in prediction and control. Indeed, scientific description of nature is regularly put in mechanistic terms. Flowery or poetic language is deemed more emotional or “unscientific.”

While these mechanistic approaches to nature have yielded impressive advances in our understanding, many who use this metaphorical language are unaware that it is metaphor and not reality. Since we are surrounded by a manufactured world, it makes sense to describe the natural world as if it were manufactured as well. The understanding that “the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon” or “the map is not the territory” is too often forgotten. The effect of this forgetting is to treat nature or our bodies as if they really were mechanisms – plucking the wings from the dragonfly.

A key example of treating nature as if it were a mechanism is the 20th century fascination with assembly line manufacturing that has been extended to agriculture. Farms, with this metaphor, are seen as “factories,” with land as an economic “resource,” fertilizers, feed, or seeds as “inputs,” and crops or livestock as the “product” or “output.” The efficient farmer mechanizes production. Farm workers, like factory workers, tend machinery and work for an hourly wage.

Unfortunately, this program can have “bugs” – ”pests,” such as weeds, insects or diseases. With pests, the metaphors become more military. The pests “attack” the economic resource, and managers “defend” their crops with pesticides. The names of some pesticides, such as “Raid” or “Arsenal,” reflect this military metaphor. Ironically, some of the early organophosphate insecticides were derived from nerve poisons used in war time. Turning this metaphor around, within a few weeks of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the federal government grounded crop dusters for fear they might be used to disperse chemical weapons on people.

In the 1960s and 1970s, scientists, such as Rachel Carson and Robert Van den Bosch, warned that over-reliance on chemical warfare against pests would lead to a pesticide “treadmill.” Broad-spectrum pesticides do not kill all the pests; some that survive have chemical resistance. With predator/parasite complexes disturbed, the resistant pests can bounce back worse than before. Also possible are secondary pest outbreaks as populations of new organisms explode in response to disrupted predator/parasite complexes. This can lead to a “need” for higher doses of pesticides or for the introduction of new pesticides that cause new problems. While some farmers got the message and tried to get off the treadmill, too many did not. Pesticide use since the 1960s has greatly expanded.

The agricultural industry has built a need for pesticides into the “high-yield” system. Seed types have been developed by the same companies that sell fertilizers and pesticides. Not surprisingly, these seed types (whether hybrids or genetically engineered) are chemically dependent. The agribusiness companies are not developing cultivars with herbicide resistance or a need for high levels of chemical fertilizers out of a concern to feed the hungry or clothe the naked – their primary concern is to earn a return on their investments.

Metaphors are used to reinforce a system of priorities. The economic metaphor – land as a resource – changes the earth from a life-support system upon which the economy depends to a subset of the economy. Farmers will protect the integrity of the soil or wildlife on the farm only insofar as such actions do not interfere with their primary economic goals.

To the agribusiness farmer, the system of production (monocultures of chemical-dependent crops) is non-negotiable. Because the use of pesticides can be expensive, however, scientists have developed ways to waste less – the most important method being surveillance (or monitoring) of pests to improve timing of applications. With especially virulent pests, the government has taken a role in quarantining imports that may harbor the insects or diseases, fumigating imported produce, or even waging large-scale eradication campaigns (such as the one against the Medfly). The government, however, has not yet announced a campaign to rid the world of all pests and equated pests with “evil.”

One problem with a war to eradicate pests is that some pests cannot be eradicated – they are an essential part of natural ecosystems. This issue becomes clear when looking at forest pests. The timber industry has used the metaphor of the forest as a farm, with the word “farm” implying “factory farm” rather than “organic farm.” Timber industry owners see the desired trees as “crops” and anything that interferes with growing these crops as “pests.”

With farms (even organic), the ecosystem is highly simplified and artificial – both the crops and most of the pests are exotic. The stability of the farm is maintained by considerable outside inputs of energy, nutrients, and species, as well as tillage and pest control. Forests, however, evolved as complex and self-regulating. They can exist for centuries with no human interference. While some forest pests (such as gypsy moths) are exotic and without naturally-developed controls, others are native species occupying normal niches.

A clearcut, for example, is often followed by a flush of shrubs (such as raspberries or pin cherries) or shade-intolerant hardwoods (such as white birch or aspen). These are pioneer species that evolved to rapidly revegetate forests that have been heavily disturbed by fire or wind. They play important roles in slowing nutrient losses and as food for wildlife. Yet industrial foresters perceive these pioneer species as “weeds” and spray them with herbicides. Such a war against “weeds” is a war against natural processes responding to the clearcuts of the landowners.

In forestry, the importance of diversity leading to more resistance is well established. Diversity, not only in trees, shrubs and herbs, but also in structure, leads to more habitats that can accommodate more predators and parasites of potential pests, and also alternative hosts for the predators and parasites. Simplifying the forests in ways that reduce these habitats and the species that fill them creates opportunities for more serious damage from pests, such as the spruce budworm. Seeing pests as the “enemy” takes responsibility from the manager who created the habitats that the “pests” fill and who, at the same time, reduced the natural controls of these pest species.

Organic farmers look at “pests” from a different perspective. When organic farmers encounter pests, they tend to ask different questions besides “what is the most potent weapon against this enemy?” They instead might ask, “Why is this insect, weed or disease here in numbers that threaten my crops? What can I do that will strengthen the health of the crops so that they are more resistant to the ‘pest’?”

The organic approach is usually not to totally eradicate a “pest,” but, rather, to lessen its economic impact through cultural, physical, or biological means. The first step is to understand the “pest” – its life cycles and needs. This might lead to breaking up monocultures, adding companion plants, changing the timing of planting or tilling, or introducing a specific disease or predator of the pest.

Organic farmers still need to directly kill pests, but the philosophy is to use a stiletto rather than a scythe – the approach should be to avoid broad spectrum pesticides that kill more than just the pest. Organic farmers are concerned over the consequences of pest control. They look for means of dealing with pests that avoid flareback and secondary outbreaks. They also do not want to end their battle against a pest by poisoning their own soil, air and water. The idea is to farm as if the future mattered. Indeed, organic farmers welcome the sight of predators, such as dragonflies, that can naturally reduce the potential of pest problems. Perhaps organic farming could be used as a metaphor for issues other than farming ….

MOF&G Cover Winter 2001-2002