A: Molly picks up a clump a dry, compacted, dead soil and throws it to the ground. It doesn’t break.
B: John looses a patch of cover crops and scoops up two hand fulls of loose, crumbly, rich, living earth.
These are two scenes of the movie The biggest little farm and contain its main contrast. The film relates John and Mollies journey from A to B.
Go and watch this movie. And if you have kids, GO and WATCH this movie together! You rent it online for € 3. (I watched it three times in 48 hours, put it under a microscope and was in awe – about which more later)
Why is this a must watch?
Because it imprints a possibility which we are starting to forget as a human species. A forgetting which will cost us. Forgetting of the possibility of people creating an abundance of food in fucking harmony with nature! Or, as John puts it, in comfortable disharmony with nature. Meaning, the harmony is not some fairy tale like thing that smells like roses all the time.
This is not about organic farming or other, better than the fully-destructive-version-we-use-mostly-these-days types of farming. They call this farming with nature, traditional farming or regenerative farming. A real live couple, Molly and John give up their city life because of a promise to a dog and a desire of a chef to farm everything she can cook with, and start creating a place which farms more than 200 things; animals, trees and plants.
I don’t think I have ever seen an image of such abundance, man created abundance, a version of farming which creates an ecosystem so utterly alive with both wild and domesticated species. And that’s why I think this film is so important. Normalized as we are to what mono culture farming looks like, we need to be reminded that farming with nature is actually possible (and the only option if we want to give our (grand) children a future).
If we are not aware of possibilities our chances decrease in seizing them. To bring this point home a bit more strongly let me tell you about Trevor Noah, who grew up in the South African townships. Among an impressive array of disadvantages he had one major advantage: A mother who knew the importance of being aware of possibilities in order to up your chances of making them yours. While living in poverty she made sure in whatever way she could that he was introduced to as many things as possible that ‘normally ‘don’t exist in township life. Her hard work paid off. He made name as a comedian in South Africa and now hosts a daily show from New York, critiquing what is wrong with the world and amplifying those people that work to create a better future. With lots of humour and an amazing clear eye that sees through to the core of things.
Anyway, get yourself the gift of seeing this movie. Add this moving picture to all the images you have collected in your mind over the years of farming and be richer for it.
The movie through a structural lens
As they create their little paradise piece by piece, that same space is being regarded as a paradise by pest after pest. Snails, coyotes, beetles, flies, birds, gophers (Dutch: wangzak ratten, creatures that behave like moles). “As our farm flourishes, so do the pests.” Molly and John complain. Resolved not to use poison or guns they have to rely on something else. And that’s where the reason for me watching this movie three times in 48 hours comes in. I decided to study its structure. The small and big tension-resolution systems that were built into the film, the engines which move it forward and keep us caught up in the movement, until in the end, the movie spills us out into its resolution and we find ourselves back on our living room couch, awed at what we have just experienced.
One of those tension resolution systems was of course the movement from the dry clod of compacted earth to the crumbly living stuff. Another main tension resolution system that I found (and found beautiful) was a movement from :
- problem solving and reluctantly giving up control, let nature runs its course because their ideals leave them no other choice
- actively creating with nature, observation followed by creativity.
They make this shift in 7 years and they make it by having to deal with pest after pest .. after pest. Eating their fruit, killing their trees and crops and ducks and chickens. The guy, Alan, who was their adviser in the beginning told them “Co-existence with the land can’t be forced. It is a delicate, patient dance with no guarantees. Each year it will get easier and more predictable. After 7 years you will see things that you have not seen before. You will tap into the power of nature that you can ride without extraordinary effort.”
Tap into the power of nature which you can ride without extraordinary effort. Wow!
and which can’t be forced. That’s an interesting element as well. It seems we lost the patience to create such thoroughly designed systems which will pay back many fold the time we put in designing it and letting it find its equilibrium. At one point Molly observes “It seems like we are growing fruit to feed chicken.” This is at a moment in which they had a succession of years in which 70% of their rare species of stone fruits are being partly eaten by birds and so can’t be sold but go to the chickens instead. Imagine that. You need to sell in order to live and continue. It’s a moment of immense tension in which it is very hard to stick to your choice of working with nature instead of fighting it.
But Alan promises “It’s like surfing. In 7 years you will have created a flywheel in motion, establishing equilibrium. Complexity, diversity, all supporting and enhancing each other. A web of life.”
After they have accidentally stumbled upon a sustainable way to live with the coyote, John says “It’s these tiny revelations that are born of failure that act as fuel for the engine of our ecosystem. If we pay attention we get to use them.”
That’s a skilled creator speaking. Someone with a learning orientation, not afraid to fail but using every change in reality, good or bad, as fuel for their movement forward towards the thing they wish to create.
Being a happy nerd sometimes I wrote down, in a few words, all the scenes of the movie and then started studying its structure. The experience of that was like seeing something under a microscope and being awestruck at what is being revealed to you. A whole new world behind what is visible with the naked eye. I even put this whole thing in a spreadsheet and coded all the elements that I found. I attached it to this article for my fellow structuralists nerds and all those who wish to peak through the microscope :-). Spoiler alert! Click this:
As an end note to the validity of their way of traditional farming: their crops don’t die when their is a drought, as do those of the mono culture farms around them. Their topsoil isn’t washed away to sea when they have 45 cm’s of rain following that drought, as the soil of the farms around them does. Their piece of paradise acts as a storage for CO2, attracts all kinds of wildlife, is a treasure vault of biodiversity and overall, gives back, instead of just taking. Which is simply common sense if you want to keep reaping harvests! Such an utterly simple and obvious lesson.
The film is very well made. Which is not very surprising since the male half of the farming couple is a professional Emmy Award winning nature filmmaker. Expect beautiful nature shots and a very well told story. And something that is marketed very cleverly, complete with a lovable pig called Emma to build their brand around!
Structure and creating a better world
I am slowly turning into a structuralist, inspired by Robert and Rosalind Fritz whose program I am taking to be certified as a structural consultant. Structure is found everywhere. In the visual arts where lines of force, diagonals, contrasts of colour, texture and shape do their magic to draw you in. In movies as explained in this article. In music, in nature of course. But also in human thinking. Subconscious and erroneous patterns in our thinking can cause us to not be able to create the outcomes we want, in our work, our relations, our lives. And in organisations the same things can be found as well: Elements of design which do not support the outcomes we want to create, elements we often completely overlook. Maybe because they are right under our noses. We humans are very talented at ignoring what is right under our nose.
Simply said, there are structure that support the outcomes we envision and structures that don’t. It is a marvellous journey to learn to see them and then help my clients see them as well until they have a solid change of underlying structure which generates different behaviour and thus, different outcomes. Want to help me built my skill? Book a session which are free or for a reduced fee while I am in training.
Coming back to The biggest little farm it is easy to see. Farming with nature is a structure that supports the outcome of being able to grow food and feed humanity until the sun dies and the earth with it.
Our current way of farming is a structure which supports the outcome of having no fertile top soil left in a few decades, no biodiversity, no pollinating insects, no nutrition left in our soil to create nutritious food …
Changing our way of farming is a biggy for countless reasons; financial, political, lobbyists, power struggles.
But the same kind of obvious counterproductive structures are present in the small scale. In our businesses, our solo entrepreneuring and our personal thinking.
What I hear a lot is some version of, wtf, how come I never saw this before? And the people who work with me are often people that either work as a therapist or in the helping professions or have taken loads of therapy and courses on personal development. So how come they never saw it before? Because our society, our educational system and our mental health systems have a wide gaping gap. We don’t learn how to create, how creating works in general, how to use structure (which is a natural force, like gravity) in creating our lives and businesses or even how to think without any preconceptions. It is ground breaking work. It even seems magical sometimes but it actually fully relies on good old common sense. I would love to be able to, at one point, use my work in increasing our human capacity to see the obvious and act on it, to create a world which we can enjoy indefinitely. As John and Molly are already doing.