Farming Versus Entropy

Though the vernal equinox is a couple months out yet, work here on the farm is ramping up as the days grow longer and the sun reaches towards higher noons. Today I’m out there with a shovel and wheelbarrow, spreading generous quantities of compost over garlic beds. After this, there’s old fence wire to take down and coil. Then, in the gloaming, I’ll need to bring hay to the horses and cows.

Sorting Machine

I often feel like a sorting machine — a robot (or demon?) programmed to separate this from that according to one of a number of algorithms I’ve had soldered in my brain over the years. Farming, at it’s core, is all about organizing and reorganizing materials. Epicycles of doing and undoing in synchrony with the celestial spheres.

This is not to say I mind being a robot. In fact, generally speaking, repetitive manual labor doesn’t bother me. Physically demanding yet relatively mindless tasks get you into headspaces you can’t access otherwise. I enjoy the total absorption that happens if you can quiet your thoughts and tune in completely to the task at hand. I also enjoy letting my mind wander over whatever terrain it wants to.


This afternoon, I’m going back and forth between periods of mental tranquility and of psychic inferno. When my neurons are still, I am coextensive with the work I’m doing and with the cold breeze rushing out of the west. There is no distinction between me and my surroundings during these stretches, no distinction between me and the parting clouds and the silver mid-January light. Time disappears.

When, on the other hand, by some random fluctuation, my neurons come alive again, I’m in a tight conceptual orbit around the notion of entropy and the widespread belief in the ultimate inevitability of disorder and ruin. There are physicists who go as far as to say that entropy is among the most fundamental of cosmic powers — even more basic than gravity, which is said to be merely the emergent byproduct of the Second Law of Thermodynamics playing itself out. Not everyone believes this though.

Something’s Funny

When I was studying at Indiana University Bloomington, I had the opportunity to take a fantastic class on the history and philosophy of entropy. If it weren’t for this seminar, I probably never would have noticed one of a number of funny things about about the concept of disorder — to wit, that it seems to spring into being not at the level of single molecules but at the level of our knowledge and judgements about groups of molecules. In other words, entropy — the ostensible prime mover of all reality — doesn’t seem to exist outside our minds.

Now, because molecules aren’t things we can relate to very well, let’s transpose the whole matter onto the medium scale of human agriculture. Let’s turn the molecules into hay bales. Maybe we can get a better grip on the problem this way.

If I asked you which was more disorganized, an acre of pasture with a pyramid of 100 hay bales neatly stacked under a tarp in the corner, or the same acre with 100 bales thrown all over the place, you’d probably say the acre with the bales strewn everywhere. I think that’s what pretty much everyone would say.

Purpose And Emergence

But what if I told you that the purpose of the configuration on this particular day was not to keep the hay out of the rain and away from the cows? What if I was instead wanting to distribute the hay to a bunch of cows in a way they’d all have a good chance of getting a fair portion to eat? Suddenly, choosing which acre is less organized becomes less clear.

The trouble arises from the fact that, at the level of individual bales, it makes no sense whatsoever to talk about organization or disorganization or lower or higher entropy. By itself, a bale’s a bale and that’s pretty much all you can say. It’s only when bales are grouped together in relation to some kind of human purpose that statements about higher or lower entropy can make any sense at all.

Since humans can find all sorts of uses for the same materials, this means there’s often a good amount of subjectivity involved in labeling systems as orderly or disorderly. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, as they say.

The Chase

Of course, on the farm, the same person can see trash or treasure depending on the month. Our desires for the land and the materials that populate it are mercurial, dynamic. We are ever engaged in the pursuit of the sun — always responding and adapting, always sculpting the world around us based on the position of our nearest star. As a result, that which we deem to possess high entropy in summer we deem to possess low entropy in winter and vice versa.

This, in its turn, means there will always be making and unmaking to attend to. There will always be chains of iterative choreography to lose yourself in — pushing bulbs into the soil and stacking alfalfa. There will always be a font of thoughts to think about the nature of chaos and order.

Like usual, we’ve only scratched the surface. More to come.

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(Today’s photos is courtesy of Paul L’s Flickr. Thanks for posting under a Creative Commons license!)

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