Ants are farmers! Who knew?

This summer I’ve been re-reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, and it’s been helping me become more patient with the people who aren’t as deeply invested as I want them to be in building up our little grocery store into a stronger alternative to the supermarket-centered food economy.

It takes me a long time to get through this book. I love every chapter in it, but I can’t read too many of them at once. They feel like lessons that need to be pondered and absorbed, and as with any real learning, this is a process that often ends up unsettling things I already knew. Kimmerer pushes me toward a radical attentiveness that makes it impossible to weed the garden or stack wood or eat a salad without asking not only about my relation to the plants involved but also what they might be trying to tell or teach me.

That kind of attention is exhausting, and I can’t always manage it. Gradually, over time, nudged by people like Kimmerer, I’m beginning to deepen my awareness of what’s going on around me in the so-called “natural” world, and to recognize more of a direct relationship with at least some of it.

This summer I’ve been coming to a kind of mutual arrangement with the ants who want to attach aphids to the leaves of the sunflowers in my garden so they can drink the nectar that the aphids secrete. Ants are farmers! They cultivate livestock! This is amazing. I used to try to get rid of all the ants, but they seem to confine their operations to just one leaf per plant if the plant is healthy. So my job is to keep the plants healthy, and then we can all get along.

Lately I’ve been noticing ants cultivating little colonies of other critters on different plants, which is making me think I should find out a lot more about ants. The thing is, I can’t follow every strand of inquiry. There’s a lot else to do. Sometimes I just want to pull weeds or work on the woodpile and not think too much about it. The kind of ecological knowledge that Kimmerer has, or that good regenerative farmers have, is deep, broad, slow, generational, all-absorbing. You have to give it the time it needs.

For whatever reason, I’ve felt committed to giving this whole alternative-to-the-supermarket-economy puzzle the time it needs. And it is all-absorbing — it invades my life and makes a lot of demands that aren’t always fun or even possible. But in a weird and somewhat nerdy way, I love working on it. It has me firing on all my political and intellectual and biological and social cylinders in a way that nothing else ever has.

The early phase of the COVID-19 pandemic showed us that when the fragilities of our long-distance food chains were exposed, a lot more people suddenly became much more attentive and engaged. That moment seems to have passed now, and lately I’ve been frustrated by the sense that maybe nothing has really changed as a result of it.

Re-reading Braiding Sweetgrass — or rather, my own sense of exhaustion and guilt at realizing what it would actually take for me to enter into the kind of active, reciprocal relationship with all of creation that Kimmerer illuminates so beautifully in the book — reminds me to be patient with shoppers who just want to get the items on their list and go home. I urgently want them to know and care much more, but I also get that not everyone wants — or is able — to devote a lot of energy to getting deeply involved with the inner workings of their food supply chains. Or maybe they’re not able to do it right at the moment.

Ultimately all of the big, urgent questions about ethical eating, economic justice, racial equity, and ecological stability converge around these slow processes of cultivating attentiveness, inquiry, and relationship. I find my way into this through the grocery store, but there are a lot of points of entry. It’s useful and humbling to be reminded of how much there is to be done, and how essential it is to take hold of whatever piece of it keeps you fired up and engaged along the way.

9 months ago

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