Terroir and Humanity

This is one of several natural springs which drain together to form the Danube.

This is one of several natural springs which drain together to form the Danube.

We’re doing a history unit on the pre-Roman Celts (a bit deep for 2nd and 3rd graders, I know) and what’s struck me about them is their powerful sense of place. Few things were sacred except places. The Celts first emerged as a distinct people in the headwaters of the Danube, in what is now the Black Forest of Germany. The Danube gets its name from Danu, the mother/water goddess whose waters flowed out from within the earth in the time of primordial chaos. Her waters nourished Bile, the sacred oak, from which sprang the gods and goddesses. From Dyaus, the bright-one, sprang (they believed) the Celts themselves.

In pre-modern times, situating a house relative to water was absolutely crucial. Ben Falk has a wonderful discussion of how do analyze a site’s hydrology before building in his The Resilient Farm and Homestead. Wherever humans went, they had to keep water close to hand. The Celts took it to another level.

Because of the importance of Danu, the primary river, stream, or spring of any place had sacred power. The chief of that tribe, before ascending, had to bathe in the waters as a form of ritual marriage with the divine. They might have believed all Celts were descended from Dyaus, but for the chiefs, a special connection with the divine was required. The water of a place is what made life possible. By wedding himself to that water, the chief became wedded to the land, and thus his people.

Few Americans in modern times are wedded to the land. Not the land they currently occupy, nor even land in a vague sense. We get food from the supermarket, not from the earth. We get water from the faucet and shit back into the same water supply.* Little is sacred.

Terroir is a French term for the way the entire mini cosmos of a farm affects the way plant genetics express themselves. From temperature to rainfall to the incredible web of microscopic soil creatures – everything plays a role in how the fruit forms and tastes. Take a true seed or a cloned cutting to a new climate and the plant may end up quite different. Change the place, and you change the thing born from it.

Epigenetics is a very new field that even the most advanced current science barely understands, but it proves to be very powerful. Nutrition has a powerful role in genetic expression. Nutrition comes from the earth and the waters, from the terroir we inhabit. We must return to having a concept of place as sacred, as important, as worthy of stewardship.

How can we survive as a species if we have no stake in the web of creatures which nourish us?

*Read The Humanure Handbook if you want an excellent discussion of the insanity of water-based sewage treatment. Changing this is something I would like to work on, but the Alchemist has vetoed it to date. We’ll see where it goes 🙂

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7 Comments on “Terroir and Humanity”

  1. BNL says:

    I grew up in a suburb, near a major US city. I was taught that when I finished high school, I should look to go anywhere for the best schools and jobs. There was no value put on staying nearby, nor on finding a permanent home. It was 1996, and the idea of being unchained to land was very 21st century – so I was on board.

    But lately I’ve been fascinated reading some of the psychological effects of being rooted to a plot of land, and surrounded by a rooted community and family. And already, before I’ve even moved on to my new farm where I fully intend to die in 50-60 years, I’m gathering new energy and excitement to be grounded in one place. To build a community of friends and family for the long haul (not just until I switch jobs). I’m planning to plant trees that won’t provide benefit for 5-10 years, some longer. Devising an earthworks strategy that will recover the eroded land and improve soil over the next few years, but provide benefit for decades and even generations into the future.

    Compare that to the tiny 1/10th acre suburban plot I’m in the process of moving out of. The soil is rock and sand, the grass is dying. I could dig up the entire yard and not find an earthworm. It has no carrying capacity for life, and I have no attachment to it. When I leave, I will miss a few friends but not the “place.”

    I think it’s easy to get too sciency about this stuff and try to break down why an attachment to a place has such a positive mental and spiritual effect, but at the end of the day it just feels right. My guess is that a million years of brain evolution can’t be ignored just because civilization found a short-term hot pocket of cheap energy that drastically changed our mobility. Eventually, I suspect, people will return to the land and find comfort in it. Many will remain in larger cities or towns (or what’s left of them), and wonder why life is so unsatisfying.

    • David says:

      A lot of older (Baby Boomer) folks I know are quick to dismiss this as ‘just another’ back to the land movement like in the 60s and 70s. Maybe it is? But I don’t think so.

      I’m looking forward to our initial survey of the family farm we’re looking at taking over once we have a nest egg to coast on. That trip is coming up over Labor Day. My grandfather won a soil conservation award back in the 30s on that farm, and it’s been in the family since the 20s. Even if that doesn’t work out, however, I look forward to putting down roots somewhere.

      When I first got involved with FIRE, I thought I wanted to be a perpetual traveler type. I would like to travel some, but I’m thinking that will be stuff done during the winter when the land is sleeping.

      I will farm vicariously through you (and others who will be homesteading a bit later on, like the Frugalwoods) for the next 5 years or so 😉

  2. Do you think that people who prefer to live in urban areas–apartments, even–are “wrong”? We will soon have a small yard again for the first time in several years, and I’m really excited–especially about the boys have a patch of land to call their own. But I have little to no interest in starting a vegetable garden back there. I do not find gardening particularly enjoyable, and I have a lot of other interests and obligations. Growing my food can be done much more efficiently and cheaply by farmers. But I’ve changed my mind about things before, so I guess we’ll see :-). I do plan to grow some herbs, possibly in pots, so we’ll see where that takes us!

    I’m with the Alchemist on “humanure”! Ewwwww. Not saying that the book is wrong–I haven’t read it–just that I’m not ready to think that way right now. Maybe I will in the future…

    • David says:

      Do you think that people who prefer to live in urban areas–apartments, even–are “wrong”?

      Maybe? I freely admit that I have a tendency to get overly militant, but dense urban situations are difficult to make sustainable. Not impossible, however. There are very cool things done with rooftop or allotment gardens, greywater systems, etc that make cities less toxic. But it’s nigh impossible to make them not toxic, rather than less so.

      I know gardening isn’t for everyone, but in your part of the country, a lot of herbs would probably do nicely, as many of them thrive in dry, rocky areas. And some can be gorgeous. Other small plants that need a bit more water, but are edible-ornamentals include scarlet runner beans, sweet potatoes (there are even ornamental only varieties), kale, and chard.

      And when it comes to price. If you can afford to irrigate a bit with soaker hoses, green beans and summer squash are two very easy to grow things that taste so much better when perfectly fresh AND offer a huge bang for buck. (Seriously, we ended up with at least $150 worth of zucchini from less than a $1 worth of seeds.) Other things like tomatoes offer even bigger bang-for-buck but they are harder to grow.

      If you wanted to do some bigger permanent plants, there are some very cool lesser-known fruit bushes/trees that have a lot of ornamental appeal. I’m thinking of things like juneberry/serviceberry (a really common ornamental around here) and nanking bush cherry. The book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden I have on my new ‘books’ page has a lot of details about both. Strawberries, especially the alpine types, could be a good choice as well, as they do well in more arid climates. I think they’re quite pretty – and you often see them sold in hanging baskets around here.

      Anywho, I think that’s enough rambling 😛

      • Wow, thanks for all the tips! It’s nice to know what might be a good starting place if we decide to dabble our toes in gardening. Travel, of course, is another issue, but we have no long trips this year at least.

        Forgot in my first post to mention a book–Hominids, by Robert J. Sawyer, which features a parallel universe in which the dominant species on earth are, Neanderthals, who have advanced science but remain low-population hunter gatherers

  3. […] I find a connection to the earth to be so powerful. Growing your own food connects you to your terroir in a way nothing else can. Also, in a neighborhood like mine, where it’s quite abnormal, the […]

  4. syrens says:

    Reblogged this on Urban Meliad and commented:
    Neat thoughts. Go take a look.


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