Health and Other Worthwhile Things: On The Ecology of Care by Didi Pershouse

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Photo of Green String Farm byLyle Poulin

A few years after finishing my undergraduate degree in creative writing, I apprenticed and worked on small farms, inspired in part by the writing of Wendell Berry. In an interview in one of my favorite magazines at the time, The Sun, Berry had spoken persuasively about the importance of being rooted in community, caring deeply for the land, and cultivating local economies, in an effort to rebuild sustainability for ourselves and our troubled environment. He also gently suggested that the interviewer not get too hung up on the identity of writer, because “there are lots of other worthwhile things you can do.”

This sentence was jarring. It allowed me to admit my frustration in viewing my creative work as my single purpose, and translating that into my sole means of financial support. I felt I wasn’t meant to do just one thing, and yet much of my training and the gist of the popular idea of a “serious” writer pushed me to do just that.

Beyond restlessness and money fears, I also felt hungry for work that would feed me and my neighbors, while addressing some of the dysfunction of modern life that nagged at my consciousness. As I apprenticed at Green String Farm, then worked for non-profit Petaluma Bounty Farm, I got firsthand lessons in growing food using natural process farming.

One of the main tenets of this approach is that to grow truly nutritious food, you need to feed the soil first— and to understand it as a community of microbes, fungi, organic material, and more. Soil health depends on diversity and balance. What a perfect metaphor for my own health! I, too, needed to do a range of “worthwhile things” in order to find balance. In tending the soil, I was tending not just the plants that grew in it, but also my body and spirit. In experiencing the satisfaction of nourishing myself and others, I got a taste of the fulfillment I was looking for.

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Book cover image courtesy of Didi Pershouse

This deeper understanding of the foundations of health is at the heart of a surprising new book: The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities, by Didi Pershouse (Mycelium Books, 2016). Part memoir and part fact-driven analysis of modern farming and medicine, The Ecology of Care describes Pershouse’s gradual shift from her work in private acupuncture, to community acupuncture and advocacy for soil restoration. It’s a beautifully-written, hope-filled prescription for an embrace of community at every level— perhaps our best shot of surviving our climate crisis.

Pershouse draws connections between the soil degradation wrought by the industrial food system, and the harm done to our bodies by industrial medicine. Since “we are what we eat,” there’s a lot of overlap. Over the past century, we’ve shifted from small, diverse farms to profit-driven mono-cropping, and our guts reflect that change. Stripping the topsoil of micronutrients and microbes, and lacing food crops with pesticides and herbicides, we’ve experienced a corresponding loss of microbial diversity in our bodies, and an increase in disease processes related to the ingestion of chemicals. Likewise, as our systems of care shifted from village doctors, midwives, and herbalists to for-profit hospitals and privatized insurance, the cost of care has skyrocketed while quality has plummeted.

But there’s hope.

A re-invigoration of community-based healthcare can decrease costs and increase quality of care, while reducing the vast carbon footprint of an over-reliance on hospitals for basic care. An embrace of farming practices dedicated to creating a “soil carbon sponge” can help harness the excess carbon driving climate change, while restoring soil health.

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Photo by Lyle Poulin

A born scientist and gifted artist, Pershouse is both methodical in her research and emotionally persuasive in her writing. She brings humor and nuance to her discussion of the complicated history described above. In an era of alarmism, Pershouse’s work is refreshing in its commitment to both honesty and optimism. She moderates her appraisal of each system’s failures by offering tangible alternative frameworks, and allowing for emotional responsiveness. These challenges are significant, and Pershouse’s work is sustained by listening partnerships with friends involved in many different aspects of healing. In adopting such a practice for ourselves, healers of all kinds can avoid burnout. We can listen to one another when each of us inevitably reaches a moment of despair, acknowledging that pain before identifying what is working and what to focus on next.

For me, Pershouse’s work picks up where Berry leaves off. As I enter another surprising twist in my career path, The Ecology of Care helps me see how my seemingly-disparate interests—writing, agriculture, and community health— are in fact needfully interconnected.

“Hope is a discipline,” Pershouse writes toward the end of her book. This worthwhile work of restoring our health must be undertaken together, and everyone is invited.

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