Today is Easter Sunday, the day when Christians celebrate Jesus’ supposed resurrection from the tomb. But though they believe this holiday commemorates a unique and singular event, their timing is suspicious. As you may have noticed, Easter is very close (making some allowances for calendrical drift) to the vernal equinox, the first day of spring.
This strongly suggests that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is another offshoot of the ancient harvest myth: the story of resurrection invented by primitive people who watched in wonder as seeds were buried in the earth, seemingly consigned to oblivion as if they were dead bodies, only to burst forth into new life. In the ancient world, a pantheon of dying-and-rising savior gods sprang from this belief. The New Testament unintentionally testifies to the origin of its own mythology when it has Jesus incorrectly state, “I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
It’s not just Christianity that unknowingly beats in time to these ancient agricultural rhythms. I attended a Passover seder earlier this week with my wife’s extended family. Throughout the service, I was contemplating how the litany that observant Jews recite every year claims that this holiday is observed to commemorate the Jewish people’s ancient deliverance from Egypt. But archaeological evidence shows that the whole story is a pious fiction: they were never enslaved there in the first place. There was no exodus, no wandering in the desert, no genocidal conquest of the promised land; the people we call the Israelites always lived there, they were always neighbors to the Canaanites whom their holy writings despise. It seems more likely that Passover, too, began as a spring festival whose real origins were gradually forgotten as it was pressed into the cause of serving a nationalistic myth.
I think that part of the reason this isn’t more obvious to everyone is that modern society is suffering from agricultural estrangement. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, billions of people spend their lives in cities where they have little, if any, direct contact with nature unless they make a specific effort to seek it out. Agriculture, meanwhile, has become an industrialized endeavor where a few varieties of food crops are grown in enormous monoculture.
But nature in all its tangled complexity can’t be treated with the logic of a factory, and our society is paying the price for it: soil erosion and depletion, loss of genetic diversity, extreme vulnerability to changing climate, and a never-ending struggle against fast-evolving pests. I recently read in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire how modern potato farmers, to protect against late blight – the same fungus that caused the catastrophic Irish famine – spray their crops with an organophosphate fungicide that’s so toxic they won’t step into the field for any reason for almost a week after spraying.
This battle has already been lost on some fronts. For example, the Gros Michel, once the most popular variety of banana in the world, was wiped out by a fungal disease, and the current favorite, the Cavendish, may be next. In nature, the genetic diversity naturally present in every population usually ensures that at least some individuals will resist any disease or pest; but industrial agriculture, which prefers that every plant be a uniform and genetically perfect clone of every other, makes no allowance for this.
If we had a more decentralized, more diverse agricultural system – one that more closely approximated an ecosystem, rather than an assembly line – we wouldn’t be nearly as vulnerable. That’s why it makes me glad to see the growing prominence of urban farming, like this organic farm in the Battery district of lower Manhattan, the prevalence of community gardens, or small farms on urban green roofs. Shrinking cities like Detroit have also been experimenting with large-scale urban agriculture, partly to remedy the chronic lack of fresh, healthy produce (Detroit, incredibly, has no major chain supermarkets).
Granted, no major city is likely to ever be fully self-sufficient. It probably doesn’t make economic sense for cities to grow all their own food, even with fanciful ideas like vertical farms – essentially, glass skyscrapers turned into giant greenhouses. There will always be economic incentives to grow crops in rural land that’s not in as much demand for living space.
But the benefits of decentralized agriculture, including urban farming, would be more than purely economic. It would restore that ancient biophilic connection with nature that so many millions of people have lost, and it would give us a greater sense of where our food comes from and how dependent we are on the earth – that sense of time and space, of season and climate, without which we feel adrift and rootless. The psychological benefits of a green environment are considerable, and it’s even possible that it might give more people a rational insight into where some of our species’ most popular myths first came from.