Ge-stalt – noun – an organized whole that is conceived as more than the sum of it’s parts.
No where among our current modern practices is something more out of whack than agriculture. If you were going to present a full thesis documenting how humanities intelligence has led the species astray in the twentieth century you would have no finer example than industrial farming methods. You would also have no better argument to draw upon for your thesis then the destruction of the Gestalt. The Gestalt is the concept of the indivisible whole. Of course we conceive of things being made of other, smaller things in often very practical ways, but the Gestalt is the concept that reminds us that without all the pieces the thing is no longer the thing.
For example, what is a chicken? Well, in modern terms a chicken is an egg-laying, or egg-producing (to carry it further), machine. If this point of view is accepted (and of course dominantly, it is) then it makes logical sense to confine chickens to maximize their volume and the production of their mechanical output. To view a chicken with a Gestalt in mind renders the bigger, more fuzzy picture, of an animal that moves, pecks, sees differently between it’s left and right eyes, responds to a host of signals from it’s flock mates, particularly based on gender dynamics, and can often behave in unexpected ways.
An easier example of the Gestalt perhaps is when you consider a song you love. Take apart the song to measures and notes and eventually you have all the parts with which you could write an infinite number of songs, but the song you love is lost. The Gestalt, even when humanity rejects it, still protrudes. This is the reason why human beings have difficulty accepting that chickens are machines, and this is the reason that industrial producers sometimes loose heart in treating animals as such.
Sadly warfare is the closest equivalent to the dehumanizing nature of industrial agriculture. Reducing subjects to objects, understanding factories by output and not by human relationship, confining without mercy, killing without pity and laying waste to vast tracks of the planet. The Gestalt demands the mind fully account for all the variables at play within it, reject the concept of acceptable externalities, and the acceptance of anomalies that are difficult or impossible to explain. A good example of reckoning with a Gestalt is to make a drive in a heavily commercialized area. Not like downtown Providence where art is mingled with architecture, living spaces and commercial spaces. I mean an ugly environment, like Route Two in Warwick or West Main Road in Middletown. In such a place people inherently perceive ugliness, it is no longer a subjective “eye of the beholder” phenomenon, except in the rare case where profit motivation is considered. The only person who finds a car dealership beautiful is the one who profits from it. The Gestalt of the landscape is nearly wholly obliterated, waiting under the concrete and stucco to be rediscovered.
Commercialism is not itself the sin, just as raising animals for food is not wrong. In fact the phrase “raising animals for food” is itself against the Gestalt. Any small scale stock person, and many large scale ones, you meet will eventually show you what really motivates their work: a joy of seeing animals thriving on their farms, seeing whole landscapes respond to healthy practices, knowing that what we blandly call “food” is an amalgamation of billions of organisms competing and benefiting from each others presence. Human beings are one of those countless creatures involved in our food supply. The “consumer” (and how does the Gestalt like this term, do you think?) benefits from the nourishment of the meat, the vegetable, the egg, the grain, but even more they are preserved by the environment the farmer has created, or molded from the clay of creation. The Gestalt of the community is unfinished without living landscapes. And when the farmer learns your first name you are no longer a consumer but more a responsibility, a friend, eventually even family. So many titles, like “employee” or “boss” are removed from the Gestalt and can inhibit the development of relationships like I mentioned.
So much of our world is dominated by the powers of reductionism. The thing that passes for work for many of us is also atomized into a disembodied loop. Many of those who do work within context of the Gestalt are often charged with reparative work. People like my wife who’s job as a psychotherapist and social worker constitutes of reorienting peoples understanding of the self. No work of the mind can be operated without stepping back to see the whole. One interesting phenomenon in our world today is that people trained as social workers are charged more and more with the work of psychologists since they are able to bring more fully to bare the health of the mind in terms of it’s relationship to class, race, gender, and ability. The human being is a symphony, a Gestalt. If one violin is out of whack the entire symphony suffers and becomes a rabble.
Farming more than any other discipline I know is one that benefits by the degree to which it partners with nature and falters to the degree it pushes back. Think of a rocket ship. So many major aspects to it’s success are in fighting with natural systems. To propel itself it must fight against gravity. It does so by burning inconceivable amounts of fuel and sheds it’s weight as it soars. Once in orbit it fights against the vacuum of space and astronauts bodies struggle with the degrading effects of space on the body. Throughout the twentieth century farms have behaved as if they are at war with nature. The organic movement in farming was born out of conventional agriculture as an alternative, but like Janus, still harkens back to that which it opposes, still depending on aggressive tillage, processed fertilizers, chemicals to fight insects and disease, and accepting crops of low nutritional quality. Even small scale growers operating in a more conventional organic model feel set upon by the resistance to their efforts by their farms. But the truth is clear thanks to many, many examples of the alternative. If we step back and view our farms in terms of their Gestalt we can move into their current and flow with them, instead of always against them.
Drawing attention to the impact that a more modern agriculture, one that reaches for or “stands near” the Gestalt, is wholly appropriate. Regenerative farmers speak often about the need to address global climate change in terms of agricultural policy. We must continue to do this. Let us not forget about the Gestalt, within it somewhere the spark of life, that keeps us in the profession we love. Share the deeper satisfaction and frustration that a life in farming provides. Let’s try and understand how the difficulties of raising nourishment for others can be just as motivating for young people to hear as the benefits might be. Promote this lifestyle. It is one that can provide, like that of a doctor, the most intense emotions available to human beings: crushing disappointments and blissful satisfaction, enormous responsibility and the power of your neighbors deep appreciation. In my view encouraging a life that can provide so much benefit to oneself and one’s community is worth the inherent risk that farming includes.
Being near the Gestalt, of any process, wether the human anatomy or the cultural phenomenon of farming, is not static. It is always changing. In such we can work for and demand that farming be an easier career to get involved with and a more secure type of work financially. These demands are being made all the time and will continue. That is the beauty of the Gestalt. You are not the same person each day, each moment, but a new collection of all that surrounds you. Your farm is a new farm every season and every day. Is it more in line with the Gestalt? Or is it slipping apart, being taken into atomized pieces of disembodied successes and failures? Farming too is changing and will change. We are among the many who see the tipping point, the edge of the cliff, where our displacement from the Gestalt as a species is taking us. The looming age-crisis of agriculture, the aging of farmers, is a crisis that needs to be taken as seriously as any other national or global problem. We look to the future and ask what does the Gestalt demand of us? Is it full automation of our agricultural landscapes, perhaps where the chicken and the farmer are now both machines? Or are we and our children to be among the billions of living things directly involved in making our farms and our communities a place we dream of living in?