While visiting Omaha last month, I saw The Biggest Little Farm at the Dundee Theater and Symbiotic Earth at The First Unitarian Church of Omaha. Both films were very interesting, fun to watch, and educational–and each left me with some unanswered questions, which is great when you want to show a movie followed by discussion or see a movie as a family and have something to talk about on the way home.
I’d recommend either of these as a DVD to show at a community event. (Plastic Paradise and Bag It are two other good choices I saw earlier in the year–check out how my group minimized plastic garbage when serving refreshments for the 80+ people who attended our screening of Plastic Paradise!)
The Biggest Little Farm
This film is still showing in some theaters. When I got home to Pittsburgh, it was playing at The Manor in my neighborhood, so I took my whole family to see it. Even my 5-year-old was thoroughly interested in The Biggest Little Farm–but note that there are some scary scenes involving animal deaths and injuries, as well as approaching wildfires. We all enjoyed the beautiful scenery and skillful visual storytelling.
John and Molly Chester left their tiny apartment and bought 200 acres of worn-out California farmland where they dreamed of creating a farm in harmony with nature, producing a wide variety of crops and animal products free of pesticides and herbicides, interweaving plants and animals in a balanced ecosystem. Although they eventually succeeded, it wasn’t easy, and maintaining it is always going to be a lot of hard work–but they make a convincing case that it’s worth doing!
Molly was a professional chef and food blogger passionate about the flavor and nutritional value of locally-grown, organic food. John was a documentary filmmaker, so naturally he documented every step in the development of their farm. (We did wonder about some sequences in which we seemed to be seeing various people and animals reacting to an unfolding emergency, with John onscreen taking emergency action–surely some of that footage was filmed at another time and edited in!)
I have to disagree that (to quote its website) “The Biggest Little Farm provides us all a vital blueprint for better living and a healthier planet.” We don’t all have the financing to buy a farm that requires hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment before producing a viable crop. The movie does not explain biodynamic farming in enough detail to be called a “blueprint,” and it skips answering some important questions about how they made it work.
Here’s my biggest issue, fanned up bigger by the online research I’ve just done: Soon after buying the land, they decide they need an expert adviser on biodynamic farming, and he becomes a main character in the film, providing hands-on assistance as well as practical and philosophical advice. I’m upset to see that he isn’t even mentioned on either the film’s or the farm’s website, or in IMDB, or in Wikipedia! They treated him as their guru, the only one who could possibly know what to do, so that it was a great tragedy when he died of cancer only a few years into their farming journey–but now that they’re successful, they’ve apparently forgotten all about Alan York. I finally found his name in this IndieWire article, and here’s an appreciative remembrance. He was not only knowledgeable but fun to watch, a great character in the film. Here’s what I don’t get: After Alan died, why did Molly and John act like they were totally alone in figuring out how to solve farm problems, like there was nobody on Earth except Alan who knew how to farm this way?! They found Alan in the first place by doing a websearch; couldn’t they just search again for a new guru or look for answers on websites about biodynamic farming? I mean, this was only a few years ago–information was out there! Maybe they just staged it this way to amp up the drama.
Okay, finally after searching “Alan York Apricot Lane Farms”, I found that they do have a photo and brief tribute on the farm’s website. You could get there by clicking “photos” and “show all” and “page 3.” Gee. Give the guy a link from “About Us”!
This documentary is somewhat more serious and scientific than The Biggest Little Farm, but anyone who’s taken a middle school “life science” class would understand well enough to get something out of it. It’s more of a standard documentary, with lots of historical footage and a nerdy-voiced narrator.
Symbiotic Earth is the story of Lynn Margulis and her work. If you’ve never heard of Lynn Margulis, or you know her as “Carl Sagan’s ex-wife who was some kind of scientist, too,” here’s your chance to learn more about this enthusiastic, creative thinker and teacher who worked hard to understand how this planet really works. The short answer is: It’s all connected. When we focus on understanding how one living thing survives and grows, we find it’s supported by and supporting other living things; when we tease out the story of how one species evolved, we find it couldn’t have gotten there without the influences of other species.
We all learned in science class about symbiosis, in which two species live together, like clownfish and anemones each protecting the other from predators. Some teachers are brave enough to tell us that symbiosis isn’t just “out there in nature” but happening in our own bodies, that we couldn’t digest our food without bacteria living inside us all the time.
We also learned that evolution is “the survival of the fittest”–every species for itself, every individual of the species striving to be worthy of reproducing, constant competition with winning and losing based on individual strength and merit. Lynn Margulis argued that lots of evidence indicates the importance of collaboration between species and cooperation between individuals in the process of evolution as well as in the maintenance of daily survival. Her view has been controversial because it challenges assumptions that are popular, especially with men: Many men prize competition, individual merit, crushing others on the way to the top, being a “self-made man” who acknowledges no support from others. Because science was a very male-dominated profession when she got started in the late 1950s, her ideas and findings would have been minimized anyway, but her questioning of treasured assumptions and her insistence that all life is working together like a bunch of hand-holding hippies made her really threatening/laughable to the scientific establishment. Nevertheless, she persisted, published lots of books and articles, and ultimately got some of her findings accepted by mainstream science.
I really appreciated the film’s explanation of Darwin’s theory of evolution compared to neo-Darwinism (or “the theory of evolution accepted by the scientific establishment in the late twentieth century”) because I’d never realized how different they are, how much scientists between Darwin and Margulis had narrowed their understanding and closed their minds to observing evidence that didn’t fit the pattern they expected to see, or how heavily neo-Darwinism relies on “random mutations” as the mechanism of change. Margulis’s enthusiasm for figuring out complex interrelationships is contagious and has exciting implications for solving problems like pollution and global climate change.
I also enjoyed seeing lots of images of a serious scientist, at various stages of her life, who was unabashedly female and liked to wear purple flowery blouses and long skirts. She didn’t have to cut her hair short, wear gray pants and a white lab coat at all times, or be celibate and childless–and she didn’t have to flinch from pond scum and stay on the bank keeping tidy, either! She was herself, doing science, and there was no conflict there.
The one weak section of this documentary is “Working Together, a/k/a How Did She Do It All?” Of course, you have to have that section whenever you tell the story of anyone who got anything done while also being a mother, and Lynn Margulis had four children–two of them born while she was in the process of completing four academic degrees in eight years. I was hoping to hear about how the principles of symbiosis applied to her family life! But no. “I quit my job as a wife twice,” she said. “It’s not humanly possible to be a good wife, a good mother and a first-class scientist. No one can do it — something has to go.” It’s depressing how infrequently documentaries on scientists or other accomplished people who were also fathers address this issue….
Symbiotic Earth is a great inspiration to appreciate all the things that are working together on our planet now, and all the things that had to work together to create the diversity of lifeforms we have today.