Down to Earth: A story of mutualism | Local News | – The Daily News of Newburyport


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I don’t know if you can relate, but I love to put my hands deep into my garden soil. The ease with which my wriggling fingers can push into the damp earth is evidence of a healthy relationship between me and the garden. Organic matter, built up over many seasons, stays buoyant and bursting with life; my fingers introduce themselves to worms, pill bugs, earwigs, spiders, and other creatures too small for my eyes to comprehend, but no less alive. The relationship I try to build with my garden is no less intentional than the relationships I have with my closest friends and family. There is work, reciprocity, attention, and patience at the heart of each decision I make when tending my space, however heartless it may appear to the outsider as I crush potato beetle eggs with obvious enjoyment.The domestication of plants is one of the clearest instances people use to reference this relationship. However, the narrative of “the taming of nature”, where man used his superior brain power to master agriculture and propel himself into modernity is oversimplified, egotistical, and one-sided. Just as plants and animals have formed mutually beneficial relationships throughout evolution, humans may be said to have developed the same style of relationship with plants through the exploration of early agriculture. If plants, like all living things, exist to reproduce and continue existence, then early agriculture, from this perspective, is not the taming of plants, but the codependence and growth of humans and food crops.Take the evolution of modern-day garlic, as an example of mutualism between humans and the natural world. Evidence suggests that humans have been cultivating garlic for over 5,000 years for religious, medicinal, and culinary uses all over the world. Although we don’t know what garlic looked like all those years ago, we do know that in order to have been cultivated outside of where its wild ancestor originated in Central Asia, it was cultivated asexually. Just like tulips and daffodils, garlic is grown from cloves saved from desirable garlic bulbs. Human hands have had to harvest, cure, separate, plant, wait, tend to and then harvest each garlic bulb in order to continue growing the garlic we know today. The process to grow a bulb from a clove takes approximately nine months, a rather long time to wait for a crop that does not provide much in terms of caloric value. How clever of garlic then, to eliminate the expenditure of energy most other plants need in order to survive – making a flower, attracting a pollinator, making thousands of seeds – by allowing humans to use their energy to continue propagating it. We are enthralled by, and continue to serve as garlic’s means of continued existence, and its role in our culture as humans is solidified. Try to imagine your favorite cuisine without garlic; it would almost be easier to imagine food without salt!In mid-October, the hardneck bulbs that were selected with thought and care to carry on desirable traits are cracked open and the cloves separated. Several weeks after the first killing frost, a crew goes out with the cloves tenderly buttoned up in their individual wrappers to plant them deep into the soil. With freezing hands, sore from trying to break through the frozen ground, the farmers tuck the newly planted garlic under a layer of thick mulch to protect it from the elements and prevent other plants from germinating quickly in the spring. Garlic is among the first signs of life in chilly April, its shockingly green shoots stand erect and sturdy, and seem to mean business in contrast with the delicate unfurling of life around it like sleepy yawns. By June they are full height with thick leaves and straight stalks, standing proudly in a row. Then a most incredible occurrence takes place to interrupt this otherwise upright personality; the formation of the garlic scape, the false flower. Since garlic has been propagated by human hands for so long, it no longer makes a true flower that can be cross-pollinated and filled with seeds. Instead, out of the center of the stalk emerges a bright green, delicate tendril that curls sweetly against the stalk. If left alone, the papery tip will split open to reveal little bulbils, miniature clones of the parent clove. Most farmers and gardeners snap the scape off to redirect the garlic’s energy towards bigger bulb formation, and to enjoy the mild gift of summer garlic. Pesto, dressing, and other special treats are abundant on our tables during this time of year, and serve as a reminder of the rewards of such a special relationship between the tender, and the giver.

Modern agriculture, which is so unfortunately rooted in exploitative and unnatural practices, has undone the mutualism that existed between the majority of humans and the natural world for centuries before industrialization. There are few people and even fewer domesticated crops that now benefit directly from these practices. In Indigenous food practices, small farms, and in your very own garden, however, the connection and mutualistic relationship can continue to survive if the participants are willing to put in the work, and I recommend you try starting with garlic.This column is part of Nourishing the North Shore’s educational efforts. For more about the nonprofit, see

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