Moving away from “agroliteracy”

Ecological literacy is a means of incorporating or embodying ecological intelligence. It is an ability to sustainably connect and merge the natural world with human communities embedded in the natural world. The term “literacy” is perhaps a regrettable expression for intelligences that have to do with socio-ecological issues.  In fact, it may be best to use the term “intelligences,” thinking in terms of Gardner’s multiple intelligences, rather than “literacies.” Gardner’s several intelligences are biocultural phenomena, with his theory demonstrating that people are apt to learn based upon their own propensities, the instruction available to them in their environments, and the emphasis that their particular cultures may place upon a given activity.

Since individuals have varying talents and aptitude for different skills – any may be useful in envisioning and creation of sustainable societies. By thinking in terms of fostering various socio-ecological intelligences, rather than socio-ecological literacies, preeminence is not given to an epistemology of literacy over an epistemology of orality in natural resource management and in ethical and just social relationships.

Primarily oral cultures have frequently been sustainable societies, cultivating lifeways that have enabled them to live sustainably with the land they inhabit, with resilient lifestyle and resource management practices.

Through traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), indigenous and traditional societies have cultivated lifeways that have generally enabled them to live sustainably with the land they inhabit, developing lifestyle and resource management practices that are resilient.

Traditional knowledge holders exhibit socio-ecological intelligences that encourage respect for plant and animal spirits and taking no more than one need from the environment. In addition, in such systems, lavish use and over-consumption of natural resources are discouraged; legends and stories often recount misfortune following waves of over-hunting, which is equated with taking more than needed to sustain one’s family or immediate social group.

Various researchers have taken into account a need for modern Western ecologists, resource managers, and agriculturalists to deeply consider and learn from TEK, bringing a new ethic into their study and practice, along with an informed, intelligent human emotion and sense of place. Traditional knowledge holders frequently operate from cultures that may be literate but do not hold literacy above orality in constructing eco-social intelligences.

While both orality and literacy are important for constructing ecological and social knowledge in the modern world, oral societies appear, in general, more attuned to communal life, deep ecological awareness, and relationship with the natural world and with other humans.

In constructing effective farm pedagogy for fostering eco-social intelligences it may be vital to give attention to the socio-ecological practices of primarily oral cultures, both in land use practices and in teaching and learning situations.  Human thought, consciousness, and intelligences are more deeply and evolutionarily nested in emotion and speech than in text/literacy.

While farm pedagogies can hardly ignore literacy, it may be wise to accord place to orality for all that it offers in fostering and maintaining socio-ecological intelligences; for its ancient and evolutionary presence in human consciousness, and its bioculturally effective patterns of teaching and learning.  Human adaptation is biocultural: it is composed of a variety of biological and cultural elements. The capacity of humans for culture is deeply grounded in biological conditions, both within our bodies  and within our environments. Both biological circumstances and our ability to create and transmit culture have mutually influenced each other for millions of years.

Human culture has functioned within an oral framework for as long as humans have been languaging creatures, certainly far longer than we have had written language as an auxiliary means of communication. Exactly how much longer we have been involved in the world of orality than the world of written language remains controversial. Some contemporary societies maintain close ties with the oral past.  Human thought, in fact, is likely nested more in speech than in text: certainly oral expression can exist apart from written language, while reading and writing do not exist without orality of some sort, verbal or gestural, as in sign languages. Often, in modern Western education the deep and evolutionary value of oral teaching and learning has been ignored, perhaps in ways that damage human relationship with their environments.

Ways of including the value of oral teaching at Rainshadow Farm have included making time for people to tell their stories about being in the natural world, or their stories in general which are all valuable to the general community and community relationship. We include stories of interacting with elements of nature, along with interactions with animals and other people in the natural world. In the future I’d like to see us emphasize even more the importance of reflective learning; taking time to talk to one another about our interactions with nature and gardens.



About rainshadowfarm

I teach anthropology, am an archaeologist, a drylands agroecologist, community educator, and a single mother of eight grown kids. I currently own and operate an educational and research farm in the southern Mojave Desert, Rainshadow Farm. I'm 100% West Virginia hillbilly. Not necessarily in that order.
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