Thanksgiving Key-Blog

November 29, 2009

Too late for Thanksgiving Day, this first entry sneaks in at the tail end of Thanksgiving Weekend. The goal is to fill in those long winter months when there is no food to pass around from the Thornapple CSA with a weekly delivery of a different kind. For some of us (maybe just me) it will be a reminder and a reflection on what food in general (and our collective in particular) might possibly be about. This “key-blog” appearing on Thanksgiving weekend will be the first in a series which I hope to contribute weekly.

The key log is the one that has to be removed in order to break free a jumble of logs jammed together in a watercourse. It’s an expression with a good Michigan provenance. Aldo Leopold appropriated the term in his book A Sand County Almanac with a different purpose in mind. The “key log” for Leopold was a sentence that summed up the ideas he was trying get across in his land ethic: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold was trying to get us to see that our community was more than human, that we are in community with the land. His ethic was revolutionary in many ways that we are only now starting to appreciate.

The most obvious breakthrough—the one that Leopold himself signaled in the opening paragraphs of his essay “The Land Ethic”—was to extend our notion of community beyond our human kin to include plant and animal species assembled in a given place. But to think of “land” in terms of this biotic community was itself equally pathbreaking. As Leopold understood, it was more typical to think of land as a form of property, as a good dominated by the interests and whims of the property owner. To think in terms of a land ethic requires us to move beyond the Western idea of land as property and to think newly about the way that living things cohere in forming a habitat, a place of dwelling and interdependence.

This new way of thinking about land was already several steps in the direction of community, but Leopold wanted us to think of land as a component of our moral community—the interconnected society of beings that we care about, that we wish well for, and that we take responsibility to further their prosperity and interests. This kind of community caring is not without returns, of course. We care about others and they care about us. Our communities are sources of mutual aid and support. To be committed to community is a strange combination of regard for others and selfishness, and not only because of the way that it blends self-interest with altruism. Sometimes concern for the community calls us to do things that benefit no single individual, yet crucial for the inter-connectedness that marks the difference between a community and a simple group.

To care about the biotic community in a moral sense is to be willing to sacrifice one’s own immediate interest in order to secure the whole. Here, “being willing to sacrifice” also means recognizing that human interests are not the only ones that count. Or perhaps it is better put by saying that the thing that makes us a community (a “we”) is more than other humans, so thinking in the long term obligates us to preserve that thing. Failing to do so is to fail in our obligations to human others. There is that strange tension between self and other regard again!

One of the things I like about Leopold’s “key log” metaphor is that in a log jam there is nothing really special about the key log itself. It’s just a log like any other. What makes it key is the position it occupies in the jumble. This implies that the key sentence (A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.) is not a summary rule that we use to test our conduct. Instead, it is a sentence that happens to occupy a particularly critical place in the jumble of norms and loyalties that bind us together, and that give meaning to our respective endeavors. We grasp its meaning less by probing words like “integrity,” “stability” or “beauty” than by patiently seeking the multiplicity of connections between words and things, actions and loyalties, times and places. We test these connections gingerly to understand what keeps them together.

But what does any of this have to do with the Thornapple CSA? Well, one clue would be the importance of the word “community” in Community Supported Agriculture. The word takes us beyond a buying club justified wholly by its contribution to the self-interest of members. And our CSA takes its name from the farm—the piece of land—from which our weekly rations come. So maybe land is part and parcel of our community is some way that we might try to understand. But like Leopold’s key log metaphor suggests, there is no single purpose, no overriding norm or goal that encapsulates the reasons why all members of a CSA belong to it. It’s a jumble of reasons and motives, some more self-interested than others. Some of those reasons are quite personal and others relate to global and metaphysical truths about food and farming. Or at least that’s how I see it. I’ll explore these reasons over the coming months, partly through commenting on what is going on in my life. I’ll try not to be too overbearing, and I promise not to sing.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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