02 Agriculture is Terraforming
Agriculture has always terraformed but it is not only food and landscapes that are produced. For thousands of years, farmers have collected rain tables, seed cycles, and lunar charts in almanacs: portable databases of earth science and prediction modelling that standardized agricultural practice and became sites for speculation about man’s place within the cosmos.
Almanacs were, in a sense, the first attempt at a plan: proto-computational devices that encoded observation and practice into a systematic, artificial intelligence. When crop rotation, irrigation and domesticated cattle were adopted in Ancient China, the Indus Valley, Mesoamerica and Mesopotamia, they brought writing, taxation, urban settlement, and labor specialization with them, establishing dietary staples and farming models that remain in place today. In Sumeria, cereals were offered to the gods and stored in granaries outside the temple. When the gods didn’t eat, the people did, establishing a connection between ritual ingestion and societal complexity that persists at every kind of table.
We regulate our bodies, our lives, and the environment by eating. Grocery shopping, food preparation, and scheduled meal times represent a metabolic bureaucratism that we employ in the service of communal and self-administration. As a result, the transformation and ingestion of food is intrinsically linked with how we understand time (as well as how we regulate labour, social roles or simply who gets to be where when.) The structural intricacies of the bourgeois dining experience, itself a historical agglomeration of pseudo-aristocratic signalling fused with a fantasy of languid ruralism, has been interrupted by the chronological smoothie of an “always on, flexible and albiently present” globalised work culture.
It may be a stretch to say that eating is resistance – given the fact that so much earth-oriented consumerism and dietary practice is simply thinking the world of oneself in disguise – yet eating remains the primary means by which we seek to orient ourselves in time and space. So afraid are we of the void that lies behind these routines we have put the planet on our clock. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty describes precisely this hijacking of geological time, aligning planetary geophysics with the short-term cycles of intelligent apes. Integral to this process has been the cultivators, ploughs and crop dusters, centrifugal seeders and drones, multispectral satellites and other tech used to sense and shape the soil and oceans for food. And yet humans have spent 95 percent of their career on earth as hunter-gatherers, familiar with an encyclopedia of naturally occurring edible plants, mushrooms, and seeds. Who has the right to say we cannot live according to a different clock?
The textureless face and blade-like edges of corn and cattle fields are a portrait of our current relationship to food: outdated modes of production kept alive by zombie payments despite the protests of almost all stakeholders. If we lack the imagination to upend the present we cannot expect much from the future. Elon Musk’s 2017 keynote on Mars colonization revealed an orderly if predictable series of agricultural projections. Diets are protocols for transformation but they are also codes for the production of identity. What would it mean for our food futures to look less like the uninterrupted surfaces of Dragon’s cockpit and more like the messy but productive garden that is the condition of real eating, digestion, and biodiversity? What might this resemble?
There are already glimpses on earth. Chernozem, or “Black Earth,” is the most fertile soil on the planet. It can be found in southern Russia, on the Canadian Prairies, and the Amazon Basin where it is known as Terra Preta. Terra Preta is dense in mineral and microbial life. It is resilient and regenerative, and was anthropogenically formed when indigenous farmers threw bones, waste, and shattered pottery outside their homes and enhanced the dark soil with charcoal. Black soil, then, is artificial: a process of terra-formation that was managed, designed and beneficial to humans and the land. Is it a model for a different kind of chemical imaginary, one that is striated not smooth – productive and regenerative. It is essential because now another clock is now ticking.