Thursday, September 20, 2012

Questions of Complexity

     Today's been a good day.  How about yours?  Quite honestly, sometimes when your in the middle of your day and it seems like crap, you come home and listen to something soothing, all of it seems trivial.  They tell me that the soothing sounds of the ocean is better than the best opiates.
     I'm sitting here and working on my "Maxwell's Equations" post, but this is going to take some extra time.  As it turns out, I never made it to vector calculus.  Euclid's fifth postulate and the problems that face it just barely escape me.  That's why I read about this stuff though.  I just keep on getting better.
     Before I go on, I'm going to link this playlist here.  I don't want to lose this.  Now moving on.
     For the last three years, I've been a farm hand.  It's in the exciting world of organic farming.  The thing that gets me is, I've had people argue that we need to get back to the roots, or something called natural farming.  There is another movement called bio-dynamics that bugs me because the more I try to understand it, the less sense it makes to me.
     The thing about all these that bothers me is they don't treat agriculture as a science.  The most appealing thing about farming is looking at everything and watching it work.  It's not magic, it's a machine.  Many people object to that term, so let me explain.  A machine is not a soul-less, uncaring, unfeeling hunk of metal.  It's complex, governed by laws that we seek to understand.  I like to use the analogy of a car engine, but sadly I find that example lost on some people.
     I've heard the term "fragile ecosystem" used to describe the earth, so let us try and start there.  The term is used to talk about how hunting creatures to extinction or cutting down forests will lead to changes in global climates.  This is the machine I'm talking about.  Each creature acts as a gear or a cog in it's given ecosystem.  If you remove the gear, or change how the gear works, or even add one, it will change the machine as a whole.  Of course, the world is a wondrous place, helped in part by the complexity of the machine.  We stand back and watch this machine work, and we are taken aback by the fact that we cannot begin to fathom just how each part works.  We see connections here and there, but the complexity is lost on us.  And as Arthur C. Clarke put it "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
    What does this have to do with farming?  Well, the first time someone described bio-dynamics to me, I thought they were talking about creating an ecosystem on a small scale.  Or a small, organic machine.  This appeals to the side of me that is obsessed  with science, logic, and math.  The idea of creating you're own carefully balanced machine that can provide you with food!  People familiar with bio-dynamics understand that it goes so much more than miniature ecosystems.  And when I found about the mysticism that went with it, I was very disappointed.
     I'm working with fungus at the moment, so I get a chance to learn about the workings of fungus and how they can apply to an ecosystem.  It does more than decompose things.  Fungus inhales oxygen and exhales CO2.  There are specific types of fungus that grow on specific types of root systems.  It's said that spores lead to rain in the rain forest.  And these factors work together in an ecosystem to create healthy soil, healthy plants, and healthy animals.
     Farms, and forests, are complex in how each small factor works with each other.  And they are chaotic in that the factors that are most important to the success of the farm, are the things that are the most unpredictable.  Sure, things like the weather can be broken down into a series of equations, but in the end the answer comes down to probability.  This probability is what keeps it going though.  Tonight, I find myself lying here and pulling apart ecosystems in my mind.  And the question keeps coming back around, how do you apply the chaotic complexity of the natural world into the structure world man has created?
     There are ideas put out in the ag world right now that seem new, but can be observed in the forest.  Trees in a deciduous mulch themselves.  It's wild.  They help provide the nutrients that they need.  And they help kill the weeds that would keep their offspring from coming up.  But without the supporting players in the form of the stuff living in the sub-soil, they would be sick all the time.  Can these ideas be applied to a farm?  Can a small scale ecosystem be created?  And would it create healthy plants and animals?  At the very least, this is something that should be done just so we can further understand how ecosystems work.

1 comment: