September 5, 1997

I've always been a bit of a science geek. Ever since I was a little kid, I knew that science was going to be my calling. By the time I was seventeen, I had it all planned out: BS in physics, then an MS in Electrical Engineering, followed by an MBA (okay, so I intended to be a rich science geek).

I enrolled at Seattle Pacific University, and began my studies. As the classes rolled by, the idea of becoming rich slowly faded; but the importance of science (in my mind) just kept growing. Scientists were the keepers of great mysteries! Scientists were doing great things! Science could solve everything! My plans were altered accordingly; now I was going straight for the Ph.D. in physics, and then on to the noble halls of academia.

Well, several things happened after the BS. First, I got married, and discovered the real world! Second, I got a job (intending it to be for the short term), and discovered that having an income (albeit meager) is nice too. The rush for the Ph.D. got stalled; but still, I was firm in my beliefs that science could solve everything.

After living in Seattle for seven years, we decided to buy a house. With 1.5 acres of land, it just made sense to grow a garden.

I had made a clumsy attempt at gardening as a teenager; but it had been over a decade before; so it was like starting fresh. I dutifully sowed seeds, fertilized, and planted out my tomatoes. Of course, the weeds sprang up immediately, and had to be dealt with if I wanted a harvest. So I slogged on out there, and began to pull them up.

It was then I realized just what sense of well-being gardening can induce. Your brain really doesn't have to work hard, so it can wander in all sorts of directions. I began to notice the beetles crawling through the dirt, the songs of various birds, and how robins tend to follow you around the garden (always staying about 10 feet away). For the first time, I really began to see all the different connections in the wide world.

Of course, I still approached this as a scientist. I read and studied like crazy. But, out of all this erudition, one of the things that really struck me was how man, in his attempt to conquer and control nature, had really been screwing things up! Don't get me wrong, I still thought science was wonderful (still do, in fact); but it had often been applied quite thoughtlessly, and the consequences were appalling.

I also really begin to notice other things; things I'd seen for years, but never paid attention. While driving down the freeway, I watched a commercial cabbage grower spraying his crops. I'd seen it dozens of times before, but it began to hit me just how much crap was being sprayed on our food! It's a well-documented fact that the cancer rate has been gradually increasing in the United States over the past fifty years; I wondered, are we doing it to ourselves?

I must admit to being equally turned off by the mindless ranting of some "organic" types. But I found other writers who had put a lot of thought into gardening, reasoned things through, and had turned back mostly to organic methods (and convincingly explained why). I noted how the agricultural colleges were beginning to teach the importance of preserving diversity, building healthy soils, and using lower-impact methods of weed and pest control. Basically, I learned that more and more folks were, after thinking for the long-term, trying to work with nature instead of attempting to conquer it.

This probably all seems rather obvious to some of you. Also, I can't say it has caused a dramatic conversion in the way I live; instead, the changes have been subtle. Things like using row-covers to control pests, instead of chemical pesticides (or else just living with the pests' damage, and not intervening at all); composting my garden leftovers for addition back to the soil; and digging weeds instead of spraying herbicides. Still, my garden technique is not 100% organic, and may never be. If I think a "chemical" solution is the only practical one, or if the "chemical" method seems lower-impact than the "organic" one, I'll still use it.

Understanding how all these things are tied together has also made me acutely aware of current short-sighted scientific stupidity, such as engineering corn plants to resist herbicides (so that heavier doses of these chemicals can be sprayed on the plants without killing them, and we'll be consuming the byproducts), or splicing bacterial genes into potato vines to kill pests (which will also render the organic control Bt useless in a few years). I used to think that scientists were wiser than everyone else. I realize now they are very smart, but often can't see past the end of their nose (or the end of their grant!). Intelligence is not the same as wisdom.

I also will just mention my growing conviction that we need to move away from the current state of our agriculture, and shift more towards local production of food whenever possible.

In short, my garden has taught me to THINK. You may not agree with me on some of the things I've said. I'll accept that, as long as you truly have thought your conclusions through, as well.

All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 18, 2013