Monday, May 29, 2006

practicing complexity

Polyface Farm is built on the efficiencies that come from mimicking relationships found in nature, and layering one farm enterprise over another on the same base of land. In effect, Joel [Salatin, Polyface Farm's owner] is farming in time as well as in space - in four dimensions rather than three. He calls this intricate layering "stacking" and points out that "it is exactly the model God used in building nature." The idea is not to slavishly imitate nature, but to model a natural ecosystem in all its diversity and interdependence, one where all the species "fully express their physiological distinctiveness." He takes advantage of each species' natural proclivities in a way that not only benefits that animal but other species as well. So instead of treating the chicken as a simple egg or protein machine, Polyface honors - and exploits - "the innate distinctive desires of a chicken," which include pecking in the grass and cleaning up after herbivores. The chickens get to do, and eat, what they evolved to do and eat, and in the process the farmer and his cattle both profit. What is the opposite of zero-sum? I'm not sure, but this is it.

- The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, p. 215
Reading The Omnivore's Dilemma has been a life-changing experience for me, and not only in terms of rethinking my eating habits. The passage I've quoted above is from a chapter called "The Animals: Practicing Complexity", concerning an incredible and sustainable farm in Virginia, Polyface Farm. Simply calling Polyface "sustainable" actually doesn't do it justice - farmer Joel Salatin (who recently began his own blog) has improved his land markedly through his innovative farming methods.

"Innovative" might also be misleading here, since the real innovator here is nature itself. It's gotten me thinking about how to better practice complexity in my own life. Natural systems always tend towards complexity, diversity, layering - as Pollan frequently writes, you can't change one thing without affecting every thing. While I'm not quite sure what the "innate distinctive desires" of a bass player would be, I'm pretty sure what they would not include - endless repetition, lack of stimulation, boredom. It would mean treating oneself as a thoughtful, artistic entity, not a sound-producing machine.

Of course, in the course of orchestral rehearsals we're not always so lucky. It is no small task to treat 80-100 musicians as complex and distinctive individuals, and so many conductors run their rehearsals as the equivalent of the CAFO, the confined animal feeding operations which Salatin rightly deplores. Other more sophisticated rehearsal technicians are able to draw out musicians' minds as well as their sounds, with predictably superior results.

On our own practice time, we owe it to ourselves and our art to not behave like an animal in a CAFO, forcibly ingesting excerpts and etudes. The challenge is to create variety and indulge some of our 'natural proclivities,' while still operating a structured, productive practice session. I think this can be done, and can be much more efficient than the repeat-ad-nauseam approach to practice - it just takes a good deal more thought and experimentation.

I'm sure these issues come up in any field, and that the "innate distinctive desires" of a web designer or flight attendant demand equal consideration and respect. I recall reading about the new models of car manufacturing created by Toyota and other Japanese companies in the 1980's, and how they increased workers' productivity and job satisfaction by shifting through multiple tasks, rather than the assembly-line mentality of Ford and GM. We have to realize that in life and work, as in farming, simpler does not always mean better, or more efficient.

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