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Community insights from ecosystems

Cultivated ecosystems shape natural processes to achieve outputs for us humans: we can learn a lot from the community aspects of Nature.

Community on the farm

Wild margins: This is one of my favourite principles in organic systems. To qualify for organic certification, a farm must leave some field corners and edge land wild, uncultivated. These margins contribute a lot to the community of life in a farm or garden. They’re a haven for wild flowers, plants, birds, insects. 

Naturalists point out that diversity of wildlife and plants has many benefits for humans too, although often we don’t understand them. It may be insects or bacteria in the wild margin which are essential to growing a crop we want. And if a new pest or disease affects your plants, you can hope that its antidote is hanging out in the wild margins. 

How does this work for communities and groups? I’ve seen many groups of people who find it hard to include and tolerate divergent and challenging views. The problem is aggravated because ‘wild margin’ people often feel isolated, angry, vulnerable, and may lack the communication skills to make their points diplomatically. When a group feels threatened and criticised, it’s tempting to turn against minority members, to scapegoat or exclude them. 

One benefit of the wild margins analogy is to show the potential insights in divergent views. If the majority of a group can learn tolerance, patience and the skills to hear the essence under challenging language, they will access more wisdom and solutions. There are plenty of human examples of the value of wild margins. Nelson Mandela, in solitary confinement for many years on Robben Island, seemed an unlikely person to resolve apartheid in South Africa, but mainstream society’s crises are often solved from an unlikely and marginal source. 

Respect for Nature – Real Quality: Farm work is physically hard, dirty, and you’re out in all weathers. I had a cousin who milked 300 cows on an industrial farm and told me how soulless it was, but most people I know on organic farms and market gardens enjoy their work. How come? 

Both the work methods and the regulations for organics require you to treat the land and livestock with respect, whereas in conventional farming they are abused: just check out websites on animal welfare. Organic farms are a community of mutual care and support between humans, animals and the earth. I believe that’s what makes them nourishing for the people who work there. 

This is especially relevant for communities such as voluntary organisations and other work teams: it’s a reminder that the ways you work need to have integrity, and respect for all the resources you use.

Community in the forest 

A wood is a community in many ways: read Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees, which provides ample research evidence to show that trees have some ability to sense, respond and communicate so they form living communities. A solo tree can be vulnerable to wind, pests and other threats. Trees use their collective strength, for example to share nutrients, to warn each other of threats, to absorb and reduce high wind. Weak and diseased trees will be nourished by strong ones through their shared root network. This community quality is strengthened by symbiosis and other features covered below. Societies like Britain over-focus on individuals, and fail to teach us the skills for collective living. We need role models, and the woods and forests provide one.  

Symbiosis: This term is used by naturalists to describe mutual support between organisms, and woodlands are full of it. Roots and fungi are one example, see more below. Often symbiosis is seen as A helps B, and B helps A, but in these rich ecosystems, it’s more subtle. Every element contributes: insects, birds, flowers, trees, and so on. They can provide protection, food, reproduction and more. For example, birds are attracted to a plant with bright berries: they get food, and they scatter its seed across the forest to expand the plant’s presence. We humans often want to see a return when we give something. The insight from symbiosis is that if we all give what we can, without expecting a direct payback, all of our needs are more likely to be met.  

The wood wide web: You may have heard of mycorrhiza, the mutual support between fungi and trees or plants. These fungi create an underground web, known as mycelium, which can extend over acres. The mycelium seeks out water and nutrients, and feeds them into the tree roots, receiving sugar and other goodies back from the tree. There’s a degree of intelligence in the mycelium: it can direct the growth of tree roots, filter out pollutants, and enable nutrient exchange between trees. What would this mean for you? Maybe a deeper recognition of the subtle, underground mutual support between you and other people, and awareness that your resources network may be very extensive, and needs some nourishment from you.  

Community in the garden  

Crop rotation: this is an important method for vegetable growers on any scale, and for arable farmers. There are two main reasons for doing this. One is harnessing change: by growing different crops each year on a given piece of soil, you reduce the risk of pests and plant diseases. The second is renewal rotation: after farmers grow a crop like wheat which demands a lot of nutrients, they renew fertility in the land by growing a crop which has limited income value, but fixes nitrogen from the air into the soil, such as clover.  

Both aspects of crop rotation are useful for human communities. Groups who repeat the same activities get stale, and sometimes need to initiate more change deliberately. The idea of following a demanding task by something light or playful is one I use all the time for myself and in groups. 

Raising diversity: this helps the resilience of any system. More variety in the crops you grow means that if one or two fail, you have others. In our garden, we plant a couple of different varieties of each crop, such as tomatoes or apple trees. Often a pest or disease only affects one variety. In groups of people, similar approaches or skills may make things flow easily, but you may lack what you need for an unfamiliar challenge. As with wild margins, it’s worth making an effort to include people who bring divergent methods.