Saltspring Island, BC -- It was at 7 am, preparing breakfast, that I suddenly saw the light.
My daughter and I, WWOOFers (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) here at Stowel Lake Farm, are picking from a huge patch of blackberries nestled around an outcropping of rock about 100 feet from our cabin.
I fill two cereal bowls with berries without changing my place because of a trick I figured out for spotting more abundance in the form of low-lying fruit. If you lightly bob the branches, you can see the berries lurking in the shadows, as plump and juicy as any despite the lack of direct sun. That doubles the number of berries I find in one place, just by looking past what's staring me in the face.
There should be a parable of the blackberries, I think. Seeing things in the right light or rather, in the right mix of light, shadow and angle is central to the awareness of abundance.
Abundance, not scarcity, was once the starting point of environmental thinking. There is "enough for everyone's need, but not for some people's greed," Mahatma Gandhi used to say.
Despite or rather because of all the mayhem, misfortune and tragic need in today's world, the potential for abundance needs to frame the basic organizing principles of modern societies. When scarcity becomes the starting point for how people and institutions are organized, it fulfils its own prophecy.
Farms are a good place to think through such promising and practical issues.
Saltspring Island has enough wild berries to give all residents their pick of cereal or dessert fruit in August, with enough left over for either blackberry port or jam for everyone into the winter. Good news, right? No.
Business looks gloomy for berry farmers across the Pacific Northwest of Washington and British Columbia, heartland of North America's commercial berry industry. According to the front-page story in August's regional edition of Country Life, berry producers are looking at their worst year since the disastrous early 1990s, unless they're saved by the June cold snap followed by a heat wave in Serbia, the world's prime source of cheap berries.
Praise nature! I have seen the light! Seen from the vantage point of farmers in globally competitive markets, nature's bounty is a curse, trigger for a glut and competitive price collapse. It's the very opposite of what we might expect abundance as a cause for celebration, well-wishing and sharing.
The dark shadows and immovable branches of global competition hide the abundance that should be in plain sight. "Nature provides, "man' divides" is how the old folk saying had it. To gain enlightenment, we need a more local and close-up perspective.
Every farm chore I do that day confirms what I picked up before breakfast. The field supervisor, Rebecca, asks Anika and me to collect basil for sale at the farm stand that afternoon. Basil is one of many plants that can be harvested with "cut and come again" methods that mock the economic "law of diminishing returns."
Rebecca shows us how to use our fingernails to clip below this week's clump of leaves and just above next week's, which is set to reach out as soon as the sun shines in. Even a klutz like me can learn this method, which means that we can use something without using it up. Cut and come again doesn't reduce the resource, but renews and releases its full potential.
We can harvest most of our salad ingredients, from greens to tomatoes, on a cut and come again basis, which is also ideal for urban agriculture, where the space for each plant is at a premium. Thinning out commonly done with carrots and onions is really a version of cut and come again, since it allows the harvest of baby carrots while providing space for bigger ones later in the season. Smart farming is really about managing for abundance.
Since sore backs are the mother of invention, a two-hour stretch of weeding helps me think of other ways to increase the stock of the world while cutting and coming again. We're clearing weeds that are smothering carrots, but no matter how aggressively we cut out the fast-growing lambs quarters, chickweed and purslane, there's no doubt they also exemplify cut and come again.
We already try to treat weeds as if they're differently abled rather than evil. We wheelbarrow them over to the chickens, who subsequently lay eggs enriched with omega-3 fatty acids. We use other weeds as mulch between rows, cutting back on evaporation. But Suzanna, who comes to volunteer at the farm once a week, teaches us to munch on the weeds, all of which are as nutritious as any garden salad. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth, as we farmers like to say.
The problem is that the leaves on these weeds are way too small ever to be harvested productively. The solution to that problem, my sore back immediately explains, is to give these cut-and-come-again weeds some breeding so they develop bigger leaves that can be harvested.
If only corporate plant science saw weed abundance as something to work with rather than compete against, we could transform a lot of the painful stoop labour of fruit and vegetable farming, which is still paying indemnities for Jehovah's anger at Adam and Eve.
You'll recall, no doubt, the passage in Genesis where Jehovah kicks them out of the weedless garden of Paradise and makes Eve's descendants suffer painful childbirth and domination by men, while Adam's descendants suffer an endless battle with thistles and thorns and weeds so that "in the sweat of your face, you will eat bread."
Not seeing weeds as part of abundance runs pretty deep in some cultures.
Afternoon sales at the farm stand go well. Most of the customers are locals. Some, I suspect, come because Lisa, the farm owner, regularly donates meeting space to workshops, public meetings and yoga and Buddhist meditation practices. This, of course, is generosity that can be cut and comes round again as reciprocity the kind of Buddhist economics Fritz Schumacher, author of the famed Small Is Beautiful, talked about some 30-odd years ago.
Today I feel such abundance lies in waiting everywhere, waiting for us to see past the glare and shadows in our mind's eye that keep us from seeing what's really in front of us.