Extraction Mentality

Of all the joys of gardening, the fistfuls of blooms and the tomatoes glistening in the rain, among the most magical, though least Instagrammable, is composting. I love composting. I’m in awe of it. As I turn it, I often pull up big pitchforkfuls to look at more closely, to try to try to glimpse just some of the life teeming inside. Some of it is visible—the red wrigglers squirming, the sowbugs skittering—but so much of the important work is done by microbes and bacteria and fungi, microscopic life I imagine as galaxies held in the palm of my hand.

All of our scraps and peelings, the cores and pits and tough stems, are mixed with leaves I’ve whisked away from people’s curbs, and in the end we have something that nourishes the garden. Something that not only gets rid of trash, but creates life. It’s a beautiful closed-loop system. (Or it would be if I grew all my own food.) I feed it, it feeds me.

So much of modern agriculture is based on extraction, getting all that we can get from our soil, relying on cheap fixes, like nitrogen fertilizer, like pesticides and herbicides, to get more now, with little concern for the future. Outputs matter more than inputs. It’s, like so many things, a one-way street from the earth to us. It’s an extraction mentality.

I’ve just joined my local co-op, the only one left in Toronto, though from a financial point of view, it’s not a clear win. There’s a membership fee, and I contribute two hours’ of labour each month. I won’t do all my shopping there, as my spending would take a considerable leap, and I’m not quite ready for that yet. Which is all to say, financially, it might not be the right choice.

But that’s extraction mentality. And such a small part of the picture. By shopping there, I can support local farmers who treat the earth and their labour well, and in turn, benefit both. I can support local, ethical companies. I can use less packaging. I can contribute my skills and time to my community. I can learn from people who know more and share what I know.

I feel really good about my choice. And not just because they removed the Nestlé products from their shelves, or because they have a new climate change mural, or because they vermicompost their food scraps or offer package-free tofu made in Quebec or bulk rice from Flin-Flon, Manitoba. Somehow all those little reasons, like adjustments in a yoga class, combine into something greater, bring me closer into alignment with who I want to be. But beyond that, beyond how I benefit, it gives me a chance to help close the loop.

A co-op takes its profits back into its staff and community, and the loop becomes a spiral, progressing in a sustainable way. If it were a garden, it would have great soil. It’s a reminder we aren’t nourished just by what we take, but by what we contribute. This sounds obvious, I know, but it’s not how our society is organized in the rush for the bottom price, the bottom line, to get what’s ours. Extraction is everywhere. Our inability to close the carbon loop is now a very real threat to human existence in the long-term.

And maybe this is the zeal of the recent convert, but I’m ready to get my hands dirty. I’m ready to strengthen my local ecosystems one purchase, one conversation, one volunteer shift at a time. I’m ready to invest in what’s good, what’s working, what benefits more people. I’m ready to put in a little more and to wait and watch for what new galaxies reveal themselves.