Farmer Sledge

  • Beyond Reason – leaps and gestalts

    There is much more to Kierkegaardian leaps than arguing with vegan absolutists. Our minds make non-rational leaps far more than we might think. Stories circulate about people from primitive societies that initially cannot process what a photograph represents. Having no prior experience with two dimensional objects representing three dimensions in such detail, they initially see random lines and shapes even if the photograph is of completely familiar objects or of their own faces. I had the parallel experience when I first saw the computer-generated 3-D pictures made with dots. It took a good long while before my eyes sort of blurred and suddenly an eagle or a boat or whatever seemed to emerge from the picture. We think nothing of interpreting a photograph, but every time we see a picture our brain has to see the pattern and make the leap from the second dimension to the third. In philosophical circles this is called a gestalt. Gestalt literally means ‘pattern’ but is typically explained by saying the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    Gestalt patterns and leaps are not solely functions of the mind. I have already written about supersaturated solutions that need a catalyst to provoke the leap from a liquid state to the solid crystallization. Quantum physics understands that electrons leap from one state of energy to another pretty much instantaneously. Biologically, science now understands that our bodies are more pattern than an aggregate of limbs, organs, blood and chemicals. In fact, our bodies are many different patterns interconnected into a larger pattern. I have heard that it takes about 7 years for all our cells to have been completely replaced with new ones. Whether it is the skin exfoliating or the more dramatic case of liver re-growing itself, our DNA holds the patterns of the different parts. We literally are not the same physical person we were as kids. All our cells have been replaced numerous times. What is continuous is the pattern, the gestalt. It is noteworthy that cancer occurs when old or damaged cells that would normally be replaced do not die. They mutate instead. They can also begin trying to change the existing pattern and start reproducing other cells based on their deformed pattern thus creating tumors and such. I believe this is a good reminder for a culture (not just the vegan) that is abnormally fearful of pain and death.

    Understanding the world as intricate and interwoven patterns is in stark contrast to the enlightenment, mechanistic worldview that reduces and fragments everything into individual, atomistic parts. As Wendell Berry says, it is the exploitive mind that divides and conquers. This is the context in which Berry criticizes specialization so harshly. The factory mentality is structured on fragmentation where the work is divided into individual, repetitive, and separate acts. Only such a reductionist mentality could conceive of monocrops and massive feedlots, as if plants and animals grow in a vacuum separate from any pattern or system. This is the worldview that speaks in terms of yield, mechanical efficiency, energy consumption, and waste. The language of gestalts is chiefly concerned with how things are interrelated. And when things relate to each other within their proper niches, suddenly we have language that speaks of synergy and emergence. A creative process where you are never quite sure what will leap or emerge out of the patterns. This is also why diversification is not just an economical strategy of mitigating risk—it is the strength and health of synergistic systems. A multi-species farm recognizes that animal species interact with one another, that interact with many different vegetation species, that interacts with a soil, that, when healthy, is as complex and diversified as anything above ground. The skill and challenge for the farmer is how best to organize these patterns for optimal health and sustainable productivity.

    I want to end with one more everyday example of gestalt that I find very encouraging:

    Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a  toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by itslef but the wrod as a wlohe.


    This is a testimony to the power of gestalt that still works when things are not perfect. If you can get some basic principles right, analogous to the first and last letters, even if you screw up so many of the details in between, good things can still happen. These last thirteen years on the farm have been full of learning curve after learning curve. The complexity and the numerous professional hats we have to don to keep astride the system quickly shines a light on all that we don’t know. We will always be learning and trying to spell out ‘words’ more and more correctly, but it is nice to know we can still do some good even if we don’t get all the details quite right.

  • The Limits of Reason – pt. 2

    A ridiculously prolific writer, Kierkegaard is often considered the father of existentialism. He eschewed the absolutism of broad philosophical explanatory systems and put the onus on the individual to pursue meaning and truth. In an oversimplification of his works, one could say Kierkegaard believed we looked at life through at least three different frameworks; namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. For my purposes, I am not interested in the categories, but rather the mechanism of moving from one perspective to the other. This is the context for Kierkegaard’s famous leap of faith. Each stage is broader and truer than the next, but from the perspective of the lower stages, the higher ones look paradoxical and contradictory. Reason cannot be your guide, and Kierkegaard goes as far as to say there has to be a death and denial of your reasoning for the leap to occur into a broader perspective. Once in a higher stage, one can look back in retrospect and see the reason and rationality of what one believes, but this is only after the leap.

    So what is the incentive for the leap? Let me turn to another religious writer who was a mystic at heart. In Orthodoxy G. K. Chesterton writes:

                    “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason… [His] explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable… If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours…

                    “Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as had supposed… his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large… the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction… I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument.

                    “In these cases it is not enough that the unhappy man should desire truth; he must desire health… A man cannot think himself out of mental evil; for it is actually the organ of thought that has become diseased, ungovernable, and, as it were, independent. He can only be saved by will or faith. The moment his mere reason moves, it moves in the old circular rut; he will go round and round his logical circle, just as a man in a third-class carriage on the Inner Circle will go round and round the Inner Circle unless he performs the voluntary, vigorous, and mystical act of getting out at Gower Street.”

    These witty passages speak for themselves, but how might this apply to Mr. Kip Andersen? From my perspective, those who are vegans solely on moral grounds of killing animals have shrunk their world to one that no longer fits in the systems of Nature. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they place themselves in the wrong niche for reasons that Nature has never acknowledged.  The truth is we are not very efficient vegans. Our protein needs as a vegan are met in creative ways, often requiring products like soy that are almost exclusively grown in unsustainable, monocrop systems. Yet even if you managed to eat vegan in the most responsible way, you will never match the efficiency of a ruminant and her four-chambered stomach who feeds off a perennial ecosystem. Even if only at a subconscious level, I imagine there is some sort of discord felt when in the wrong niche. I felt it keenly in the film when Kip was pleased to present a company that was making meat-like products from vegetable bases for much less energy loss than typical meat production. Great! Not doing as much damage… Yet when in the right niche, Nature is not about mitigating damage, but synergistically creating abundance; like the ruminant in her grass-based ecosystem.

    The other obvious discord is a moral standard that is contrary to Nature’s essential mechanisms. As I have said elsewhere, eating is Nature’s currency. As essential as the ruminant is to keep her ecosystem healthy, if her population is allowed to run rampant and grow out of proper proportion to her ecosystem, she becomes the destructive force that we are all so aware of. This is true from areas of desertification to riparian health in areas of high rainfall. Nature keeps this balance by somebody higher up the food chain eating the ruminant that has thrived off of the abundance of the whole system. Yet if the anti-killing vegan remains consistent, eventually the animals they claim to revere will one day come under their judgement, except for (ironically) ruminants perhaps. From the wolf pack, to the beloved whales, down to the lady bug that eats aphids, these predators, by definition are morally inferior to all plant-life and herbivores. Clearly this is an example of Chesterton’s combination of logical completeness and spiritual contraction. Surely there has to be some uncomfortable disconnect when it is argued that eating animals is wrong because it harms animals that eat animals.

    My strategy, in confronting vegans that proclaim people such as me as addicted killers of sentient beings, would be to emphasize that I’m part of a greater system that has been around since the beginning. They have the freedom and the right to believe Nature does not know what she is doing, but is that healthy? Is it enjoyable? Can you even feel connected to this world outside of man-made communities? The Gnosticism that claims we, with our rational minds, are separate and superior to the world of biology and no longer sees ourselves as animals and thus claims to be exempt from Nature’s patterns and rules, has a long history of producing people that feel existentially bankrupt. Is that really a tradition vegans want to embrace and be a part of? Mind you, veganism is not inherently wrong. There may be many localities where it is the least harmful way of life in our screwed up system. Or even simply because you personally don’t like the thought of killing animals—still not a problem. But to claim its moral superiority by placing a moral injunction against killing strikes me as a classic spiritual contraction.

    I don’t want suffocation, I desire synergy. I don’t want simply mitigation, I desire abundance. I’m not looking to assuage my guilt, I desire health. I don’t even have to have the higher moral ground, I desire connection and a sense of belonging to my world around me. That world does not just include my fellow women and men, but the animals, the grass and the soil as well.

  • The Limits of Reason – pt. 1

    “Figures never lie, but liars always figure…”

    I finally watched the ‘documentary’ Cowspiracy.  What a shame as it had such potential to expose how destructive modern agriculture is today.  At first I thought it not worth even critiquing as any high school student could point out its numerous flaws and heavy-handed techniques.  It should not surprise me how something so unprofessional can have such an impact, but I could hardly believe how many claims were made without rigorous fact-checking.  I thought it bad enough when Kip Anderson came up with random statistics (popping up on screen over his thinking head) where he calculated you needed 10 acres per grass-fed cow.  Almost laughed when his ‘back-yard farmer’ was some suburbanite duck hobbyist who wasn’t all too comfortable at killing his flock.  But when he began showing images of animal suffering whenever he talked to or about someone he disagreed with, I got downright pissed.  He wasn’t just using vilification techniques when interviewing someone who defended factory farming, but Alan Savory was dismissed as an elephant killer so that the ‘documentary’ could go on its merry way without addressing significant issues of animal-driven answers to climate change.

    Like I said, hardly worth giving the film enough credit to even engage with it.  But it got me thinking about why so often the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, and why people who care about important issues can have such myopic vision.  How we approach issues depends on our worldview, and our worldview often is based on a few non-negotiables.  It became quite clear early in the film that a non-negotiable for Kip was the killing of animals.  The poor guy was torn up after watching two ducks get slaughtered with a hatchet.  Can’t imagine how he would feel if he ever watched a pride of lions take down a large animal that puts up a fight for hours before succumbing to its wounds.  And I find this non-negotiable the case for far too many vegans.  Damage to the environment typically feels like a convenient argument to bolster their claim that we should not kill animals.

    The interesting thing about non-negotiables is that we cannot be reasoned out of them.  Check out any discussion of a polarized issue and you will quickly see how impotent reason truly is.  Despite all the arguments made, I think many people subconsciously realize how ineffective reasoning is when engaging their adversary, and consequently most discussions dissolve into name-calling.  Any chink in the armor is quickly patched up by going back to your respective camp and getting affirmation at how right your own worldview is.  This is true whether your non-negotiable is about not killing or if you believe animals are essential to sustainable agriculture.  True whether you believe we have a right to fly any flag, or that the confederate flag is inescapably racist.  True whether you believe abortion is murder or that women’s reproductive rights are essential.  Whether government is solely for infrastructure and military purposes or whether part of its responsibility is caring for the poor.  You get my point.  Not only is our ability to see the world through the eyes of others typically abysmal, but our interaction discussing any of these dynamite issues tends to polarize camps even further.

    This is not to say we shouldn’t strive to make our positions as reasonable as possible and back our claims up with scientific stats etc…  Every one of Kip Andersen’s claims and stats have been refuted and properly nuanced by people much more knowledgeable than me, and it is important to hear those arguments, but such reasoning will not convince many Vegans; certainly not a single soul who holds fast to the creed that we should never kill animals. They will cling to their stats and we will cling to ours.

    So how do we approach someone on the other side of a chasm?  Philosophy has a few things to say about this. To be continued…

  • Are Cow Farts Really the Issue?

    Now and then I run across the question of ruminants contributing to climate change in regards to methane. It’s an odd question at best, and I find it very indicative of our compartmentalizing, reductionist world view. It is ever so common to see people run figures and stats with a very myopic understanding of the issue, connecting dots in only the most simplistic and linear fashion. Enteric fermentation, otherwise known to the normal person as farts from a ruminant, is a classic example of data utterly divorced from the system as a whole. Not surprising in the least, seen as the most guilty ruminant of methane farts, the cow, has itself been completely divorced from her ecosystem, thrown into feedlots or giant milking barns where her essential role in the ecosystem has not only been rendered obsolete, but has been morphed into a detrimental problem with negative consequences. Let me break it down a bit.

    When I go to the EPA website, ( I find these statistics. Methane accounts for 10% of USA greenhouse gas emissions. That 10% is broken down into a pie chart as follows:

    • 29% Natural Gas & Petroleum Systems
    • 26% Enteric Fermentation
    • 18% Landfills
    • 10% Coal Mining
    • 10% Manure Management
    • 8% Other

    Even though gas and petroleum systems is the largest chunk of the pie, the manure management gets paired with enteric fermentation as the agricultural percentage and suddenly domestic animals are causing 36% of our methane emissions. Manure management is the euphemism for excrement lagoons or other large masses of animal feces that are gathered together as “waste” and the anaerobic conditions allow the methane to build up and emit as gas. In classic reductionist form, the answer to this problem is not to question the system, but to build yet another technologically complicated contraption that gathers the methane, pipes it to some engine that has the capacity to convert the gas into usable energy. (Remember Mad Max and the Thunder Dome anyone?) This is in contrast to a well-managed pasture that has not been subjected to chemical fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides which all do heavy damage to the essential ecosystem that goes on below ground in the soil. Healthy soil, among a gazillion other things, has methanatrophic bacteria, which (low and behold) breaks down the methane in the manure.

    But that still leaves you with that quarter of a pie piece made from ruminant farts. And this is where you get suggestions ranging from feeding the cows more grain so they ruminate less to denouncing beef and dairy altogether as a pollution source. At this point, I either laugh or cry at the sheer blindness of our whole agricultural worldview. An analogy that comes to mind is of a serious biker that wants to reduce the weight she has to carry and propel. Caught up in the spirit of reducing weight, she sees the chain is made of fairly heavy metal and decides that this heavy thing has gotta go. The ruminant, when in her proper ecological niche, is as essential as the chain to make grass-based ecosystems work. I have argued in an earlier post that our pasture is an unmatched solar panel. Grassland soil is also a phenomenal carbon sequestering system in the form of humus. And the ruminant can keep this whole system healthy without the input of oil-dependent grain. I can’t think of a more beneficial and sustainable animal for the farm.

    Yet when I look at a random guide to eating meat in an environmentally conscious way, I find that beef and lamb are considered the worst choices. (#@!#$^%&*???!!!) Don’t just throw the chain out, I think those wheels are looking kind of heavy as well!! Our biggest expense by far on our farm is feed costs—even with government subsidies of grain. We’re pretty happy if we can get chickens or hogs to get 25% of their feed intake from the pasture. Like getting their green veggies. The pasture intake is vital for the health benefits and taste in pasture-raised meat. But as omnivores without 4-chambered stomachs, poultry and hogs need grain to sustain their high production. Omnivores do not have near the capacity to convert pasture into meat like ruminants. Our sheep, on the other hand, are 100% grass-fed. Green pasture and supplemental hay in the winter from our own pastures is all they get. (Actually to be completely literally true, we do give them mineral supplements for salt and vital trace minerals. So make that 99.9999% grass-fed.) Daily rotations for the sheep are a lot of work, but we cut out literal tons of input, all while ameliorating our carbon-sequestering solar panel. Nature has used ruminants by the millions to be a driving force in creating and maintaining healthy ecosystems. Methane emissions were never a problem until the industrial revolution. My money is on Nature knowing what works best, and I plan on mimicking her as best as I can on our farm.