Working with Nature and why the ABN approach is so important as a basis for this
by John Wilson
“Read books and study Nature. When the two don’t agree, throw out the books”. William Albrecht said this about 50 years ago after a life of studying Nature and reading many books. He was a distinguished professor at the University of Missouri in the USA at a time in which the USA was leading the world in converting to what is now called industrial agriculture. William Albrecht was one of the few voices that warned of the dangers of pursuing this route. He wrote of studying Nature when for most agriculturalists the purpose of farming was to dominate and defeat Nature.
More than half a century later a number of people are starting to talk about ‘nature-based’ approaches. At one level this is very encouraging. At last, one might say! But what does this ‘nature-based’ actually mean? Does it mean throw out the books when they don’t agree with Nature? Or does it mean let’s base our activities on something like what Nature does? There are a number of people who are concerned about this becoming a greenwashing approach that pays lip-service to the idea of working with Nature, to the idea that nature should be our ultimate teacher when it comes to how we use the land. Many large companies with dubious histories of being ‘nature-based’ are now using the term.
I remember teaching Permaculture Design courses in the early 1990s and emphasizing one of the main principles of Permaculture “Work with not against Nature”. More than 25 years later I have realized that if you want to do this there are two main things involved. First and foremost you need to develop a deep reverence for Nature and its more than a billion-years history of adapting and creating the most remarkable living systems, more remarkable than we can ever hope to understand fully. This reverence needs time in Nature, feeling the way it works, learning to ‘read’ Nature, learning to empathize with Nature and to see the whole picture as much as possible. Watch how it revolves around processes. See all the connections and know that there are multitudes more.
The second aspect is to learn how to work with Nature in everything you do on the land. Scientific diagnosis and monitoring can help in this endeavor. Traditional wisdom can help too. But the main thing is to keep trying different practices as a farmer, learning constantly from other farmers who are in a similar environment, learning from others elsewhere, adjusting, and linking with scientists where possible who can give guidance. It is my belief that there are very few people anywhere farming in tune/harmony with Nature to the kind of potential that’s possible. There are many at the beginning of the transition to a fully flourishing Agroecology, with lots of learning to come.
In my view the work of ABN, and others with a similar outlook like COMPAS, is foundational to all our work in Agroecology because ABN’s work is about reviving our deep reverence for Nature, and linking this to culture because most African cultures had this reverence. Without this reverence we won’t learn from Nature, we will end up paying lip-service to our understanding of Nature. This act of understanding needs to come from this place of reverence, knowing that it will be a life-long journey and even then we will only get so far. Out of this reverence and desire to learn will come practices that are truly in line with the principles and processes of Nature.
The Esteve family in Western Kenya, the Götsch family in Brazil and the Browns in North Dakota, USA. These are some of the people who are leading the way with an example of learning to work with Nature and farm very successfully and viably. They are our leading lights, pointing to the full potential of Agroecology in practice. All these families base their farming practice on a humble yet in-depth and growing understanding of Nature. Like William Albrecht they read books and study Nature and when the two don’t agree they throw out the books.