Día de los Muertos

October 30, 2011

It was very nearly 15 years ago to the day that I was wandering around in a field near Tlachihualtepetl in Cholula, Puebla with Laura Westra. Tlachihualtepetl is a story in its own right, up there with the Nebra Sky Disc and an obscure reference well worth Googling for those of you who are casual surfers. But it’s less central to my theme this week than the simple fact that Laura and I were in Mexico just as the locals were ramping up for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Laura Westra is a pretty famous Canadian environmental philosopher who has written on dozens of topics. Though it’s not so much what she’s known for, she attacks genetically engineered crops with an assertiveness that is remarkable, and she has also written that agriculture should be thought of as a buffer zone between wild nature and industrial areas. This latter point is my launching pad this week, because Laura and I were standing out in a field of cempasúchil flowers.

It was, in fact, a pretty stunning day. Bright blue skies and a sea of bright orange. The cempasúchil is apparently a marigold, but I tend to think of marigolds as petite little buds that we plant around the edges of the garden to keep away bugs. These bad boys are between 24” and 36” tall and the blossoms are ginormous. All of which leads Laura to make the innocent conversational remark “Isn’t it great to be out in wild nature?”

I could have responded with some bland and polite response like “It’s beautiful,” because it was. I still recall the day pretty vividly. But back in Puebla City we had been inspecting some of the memorial alters that had been built in tribute to the deceased. These things are pretty amazing, many occupying as much space as the typical farmers’ market stall and they are crammed full with photographs, sugar skulls, and mementos like favorite foods that recall the person being honored. And they are also covered with cempasúchil flowers. A single alter will have dozens, and there are hundreds and hundreds of these altars in Puebla alone.

And being the aggie freak that I am, I’m alert to the thought that when people need that many plants of a given kind all on a given day, they are very likely to be farming them. Indeed, that field out in the shadow of Tlachihualtepetl was full of plants that were all the same height, and all flowering at exactly the right time. Being the aggie freak that I am, it occurs to me that this is probably not an accident. So instead of simply saying “It’s beautiful,” my response to Laura’s happiness at being out in wild nature was: “Uh, actually this is a cultivated field.”

I don’t recall that Laura made any reply to this at all. I’ve occasionally told this story to make the point that even pretty famous environmental philosophers don’t necessarily know much about agriculture, and I do think that it’s a fair point. But it may not be fair to Laura, so when I tell this story to make that point, I usually leave her name out of it. A better point may simply be that one person’s cultivated field is another person’s wild nature. Laura was born and raised in Italy, where a walk in the country typically is a walk through farmers’ fields. On the one hand, she certainly would not have confused the typical Illinois soybean field for wild nature, and on the other hand, I had to agree that this particular field of cempasúchil flowers was a very nice place for a walk.

Is a day at Appleschram a day in wild nature? Americans are not very likely to put that adjective “wild” in there, but neither are we likely to call this “tame nature”. We’ve been socialized to think of wildness in terms of forests and mountains. But most of the Michigan “wild” is second growth, and its been pretty dramatically affected by the lumbering of the previous two centuries. Does the fact that it’s less managed than a typical farm field make it “wild”? Could a farm that scores well in our nature aesthetics test qualify for that status, too?

Hey! I’m just here to ask the questions. Maybe it’s up to the economists to answer them.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University