As philosophers, we search below our feet because our generation has lost its grounding in both soil and virtue. By virtue, we mean… practice mutually recognized as being good within a shared local culture that enhances the memories of a place. We note that such virtue is traditionally found in labor, craft, dwelling, and suffering, supported not by an abstract earth, environment, or energy system, but by the particular soil these very actions have enriched with their traces. –Ivan Illich
On a hot morning in May, an extended cab pickup truck pulled up at the farm promptly at ten o’clock. Five men piled out ready for work. “I’ve got rubber boots, Marcus, rubber boots,” one of them intoned as he blinked and rocked back and forth, vigorously rubbing thick fingers together. “I’m a farmer, Marcus.”
We sorted out boots for the guys who didn’t bring their own and ambled over to the cow pen, where pitchforks and a winter’s worth of bedding and manure awaited. I said a few words about how this stuff made the garden grow big and green, and we dug in.
These guys were at the farm because Laurie McLean, the day program coordinator at the local Association for Community Living (ACL) in Beausejour, Manitoba, is a permaculturist with a passion for the synergy of all things living, and she started her work at ACL the way she started the back-to-the-land homestead that brought her to this neighborhood: by building soil.
Before connecting with our farm, Laurie helped the ACL clients tend a fleece-and-fiber arts program with Angora rabbits. And after the ACL recyclables sorting program was cancelled, she found a smaller, humbler system to recycle their shredded paper while also breaking down the accumulating rabbit droppings: worms.
To prepare for her vermicomposting project, she attended a workshop hosted by the local chapter of the Transition Movement, an international grassroots effort to build local resilience to the shocks of peak oil and climate change. Scanning through the minutes of the Transition meetings, she saw a note about Ploughshares Community Farm, where I live, and the possibility of renting out unused acres to neighbors looking for a place to grow more of their own food. Laurie began dreaming of an ACL farm that would deliver boxes of vegetables to local homes.
When we got together to talk, we found many synergies, but also concluded that a separate ACL plot at Ploughshares would mean a daunting learning curve, more risk than necessary for all involved. So we decided to garden together instead, expanding the Ploughshares garden and trading the extra labor from ACL for extra vegetables from Ploughshares.
I had another agenda besides getting some extra hands into our low-tech, labor-intensive market garden. I was hoping to connect my background as an occupational therapist with the work at Ploughshares. One of the things that attracted me to a career in occupational therapy was its understanding of human health, which is fundamentally different from that of a mechanistic medical model. Rather than seeing human beings as machines that break down and need their parts replaced, their fluids changed or their wiring chemically altered, occupational therapy historically ties human health closely to meaning. Humans are creatures that need to be meaningfully occupied in order to be healthy. This targets a different set of problems than the ones addressed by surgery or drugs, and it also implies a different set of solutions.
When I first began working with ACL, I had not yet read Illich’s Medical Nemesis, in which he describes a system of intervention that over time has redefined healers from being wise helpers committed to accompanying suffering persons in their experience of illness to being proprietary mechanics, who take control in the case of a breakdown – or today, in the case of a test result. This system defines the patient’s experience through an “objective” diagnosis: “Your problem is…” These days, when I go to my doctor, she spends as much time looking at a computer readout of my blood levels as she does looking at me. The computer tells her my ills, which she, in turn, explains to me. We are not there to explore my sense of meaning as a suffering human being.
When I graduated as an occupational therapist, I discovered that my occupation and meaning-focused vision of health held about the same currency in the medical system as my Christian faith. It was a nice idea for me to nurture privately, but not one to use to challenge the prevailing approach, which pathologized individuals without naming the systemic causes of meaninglessness and malaise: breakdown of community, colonial trauma, disconnection from the land, spiritual malnutrition.
I found these realities especially acute when I worked as a fly-in consultant to schools in northern indigenous communities, where I was paid thousands of dollars to address one set of problems while remaining silent about deeper ones. So I prescribed adaptive pencil holders, fidget toys, and weighted vests to individual kids diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome or attention deficit disorder and shut up about the context behind those problems: the destruction of both an economy and a culture rich in connectivity and meaning.
But the silence ate away at me. As my occupation became more and more meaningless, I began to feel sick. On my days off, when I’d hear a small plane like the ones that took me up north for work, an anxious shock would hit my stomach. I was glad to get out when I did.
During the years that I was a student at the College of Medical Rehabilitation, my wife and I kept a garden in the abandoned lot next to our co-op rental unit. Before I went inside after school each day, I would spend half an hour in that garden, pulling dandelions, picking Trail of Tears beans and fresh cucumbers for supper, and feeling more alive than I had all day. “If only I could do this for a living…,” I would think.
I thought I would incorporate gardening into my occupational therapy. But when I tried to involve clients in the care of plants around the health center where I worked, I bumped up against the union of the maintenance staff, which protects their tasks from being outsourced. This is not a critique of unions, but of big systems. Systems are endlessly reductive. The bigger they get the more they pull us away from personal encounter, because our encounters with one another inevitably become part of a “scalable” pattern of repeating generic, interchangeable parts.
There is no room in such a large system for a person like Laurie, an artist-permaculturist-social worker with her unique blend of gifts and passions – or for a funny Christian collective farm and a disillusioned occupational-therapist-turned-dirt-farmer to join her in growing something new together. There are just too many variables to ensure “program continuity” past the interplay of these unique persons. One cannot franchise this “program” beyond the intimately local “soil of friendship,” as Illich would say. Systems invariably flatten out the unique contours of people and place. It’s nothing personal, as the saying goes.
But ACL Beausejour is just small enough that local relationality persists. Yes, it’s an institution, but the people inside it went to high school together, go to church together, and are neighbors or relatives. Managers know their staff not only as labor units but as persons. ACL recognized who Laurie is and created a position that frees her to offer what she has to offer as the director of creative programming. The other saving grace at ACL is that so many people with mental disabilities are remarkably effective at crashing through the walls of professional distance. Walk into the ACL multipurpose room on any given day, and you will receive more great hugs than you ever will at a yoga retreat or a Christian deeper life weekend.
Illich says that there is no getting outside life in systems today. Even a “back to the land” experiment such as my own, if it is conceived of as an escape from “the system,” is only a romantic self-delusion. The system today is so vast that it no longer has an outside. Even the most radically “off grid” communities are now within its orbit.
So Illich suggests that the best one can do now is to resist dehumanization as much as possible by engaging as humanly as possible inside the system. I saw this opportunity in the shared farming venture between our farm and ACL. I hoped it would not become a program, but a deepening relationship, what Illich refers to as a conviviality – shared work and shared blessings enjoyed among friends.
And yet, lurking behind the prospect of real friendship was the fear of an old enemy, whom I’ll call Frank. Frank has a disability on the autistic spectrum. I had seen him walking around town with his straight-ahead stare, and I had seen him sitting in the foyer of ACL, rocking and flapping his hands, muttering to himself.
I dreaded Frank because I remembered him from summer camp, where I had been his counselor decades before. Frank is a large man who proposes marriage within minutes to any woman he encounters. He crowds her space and doesn’t read her cues to back off. That week, at “Special Needs” camp, he zeroed in on a number of female campers, who found his attentions very distressing – to the point of tears. And young Marcus, a short little Mennonite in his late teens, was charged with containing big Frank’s boundary-violating girl craze.
I couldn’t. I didn’t know how. I didn’t have the strategy. I certainly didn’t have the strength. And by the end of the week, I hated Frank. Frank convinced me that having a mental disability did not preclude a person from being an asshole. As far as I was concerned, Frank was a jerk, a male pig – disabled or not. Decades later, seeing Frank around Beausejour, the dislike and frustration flooded back whenever I passed him. He didn’t know me, but I knew him. I wondered what I would do if he showed up at the farm.
So when Frank lumbered out of the truck with the rest of my crew that morning, I shuddered. Thankfully, there were no women anywhere around, so I didn’t have to worry about Frank’s eager attentions – at least for the moment. Instead, we just got down to the dung.
In the manure heap, the jokes and teasing were almost instantaneous. Had I been with these guys in a professional therapeutic capacity, I might have felt the pressure to “redirect.” Instead, I just rolled with it. And so, by the grace of grunt work, crap, and sunshine, Frank and I and the others became six guys shooting the shit and shoveling it too, happy to be out of doors and out from under the arts and crafts domesticity and clean-scrubbed supervisory care inside the day program center. Pindar, the young assistant accompanying the crew, laid into the work with gusto, as satisfied as any of us to be forking clots of manure and hay into our beater Dodge Dakota and then hauling it out to the garden.
Pindar grew up working the rice paddies and hoeing the banana orchard of his father’s farm in southern India, a home he left in search of a better life (better paid, anyway) by training as a nurse in India and taking a job as an ACL direct service worker in this small Canadian town. He lives in a motel across the road from ACL, where he fights the bureaucratic doldrums and delays that keep his wife from joining him. One of the few male workers at ACL, Pindar is often attached to Benny, a massive and mischievous man, who that day was alternating between telling Pindar that he was handsome and snorting and giggling over the words “pig poop” as he held out forkfuls of manure – more to his fellow workers than to the back of the pickup. There was a lot of tough talk about who could take who, who was too old and too weak for the work, who was going to be in trouble if he didn’t watch it. We had shit on our shoes, sweat on our brows, and an animal pen full of rough and happy talk, where we knew we were friends and we knew we were men.
In the thick of it all was Frank, trash-talking with the lot of us and steadily piling forkful after forkful into the truck. His big frame, which had so intimidated me decades before, was now a gift. Once Frank had tuned into the job, he was intensely tuned in. He kept at it the whole morning. He was my best worker that day, and I told him so when he was leaving. Frank, in turn, proposed marriage to me and my wife Jenn.
That whole summer, Frank was a solid and dependable contributor to the farm team. And in the context of the garden, at least, his idiosyncratic quest for love remained perfectly innocent – not scary, but hilarious, just another splash of color in our crazy garden crew.
One day, during that first season, as the two of us worked side by side, digging over a raised bed, I told him about my early memories and fears of him, about how we had been enemies once, and how glad I was that we were now friends. I told him about how much stress his fixation on women had caused. In his unique, flatly matter-of-fact voice, Frank said, “Yeah, that’s hard to avoid,” and kept digging. Today, Frank is one of the regulars, part of our dream team that comes out to the farm for weekly ACL shifts.
Laurie tells me that she’s learned how people with disabilities in institutional care feel pain because they have no one in their life who carries their stories. Protocols, medication dosages, and treatment plans are endlessly documented as the client passes from one caregiver to the next, thus guaranteeing “continuity of care.” But the continuity of a personal narrative is another matter.
I get this, at least to a degree. As a scatterbrained man with big holes in his memory, gouged out by inattention and blinkered preoccupations, I sometimes joke that I married Jenn so I could remember my life. She is the one who knows my story, the scary things that have happened, the sad things, the funny things, the foolish things.
To know that we are loved, we must first of all know that we are known.
Today, I can honestly hope for something that was impossible when I was a professional therapist working with vulnerable persons. Here, on the soil that picks up another trace of our actions every day, holding and changing each one, churning into liveliness each trace of crap and of care, I hope that Frank knows I love him – not only love him but like him, as a fellow worker and a friend.