Communal Gardening Realized
Examining the “nature versus nurture” debate in the early 1930s, anthropologist Margaret Mead spent time among the native populations of New Guinea. The results of her studies were published in Sex & Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.
Within her studies, Mead describes some interesting habits of the societies in which she lived — manifestations of authentic life that stand out as markedly original. Leaving aside any controversies over the validity of Mead’s research, as well as debates over anthropology itself, I’d like to share some of her wayside observations. The possibility of continuing or adapting these ways of life is worth exploring.
Though primarily a social scientist, Mead has a knack for excellent storytelling. The first half of Sex & Temperament concerns itself with one primitive society, the Arapesh. In leading up to the discussion of social mores illustrated by engaging personal accounts and anecdotes, Mead details some of the general cultural practices of the Arapesh. This introductory section includes, for our purposes, perhaps the most exciting and unique ideas disseminated by the Arapesh society.
Ancestral Lands Belong Only to the Ghosts
Mead describes the basic philosophy of the Arapesh toward the Earth as follows:
“The Arapesh do not conceive of themselves as owning these ancestral lands, but rather as belonging to the lands; in their attitude there is none of the proud possessiveness of the landowner who vigorously defends his rights against all comers. The land itself, the game animals, the timber trees, the sago, and especially the bread-fruit-trees, which are thought of as very old and dear to the ghosts – these all belong to the ghosts.”
A “Most Extraordinary System” of Gardening
This backdrop explains the Arapesh people’s unusual approach to gardening. Most New Guinea tribes treat their gardens generally as private, even using them for copulation or for sleeping. In contrast, Mead found that the Arapesh have developed a “different and most extraordinary system, expensive in time and human effort, but conducive to the warm co-operation and sociability that they consider to be much more important.”
Organized loosely into groups of three to six families, each consisting of a husband and one or two wives, and sometimes a grown daughter, they each take turns playing host. All of the families converge on the host’s garden to work, fence, clear, weed, harvest, and sometimes sleep together, before moving on to the next group’s garden. While the member make-up of each group varies from year to year, the co-operative system remains.
As Mead explains, “This method of gardening is not based upon the slightest physical need for co-operative labor. […] The fencing is done with saplings that an adolescent boy could cut. But the preference is strong for working in small happy groups in which one man is host and may feast his guest workers with a little meat – if he finds it.” Herein lies the importance of social gardening — which the Arapesh extends to include planting coconut-trees, hunting, and house-building — as well as the major benefit of a wider application: happiness.
Is This Lifestyle Possible Today?
When I first read this account of social gardening, I found the idea immediately appealing. I imagined a group of friends, each with a garden plot (or access to one), interested in taking turns to work together and help each other out. At the end, they feast together — in celebration of the joyous association. And I thought about how this might work in reality.
Admittedly, this system largely depends on a climate conducive to year-round gardening. Nevertheless, a shorter growing season would not prevent groups of people from joining together to garden — even for a brief period == and communing together because of their choice to work together.
“Life As an Adventure in Growing Things”
Before Mead’s writings delve deeper into the customs of the Arapesh in Sex & Temperament, she introduces her readers to this tribe’s lifestyle with an appealing description. She writes, “While the Arapesh feel their major joys and chief trials as coming to them from others, they nevertheless do not feel themselves as trapped and persecuted, victims of a bad position and a poor environment. Instead, they see all life as an adventure in growing things […].”
When I first read this description, I liked the idea, but could not relate at all to “life as an adventure in growing things.” But after continuing deeper into Mead’s experience, and learning about social gardening among the Arapesh, I now believe that ideal is possible to realize.
(Image note and source: The squatted social center Can Masdeu is home to one of the largest community gardens in Barcelona. Wikicommons)
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