Buckwheat, fallow ground and productivity

A few summers ago, a neighbour planted a crop of buckwheat on his front lawn. When it matured, he plowed it under and planted a new crop. When it matured, he plowed it under and planted again. Three times he plowed buckwheat into his front yard.

His house faces the high-traffic main road through a suburban neighbourhood, so his actions caused quite a stir. “What on earth is he doing?” people wondered.

What with earth would have been a better question, I suppose.

At the time, my mother reminded me that her father planted buckwheat in his fields every few years to replenish the soil with vital nutrients. Better even that letting the land go fallow for a year, the buckwheat rejuvenated the depleted cropland. My neighbour’s lawn benefited from three crops worth of buckwheat nutrients.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell proposed many thought-provoking theories. (The book contains the “10,000 hours of practice theory” that some dispute.) One particular intriguing notion caught my attention: the affect of agriculture on other aspects of society.

In North America, for example, corn and wheat fields need to go fallow every few years (or enjoy an infusion of buckwheat) or they get depleted of nutrients, so we grew to believe that productivity and creativity of all sorts required periods of rest. We adopted the idea that people need fallow periods too, hence our long summer and Christmas school vacations. (These also allowed farm children to help with the crops.) The Asian view evolved from a different agricultural crop: rice. Rice paddies produce two or three crops per year with no need for fallow rest periods. As a result, Asian society and their educational systems took the same shape.

This year, this month, we North Americans maintained the rhythm of the calendar year that agriculture brought us. We recently returned to our jobs, schools, projects after a short holiday period that was either “fallow” or “buckwheat”, or perhaps both. We enjoyed two weeks of restful reading and reflection—fallow replenishment. Or we busied ourselves with activities different from the usual—a buckwheat change for replenishment.

Either way, our productivity benefits from the rhythm of our calendar year. Restored through the rest, or change, or both, we get back to work, creating anew.


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