The Gardener's Trap

Humanity has convenience and choice to such a point it borders on vice. Humanity assumes, due to said convenience and choice being an easy-to-digest abstraction over the complex reality of the world (along with the systems we build to deal with the complex reality), that the convenience and choice is simply a fact of reality that cannot be contested. Concisely: Since convenience and choice is delivered in an easy format, it’s easy to simply assume that it’ll be there due to its prevalence in society.

This fact is often understood, to some degree, by most people. Everyone knows that it’s complex to get food around and, when pressed, they likely can come up with some story about how the food they eat got into their plate that holds some level of complexity. People who work with food on a daily basis, cooks and grocers, likely can tell a more complex story than the average person as well. The most complex stories can likely be told by supply-chain managers and farmers, who directly deal with the process on the most primitive level: These people deal with the unabstracted facts of nature that humanity likes to smooth over with systems that are easier to understand.

The farmers and supply chain managers are the most in touch with the reality of food production than your average merchant, and absolutely more than your average consumer. They have exponentially more understanding over the fragility of their trade, and the fragility of the systems build upon their trade by proxy. Farming especially is foundational to human civilization, and has been since the time of the Agricultural revolution. Yet, the common understanding of how even local, sustenance farming works is all out of wack for normal people. They’re in the mindset of comfort of convenience, and thus bring to the table that mindset when learning about the process of agriculture. In effect, this taints the understanding of agriculture by the normal person: Normal people are so used to the human abstractions over agriculture (namely grocers and merchants) that they assume that agriculture itself is as easy to bend as the human abstractions they’re familiar with, and isn’t subject to the whims of natural law.

This mentality is best exemplified by the assumptions of new gardeners and their families.


I am a new gardener, only growing now for 2 years. When I first got into the trade, I came in with some preconceptions about how growing worked. The most insidious of which was that I assumed that I could bend agriculture to my favor and that I didn’t have to bend to its. What this means, pragmatically, is that I chose the food I wanted to grow, and attempted to create the conditions for said food growth, rather than letting the conditions of food growth choose what I grew.

I live in a humid, hot area where summer often brings weather in the 100s of degrees Fahrenheit, and where the growing season can seep into November for hardier plants. This climate dictates a very specific type of plant growth: bending towards tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, corn, and maybe melons (depending on the amount of water in a season). I unfortunately chose Onions, beets, and garlic as some of my first plants to plant.

This year, I corrected my mistake, but made another: I did not prepare over the winter in a robust enough way. The lining on my plot was not great, the dirt was full of weeds, and the choice of plants, while reasonable, was not as honed to my climate as it should have been. Part of that was due to improper tooling, part of that was out of a lack of backing by another person who said they’d help, and another part of that was mere inexperience. Still, some mentality remained about being able to easily bend natural law to human will, namely with attempting to grow lettuce in a horrifically hot climate.

These mistakes were not rooted in stupidity, quite the contrary even. It was a principled mistake based off bad wisdom that always worked in other contexts. I assumed that given I filled out a checklist of requirements for growth (such as PH, fertilization, sunlight availability, and water intake), I would get the crop I wanted in the way I wanted. I was never informed on the natural parts of the ordeal I would be battling with, such as the specific types of vermin that lived in my area that attacked my plants, and the specific weather patterns in my area as it related to heat and humidity. These were aspects that I assumed would be dealt with simply by following a human-constructed checklist provided to me.

Bad Wisdom; Bad analogy

Now maybe you can get say my checklist was bad, I was an idiot for using it, and that this is all one big cope for how I’m just stupid and should kill myself for making such an obvious mistake, but that mentality is both fatalistic, by assuming mistakes necessarily imply stupidity, and counter-productive for generating wisdom: It merely assumes stupidity, when the problem at hand is fundamental to the human condition and fixable (which is quite the knowledge gain from putting some plants in the dirt).

The problem comes from bad wisdom and bad analogizing that is brought about by the way we live our lives currently. Humans these days sustain themselves by directly interfacing with human institutions and structures rather than directly interfacing with the natural world. The natural world requires a monumental amount of effort to exercise control over, something that no individual can do on their own (you can’t change the climate of your region with merely your hands, and you cannot eradicate all pests with them either). Human institutions on the other hand, are very malleable when human will is applied. If an individual wants to change how available food is to themselves, they merely have to increase the amount of money they have to spend on the food. Comparatively, to increase the amount of food is available when dealing directly in nature requires the entire process of agriculture, which on an individual level, usually just amounts to raising more plants during a growing season.

Getting more money is hard, yes, but you can sell items, time, or services to do that. It’s an atomized decision that has few brokering parties influencing the decision. For most decisions: a money provider, a money recipient, and a middle-man court to settle any disputes of the terms of exchanging the money are all that are required to obtain the resources needed to obtain more food. Not only are there few parties, the few parties are somewhat reasonable, you can argue your case to any of them and possibly, using words alone, get your way. On the other hand, planting more plants is making a deal that involves the unreasonable parties of pests, disease, weather, genetics, along with your own effort. The conditionals for working with raw nature are not only more abundant, but they’re more unreasonable and chaotic. You can’t debate your way out of a coyote murdering your chickens, and you can’t argue with locusts devouring your fruit. At least in a court of law, you could potentially make a case for why your side is right using a set of well-understood rules. With dealing with nature, you’re subject to the chaotic natural law of reality without any abstractions or logic to help you simplify the ordeal. The only saving grace is that force and violence are valid tools when working with nature.

Force and violence are necessary for agriculture to work. You must ensure that your crops will be safe by removing weeds and deterring pests. You have to use force to build up protection and walls against the outside world that wishes to harness your work for themselves. Sometimes you have to chase down herbivores with a shovel to scare them away from your food (or ideally to turn them into more food). More often however, you have to plan your crop’s foray into uncontrolled nature by studying said nature and submitting yourself to its patterns and whims. No amount of autistic engineering on your part can change the fact that it’s going to be 112 degrees during the month of July, and your lettuce is going to suffer for it if you don’t plan around that.

This mentality of using force and violence to get your way is utterly frowned upon in modern society. You simply can’t force your way into a business deal without expecting a bullet in your head from the local court system. Similarly, you can’t just build up the business you want to get your way without going through a nightmare of paperwork. While yes the paperwork does suck, it is possible to do it in an atomistic fashion. The only people involved in a paperwork job is yourself and the paperwork recipient after all, and better yet, there’s rules and structure to that paperwork that, while overwhelming, can be sorted out given time. Does that mean that the paperwork is good? Probably not. The Darwinistic competition and violence of nature can sometimes be more merciful than the crushing autism of human constructs.


Still, that’s a large aside. The point is that new gardeners, like myself, assume that the rules of agriculture are constructed, built off checklists, and malleable like the rules humans make. This wisdom works well in most situations, but totally fails when you get to something as raw and real as agriculture, which answers to no human whims, merely nature itself. This is what is meant by a principled mistake: it’s the application of the wrong principles to a situation that needs another set of principles. People aren’t stupid for doing this, just ignorant. Thankfully, ignorance is curable with wisdom. However, for that wisdom to be valuable it must be principled wisdom. Knowing the core reason why agriculture is different from other human activities is paramount to succeeding in agriculture. Unprincipled wisdom, while practical, is an incomplete picture that can lead to cargo culting behavior, which in the case of agriculture, can lead to failure as well (i.e not knowing why to water a plant, and overdoing it at the wrong times).

Wisdom itself, these days, is very hard to come by. We’re multiple generations into living in an industrialized world where most people don’t farm. We’re so far in at this point that most of the American economy isn’t built off of direct collection or processing of resources, but rather maintaining human abstraction over the collection and distribution of these resources (This is what the “service economy” is after all). This makes learning about these things hard, and only able to be done by actually doing them. It’s better to learn now while there’s still some stability than learn later as everything starts breaking down, so I would suggest the best way to learn would be to start. Also, organizing, categorizing, and discussing facts with fellow growers about agriculture-by-region would be helpful for building up a strong wisdom base.

Along with this, adopting knowledge about the non-abstracted, raw, natural way that things are created would help to dispel much of this harmful, human structure-centric “wisdom” that permeates people’s minds. People are trained from birth to mentally operate within a human construct that they just assume will always exist. This is not a healthy or stable way to live life because, overwhelmingly, all things that currently exist are based off interaction with the natural world, and thus are ultimately subject to natural law and all the chaos that can bring. The more one understands the fragility of human constructs, the more you will not assume they’re guarantees, and in fact, appreciate that they’re there. Not only this, fundamental understanding of the natural world can lead to new human constructs being built to serve humanity’s needs. Alternatively, restructuring current structures to be less fragile, and more in line with how things operate in the natural world.