Figure 3: Students and teachers search for critters (aka, decomposers) in the raised garden beds at their school.

Figure 3: Students and teachers search for critters (aka, decomposers) in the raised garden beds at their school. Photo courtesy of Sybil Kelley.

Can School Gardening Help Save Civilization?

(An Essay in Four Parts)

by Carter D. Latendresse
The Catlin Gabel School

This paper is an argument for gardening in schools, focusing on two months of integrated English-history sixth grade curriculum that explores the relationships between a number of current environmental problems—notably hunger, water scarcity, topsoil loss, and global warming—and the land-use practices that led to the downfall of ancient Mesopotamia. This paper suggests that world leaders today are repeating some of the same mistakes that caused desertification to topple the Sumerian empire. It then explains how our sixth grade class explores solutions to the existing emergencies by studying Mesopotamia, ancient myth, gardening, and contemporary dystopian fiction. Finally, this paper posits a new cosmology that might help to remake western civilization, saving it from the threat of present-day ecological crises.

See previous posts:
Part I: Four Enduring Understandings
Part II: Nine Reasons for a Garden


Part III: Mesopotamia and the Garden

Very early in our unit on ancient Mesopotamia, we show the students a twenty-minute video segment featuring writer and host Michael Wood (1991), who points out that the world’s first cities were developed in Iraq, in old Sumer, in the south of Mesopotamia, which means, in Greek, “the land between the two rivers,” the Tigris and Euphrates. The first law, science, astronomy, schools, literature, map of the world, writing, calendar, wheel, wheel-turned pottery, and war were in Iraq. “The history of Iraq,” Wood says, “is rich in splendors and sorrows, the most gifted of civilizations, and yet the most tragic, the first attempt by humankind to bring people together in organized societies with a measure of happiness.” We want to affirm our first enduring understanding—that people seek meaning in closeness, in relationship—before we turn to the catastrophes that we humans visit upon our planet and ourselves. We therefore point out that the Bible names Iraq as the cradle of the human race, containing the great cities of Ur, Nineveh, Babylon, and Uruk, which are some of the most famous in the history of the world, and source of some of the greatest stories in the world: the creation, the flood, the great ark, the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and the heroic quest for everlasting life. Gilgamesh was, in addition to being the first story ever written in 2500 BCE, also the king of the world’s first great city, Uruk, in southern Iraq.

130813_mesopotamiaWe continue the celebration of the place so that the students can rise above the sterile, shallow, and sometimes racist TV news representations of Iraq. Today the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq, we show them in another short video segment, are trying to take back their reed bed towns from the genocidal attempt by Sadam Hussein to wipe them out. In a 60 Minutes (Pelley, 2009) feature that re-aired this past year, Azzam Alwash, an Iraqi-American engineer, returns to the land of Mesopotamia and reminds us that the marsh people of southern Iraq are named by the books of Genesis and Gilgamesh as the first people created by God, and their land has been identified as Eden.

After hopefully giving some profound depth to the region in this way, we return to our second and third enduring understandings—that multilayered, sequential problems of the past are repeating themselves today, and that they insist upon broad-based, commitments across a number of issues. Before turning our attention back to the beginning, though, we point out that today all that remains of the world’s first cities are sand storms and barren dessert. Now Uruk is mounds of sand and bones, a crumbling wall just visible under sand drifts, and a temple mound ziggurat that once held a great statue of the goddess Inanna. Uruk’s population, as already alluded to, doubled within a few decades, and the population’s hunger destroyed the fertility of the earth and their capacity to feed themselves (Wood, 1991).

How did it all happen, and why is Mesopotamia so significant? we ask. It all started with good dirt, water, and wheat, we tell our students, as we stand in our school’s garden in early September next to a bed of ripened and harvest-ready red spring wheat. We then cut, thresh, winnow, and grind the wheat in a lesson my colleagues and I learned at the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, California, a few summers ago. Our Director of our Food Services visits and does two lessons on cooking with local ingredients, and we being our study of chapters 3-6 of the textbook History Alive! Ancient World (Frey, 2004) that we use as a supplemental resource. The students see how adopting crop agriculture and domesticated animals in settled communities was the most fundamental shift in human history. Hunting and gathering in groups of 30 – 100 were egalitarian, but the settled agrarian communities of Mesopotamia saw the rise of specialization within society and “the emergence of religious, political and military elites and a state with the power to direct the rest of society. At the root of these social changes was a new attitude to the ownership of food” (Ponting, 1991, p. 53-54).

Soon after creating the flour, the students and I fire up the cob oven and use the flour to make a pita bread in a piece of technology very much like the ovens used in Mesopotamia five thousand years ago. Meanwhile, the students continue to distinguish between the hunting and gathering groups—who viewed food sources, whether plant or animal, as available to the entire group, owned by none—and the settled agrarian towns of Mesopotamia—who grew crops in fields and herded flocks, thereby coming to view these living beings as resources and property.

The main advantage of agriculture over hunting and gathering, the students learn, as they are chomping away on the tabouli and hummus and pita we make for our Mesopotamian feast, was that once the einkorn wheat, emmer wheat, or barley seed was saved and replanted, and once goats and sheep were domesticated for the milk and manure 10,000 years ago, the crops, grown year after year in wonderfully augmented soil, would produce surplus. The surplus wheat allowed the farmers to feed non-farming families that included craftsmen such as potters, weavers, masons, and toolmakers. One of the early tipping point moments, though, was when “ruling groups, probably religious at first and then political, rapidly took over the distributive functions. Societies emerged with large administrative, religious and military elites able to enforce the collection of food from peasant farmers and organize its distribution to other parts of society” (Ponting, 1991, p. 54).

Priests and warriors then emerged. What is interesting to us in the sixth grade is that the complex social arrangements and emerging hierarchies allow us to ask our students which jobs should be valued more than others, and in what ways do the jobs cooperate with one another to build a functioning society. Students are asked to research one of the city-states in Sumeria and create an artistic advertisement that entices others to move to their location. Each group, representing a different city-state, puts together a Visitor’s Center style presentation with at least two pieces of information, geographic and social, which are unique to their city-state.

More strands are woven in: we also teach that the great civilization of Mesopotamia was built on cereal, but the grandeur of the civilization was made possible by the intersections of water, draft animals, grain, and writing. The world’s first intensive agriculture system, J. Donald Hughes (2001) argues, was made possible by the ox-pulled plow and irrigation, which facilitated surplus yields and an expanded non-farming urban population (p. 36). Similarly, Jeremy Rifkin (2009) points out that the most successful large scale domestication of plants and animals, wherever it was in the ancient world—the Middle East, India, China, Mesoamerica—was made possible by “large engineering projects . . . including the establishment of elaborate hydraulic systems to irrigate fields” (p. 33). Digging canals and underground aqueducts to supply the fields with water were huge engineering projects. Ponting adds that the first farming was “dry farming,” precariously reliant on rainfall; however, in 5500 BCE, in the east of the Mesopotamian empire, irrigation was developed. The technology was mainstreamed and then thousands of irrigation workers had to be fed and housed, which required surplus food and buildings. Therefore the food production, food storage, home building, pottery, and irrigation industries developed apace in Mesopotamia in mutually supportive ways. To stretch this out to its end, one can also see that because the surplus was able to feed non-farmers, potters emerged that allowed farmers to store their seed for years, and the metallurgical arts developed gold, copper, silver, lead, tin, and, most important for empire expansion, as Jared Diamond (1999) shows in Guns, Germs, and Steel, iron.

To emphasize the hydraulic aspect of Mesopotamia, a feature most of us ignore when we think of the deserts of the Middle East, my teaching partner has her class create an Irrigation Treaty between the aforementioned city-state groups that answers the following questions: 1. Why must city-states cooperate to maintain the system? 2. What actions must each city-state take to maintain the system? 3. What consequences will happen for those city-states that do not follow the treaty?

After focusing for periods of time on food of the region, city-state uniqueness, and water, we present Rifkin’s notion that the writing of Mesopotamia, called cuneiform, was developed as a way to “oversee and supervise the vast complex operations required to maintain the whole hydraulic enterprise. Record keeping allowed Sumerians to track all of the operations, including monitoring the day-to-day storing and distribution of the grain” (p. 35). Ponting’s analysis goes further into the inequalities of power-relations when he suggests that once the seeds were collected and the irrigation system was established, writing was control for the religious and political elites, as they used writing to take over what he calls the “distribution functions” of the surplus food (p. 54).

From Preceden

From Preceden

Around 5000 BCE, Mesopotamia had a fairly uniform culture, with towns scattered along riverbanks between the Tigris and Euphrates, employing subsistence farming, hunting, and fishing to feed themselves. In southern Mesopotamia, however, beginning in around 4500 BCE, large temples began being built in eight large Sumerian cities, with populations of at least 10,000 people. This early urbanization with a central focus on massive, central temples, led to increased control over food production, storage, and distribution by the religious elite and specialized craftsmen, as the grain would be collected, stored, and distributed at or near the temple by the priests and their politicians. “Control of the surplus also involves determining who owns and works the land and who has rights to the food. From the start the temple played a key role in the organization” (Ponting, 1991, p. 57). Even in the first civilizations, we tell our students, the temple priests and administrators, in a move that prefigured the European feudal system by several millennia, came to own the land, collect the grain, mill it, and distribute it back, in rations, to the farmers who, ironically, had grown and harvested it. The power of the pen and the authority claimed from the gods invested the temple officials with their power to institute their own control and to visit targeted hunger upon those whom they chose.

By 3000 BCE, the city states were very stratified: slaves were on the bottom; most people were peasant farmers; craftsmen helped with irrigation, food collection, storage, transport, and distribution; administrators who could write tracked the food surplus; all the while, religious, military, and cultural elite secured their positions at the top (Ponting, 1991, p. 58).

Around this same time, beginning in 3000 BCE or so, private property was claimed by families, and by 2500 BCE the elite class of warriors, rulers, religious personnel and their administrators had risen to prominence by appropriating the agricultural surplus that they themselves could not produce. “Societies that were broadly egalitarian [hunter-gatherer] were replaced by ones with distinct classes and huge differences in wealth” (Ponting, 1991, p. 65).

At this point, we ask the student to do a compare and contrast activity between ancient Sumeria and modern America. How different is our society, with its top 1% and the other 99%, from ancient Mesopotamia? What would an Occupy Wall Street movement look like in Sumeria?

Diamond_Collapse_1Also at this same time, I have started my contemporary dystopian novels literary circles unit that imagines ecological catastrophes of the 21st century. Simultaneously, too, students continue their reading of nonfiction and receiving mini-lectures on how Ponting goes on to detail, in ways that prefigure Jared Diamond’s argument in his book Collapse, exactly how the Sumerian empire falls. To recap: first, draft animals are used to plow fields, which are planted in flood plains of fresh water rivers, where massive hydraulic construction projects are undertaken to tame the seasonal floods and use a series of interconnected dikes, canals, and underground aqueducts to irrigate the fields. Nearby, settled communities develop with rising populations and surplus food that is used to feed non-farmers, including growing military, temple, and cultural elite, who claim ownership of the surplus food, using writing to track the food surplus. Then, these new elite classes employ military with metal to invade other lands for more surplus food to feed their swelling populations. However, an irreversible strain has been put upon the land because the empire has outgrown its capacity to feed itself.

In a sequence of events already covered in this essay, more land is cleared of native trees and natural ground cover, which exposes the land to wind and rain erosion. Greater manure from animals is needed to make up for the topsoil loss, and greater water is needed from canals to irrigate stripped soils, since the natural biodiversity of the humus has been removed by erosion and the monocropping of wheat or barley decade after decade. Eventually the extra water drains but stacks upon the water table, causing waterlogged clay soils, the rising of deep minerals brought up in suspension, and the salinization of the land. The irony that we want our students to see is that the very majesty and success that we celebrate—abundance, cultural diversity, job specialization, surplus food—led to the first civilization’s downfall. In order to support both the growing population of the Sumerian empire and the growing trade with other peoples, more and more land was pressed into service in shorter periods of time. “Farmers shortened the period of fallow, overplanted, plowed marginal lands, and intensified irrigation, practices which led to salinization” (Hughes, 2001, p. 27).

Not only do we explain this process of desertification as it happened in Mesopotamia, but we also teach that this dangerous process is today claiming 25 million acres of our world’s fields each year (Pearce, 2006, p. 25). For our purposes, then, as sixth grade teachers, as we look backward into the distant past of Mesopotamia, we are also looking at our expanding world of deserts today—just as Jared Diamond finds disquieting similarities between the current salinization of Montana state’s soils and the salt-caked fields of Mesopotamia (2005, p. 47-49). What’s more, we also have to admit to our students that in the near future, some reports suggest a worldwide population of 9.4 billion people in 2050, when my students are fifty years old (Suddath, 2011, para. 6). These swollen numbers will only ratchet up the need to convert more woodland to farm land and restart the process elucidated in this essay section—unless, of course, the students can think up another better way of feeding everyone.

We can follow the history of Mesopotamia as a kind of warning, then: in 3000 BCE Sumerian became the first literate society in the world, producing in 2500 BCE the first written story, Gilgamesh, which our sixth graders read. By 1700 BCE, due to high levels of salt in the soil of southern Mesopotamia, wheat production was gone. “Between 1300-900 BCE, there was an agricultural collapse in the central area [of Mesopotamia] following salinization as a result of too much irrigation” (Ponting, 1991, p. 72).

We remind our students of sequence of environmental missteps in Mesopotamia before sharing Vandana Shiva’s five-step process that she uses in her book Earth Democracy (2005) to explain how the food corporations gained control of the contemporary industrial food system. The parallels between 3,000 years ago and today are unnerving:

  1. The exclusion of people from access to resources that had been their common property or held in common.
  2. The creation of ‘surplus’ or ‘disposable’ people by denying rights of access to the commons that sustained them.
  3. The creation of private property by the enclosure of common property.
  4. The replacement of diversity that provides for multiple needs and performs multiple functions with monocultures that provide raw material and commodities for the market.
  5. The enclosure of minds and imagination, with the result that enclosures are defined and perceived as universal human progress, not as growth of privilege and exclusive right for a few and dispossession and impoverishment for the many. (p. 20)

Even though Shiva is critiquing the world of this decade and the seizure of family farms and waterways in India, Africa, and South America by giant agribusiness corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, Phillip Morris, Nestlé, Suez, Bechtel, and Vivendi (again, we leave out the names of these corporations, as our intention is not to guilt trip or demonize, but to think of solutions), it is startling just how precisely her analysis also applies to the fall of Mesopotamia and the Sumerian empire. One is reminded of George Santayana’s pithy line, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”Mesopotamia Quote

As a counterpoint to both current agribusiness and to the ancient seizure and commodification of the surplus Sumerian wheat and barley by the elite in that empire, we point our students to examples of what Vandana Shiva calls earth democracy, small farmers and local food communities who stand up to global food export corporations by insisting on healthy local economies while honoring indigenous knowledge and biodiverse food traditions. A local example includes Growing Gardens here in Portland, the organization that organizes “hundreds of volunteers to build organic, raised bed vegetable gardens in backyards, front yards, side yards and even on balconies.  [They] support low income households for three years with seeds, plants, classes, mentors and more” (Growing Gardens, 2012). On a national level, the Slow Food USA movement joins an international group of over 225 chapters that “envisions a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the planet, and good for those who produce it” (Slow Food USA, 2012). An exemplary international movement embodying earth democracy is the bi-annual conference in Turin, Italy, called Terra Madre. The last Terra Madre conference, in 2010, was attended by over 5,000 delegates from over 100 countries, and it featured seminars on a variety of topics including GMO foods, water rights, organic food, and the threats that globalization poses for indigenous cultures (Terra Madre, 2010). These three movements implicitly overlap in their commitments to combatting poverty, food insecurity, topsoil and water scarcity, and empty calories.[1]

These movements provide our children with avenues for healthy food choices in healthy communities; however, without a change of global consciousness, they may be fighting uphill battles their whole lives long. At this point in the unit, just after they have finished their dystopian novels, the students are asked in groups to create a civilization somewhere in the world right now that articulates policies for topsoil and water conservation, green energy sourcing, employment for the employable, economic justice, and quality education. They are told that if they choose the site of London, for example, they are to imagine that the place is empty; however, they have to explain why they selected that site. The last and perhaps trickiest civilization characteristic they have to provide is cosmology, or what the civilization tells itself about its relation to Earth’s beginning, its bioregions, and its other animals.

At this point, to provide the students with a little background, I look backward one more time, this time to southeastern Turkey. Before Mesopotamia was founded, another astonishing event took place in 9600 BCE. The Ice Age has just ended and Hunter-Gatherers were finding more abundant vegetation and wildlife. Their wonderment led, simultaneously, to the birth of religion and to farming in Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey, 500 miles northwest of Gilgamesh’s great city, Uruk. There, near the town formerly known as Urfa, hunter-gatherers build the world’s first temple, 11,000 years ago (Mann, 2011). Archaeologists had long assumed that agriculture had predated religion, as Ponting and Diamond assumed, but the discovery in Turkey in 1994 has changed the way historians view ancient life in the Middle East. The devotional space and figurines for worship suggest that religion, in fact, predates agriculture, or at least was contemporaneous with it rather than following it—which also suggests that the thirst for the divine, or instinctual awe of humans for the “mysterium tremendum,” as Rudolf Otto (1958, p. 12) calls it, is hardwired into homo sapiens as we gaze up into the night sky and contemplate our place in the seemingly infinite cosmos. In any case, the students are asked to account for their cosmologies after they tell us where they get their jobs, justice, dirt, water, food, and energy for their new civilization.

I want to return now to the original question, “What does the garden have to do with English or history class?” In his book, An Environmental History of the World, J. Donald Hughes (2001), answers the question succinctly: “In Mesopotamia, of all regions studied by ancient historians, there is the clearest relationship between environmental devastation caused by humans and the decline of cities and their civilizations” (p. 38). Simply put, we study Mesopotamia in our garden so that we can understand, with our minds, hands, and taste buds, what they did to both build up and then drive their empire to extinction. In doing so, we hope to analyze the entwined mistakes made several thousand years ago so that we can provide our students with mutually-supporting and variable alternatives to avoid such a miserable end in the coming century, as they face some of the same interlocking problems such as overpopulation, deforestation, desertification, water scarcity, and hunger.

We are intuiting here that new strategies and technologies aren’t enough. Without new paradigms, new cosmologies, we can only borrow faddishly temporary liberal or conservative practices, but we cannot adopt reliable and flexible orientations that will remain sturdy enough and economically and environmentally just for all when problems multiply, overlap, and worsen across the globe. In short, we need a new story for our species, one about a global, empathic civilization, which brings me to the last section of this essay.


[1] I also return to favorite resources throughout this unit when needing reminders about balanced relationships between humans and their complicated biomes, including the following: Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, by Wendy Johnson (2008); How to Grow More Vegetables, by John Jeavons (2006); Big Ideas, by the Center for Ecoliteracy (2008); The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka (2009); Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway (2009); Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, by Steve Solomon (2006); Seed to Seed, by Suzanne Ashworth (2002); and the books and pamphlets of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association.