Monday, August 25, 2014

Semiotics of Soil

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A week ago I went to hear Dan Barber give a talk with Elizabeth Kolbert about his book, The Third Plate. Some of you may remember my brief mention of him in my notapoem, “Notes On A Poem About Compost.”

Toward the end of the event, Barber answered seven questions collected from the audience on index cards. Highlights include: MY QUESTION WAS THE SECOND CARD PICKED!

(Or another folk—or folks—had the same question. Totally possible. Not as awesome-feeling. That question, “how do you define “local”? deserves a post, err, dissertation all its own.)  

Another question got to the marrow of what would be the third plate of the Berkshires. To explain in one sentence or less what Barber takes a whole book to investigate, the “Third Plate,” explores the “local” equivalent of terroir that we could hope to see in 2050.
Barber’s answer, “Rotation Risotto,” made me hungry. He gave a waiter’s explanation of Rotation Risotto; “it’s nose to tail eating of the whole farm” The dish include the crops needed for crop rotation, or companion planting, on Blue Hill Farm.   

In the Epilogue of his book, Barber describes this dish as the second course of an entire menu of “whole farm cooking." He also mentions “single udder butter,” which I think I kinda want to eat all day, every day…… Christmas is coming. Please take me to Blue Hill Farm!

The trick to the flavor of the milk used for butter, the epilogue explains, is most certainly and obviously the cow’s diet. Grazing on plants that grow in nutrient-rich soil determines the flavor of the milk, and therefore butter, that is the kind of dreamy butter that I’m dreaming of now.

Barber’s epilogue explains how taste works for that butter, that 'the trick is to learn the language of the soil.’

All you need to know about language: language generally refers to the learning and use of communication systems, their rules, and what those rule can produce. Semiotics is the relating of signs with meanings. All languages rely on this.

The semiotics of soil are fairly clear. Take the dust bowl of the dirty 30’s. The application of European agricultural practices to land that was, well, in America, led to a dusty shit storm. We know Dorthea Lange’s powerful photographs about this:

The dirty 30’s forced us to relate the signs (dust storms) with meanings (we’re in deep, dusty trouble, we need to change our practices). The semiotics there are clear. There was a big breakdown in the communication system. We didn’t do language right in that situation.

Take a different example of a semiotic-soil-situation; the companion planting process known as the three sisters. The three sisters, corn (maize), beans, and squash, feed the soil and protect each other in specific ways.

Beans climb the corn. Beans feed the soil nitrogen, which the corn gobbles right up. Squash acts as a weed-blocker, like a mulch. The three crops together also fulfill a wide range of dietary needs. How awesome is that!

The semiotics in the example of the three sisters is pretty clear, too. The signs are that these crops help each other, and together provide a good nutritional assemblage. The meanings are even more lucid. This works, this is symbiotic and smart.  

Granted, thinking about “the language” of soil is an exercise in metaphor. But it is an important exercise. “Learning the language of soil” is what will teach us to agricultural practices that we need in order to feed the world’s population. And it will keep that beautiful single utter butter coming!*

*Dan Barber, if you’re reading this, do you ship your butter to Albany?....   

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Ceci n'est pas une puppy. (final pun. apologies to the semiotic godfather, Magritte.)

Blue Hill at Stone Barns:

semiotics for beginners:

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