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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Farming as Carework; or, Composting Careers

Jonathan L. Bradshaw

Table of Contents

Keywords: framing; parenting

Categories: Creatively Caring for Self, Others, and Place; Writing the Process of Writing

At the time of this initial writing, March 2021, we have just passed the one-year mark for the pandemic. Just four months before the start of the pandemic, my wife, Susan, our two kids, and I moved from a rental we had been in for four and a half years to our dream spot in the mountains of far Western North Carolina--5 acres next to a creek and an old farmhouse built in 1910. “Social distancing” was part of the whole idea out here. So when the pandemic hit, I made the most of all the time at home by starting some small-scale farming (“farm” may be stretching it; we don’t sell anything, but we have enough variety of living things—a list that that keeps expanding—that it definitely feels at least like a make-believe homestead).

It’s not just chickens and compost that have changed since the start of the pandemic; my professional life changed too. The farm has taken up almost entirely—in time, labor, and intellectual capacity—that part of myself I used to refer to as “my writing life.”  

Rows of planted garlic in the foreground. In the background is a white house surrounded by green trees. Rows of garlic are foregrounded. A road passes through in the background, A green forest stands beyond.

Images 1 & 2: Rows of garlic growing in the garden.

Soon after starting my professor gig, I landed on a good metaphor for planning out my scholarly productivity: composting. I’ve always been fascinated by composting, though I had never done it well. If you’re doing composting right, you have a multi-bin system. One is for mixing fresh, new materials in and building a pile; another for a fully formed pile where you no longer add new material so that it can begin the “cooking” process and billions of living things can break it down; and a finished pile, ready for your plants. This is the same system I used to organize my writing. I aimed to, at any given time, always have one article accepted and in process of publication; one article “cooking” (in the late stages of revision, under review, or ready for submission); and a big mixing bowl of new ideas that I could rotate over to the “cooking” pile when ready. It may sound hokey, but it worked really well for me.

Until the pandemic started.

I rarely throw any writing in the mixing pile anymore—and, when I do, someone or something around the farm has some emergency that needs tending to. I don’t have the words to express the incongruity of planning a research article when a bolt has broken on the mower and you spend hours (unsuccessfully) prying it out, or a chicken has started eating the others’ eggs, or worrying about whether your kids—who are now homeschoolers—are reading at grade level.

That middle pile, the “cooking” pile, is totally empty now and I’ve scraped all the goods out of the finished pile. I am fortunate in that I was already working on final revisions to an accepted article for Computers and Composition when the pandemic hit. That came out in June 2020 and, on paper, makes me look productive. However, I’ve barely written a word since then. Being an untenured WPA, part-time homeschool teacher, and newly-online teacher has just sucked it right out of me. 

A wood-paneled room with a woven rug contains pot with seedlings under growing lamps.

Image 3: My home office became a seed starting room for much of 2020.

I can’t find the same space in my life for this scholarly writing stuff. I have been building pens and tearing down old fences when I should have been reading new articles in CCCC. I have been hauling organic materials to make permanent beds when I should have been working on a book proposal; and, I have been perusing seed catalogs and planning plantings for the upcoming growing season when I should have been planning a convincing research trajectory for my upcoming tenure review. Don’t tell the tenure committee, but I decided to forgo all the conference-going this year—even though most adjusted to online spaces—so that I could put time into planning the 2021 growing season.

The thing is, I’m proud of the time and labor I have put into care work with this land. I’m constantly surprised by it. I learn so much from it and it is a constant joy to see my kids learning from it as well. I’m also proud that Susan and I have put so much time and energy into making sure our kids are grounded, learning, and making the most of connecting to their new home while they are homeschooling.

It’s just that I can’t talk about any of that in my upcoming tenure and promotion dossier.


Garden Farming & Multimodal Carework

Gardening is multimodal. At least, when you do it the way I do. Which is to say planning that involves lots of reading, writing, and drawing that ultimately leads to haphazard implementation when those ideas meet the constraints of the garden, yard, and personal ability. To really care for land is to be with it.

Case in point: Before I knew it this year, Spring was here. Daffodils were peeking through in late February and then the crocus were up. A neighbor showed up to till a new extension of the garden unexpectedly. I was on a Zoom call with a student when he knocked on the door; I had to quickly pause the meeting to run out and outline the dimensions of the new spot for him, then rush back to the call to guide the student through a few concerns. Mid-conversation, it became abundantly clear to me that my math was off and that it was the weekend to sow all of my tomato seeds indoors for transplanting in about six-to-eight weeks. I helped the student navigate a course requirements checksheet for the major and offered professional guidance on what courses to take in the Spring; ten minutes after, I was on my knees sowing rutabaga seeds. Then another friend showed up with 20 lb of extra seed potatoes, ready to plant.

Sketches of planting beds and their planned cops. More sketches of plant beds and what crops will go where.

Images 4 & 5: Planning garden areas is often an exercise in multimodal composing.

All that to say: garden farming is carework. Teaching writing and rhetoric is not at all farming, but likewise is carework (when done right). In the true spirit of multimodality, both are caring about a lot of independently different yet interdependent things all at once. And about things that will get out of hand if they are not tended too soon. While I contemplate sweet potatoes (the beds still aren’t ready) and a dark night of the soul for apple blossoms (the National Weather Service is calling for a major freeze event while the tree is in full bloom)—my shoulders are also aching from a long stint of office work, writing feedback on student writing, and hours of WPA-related emailing. Today I owe my grad students some feedback, a colleague an email, my wife some time off from homeschooling, and my seedlings some straw to weather the storm. I have to care about these things, and that care has to be enlivened through labor. If the freeze hits as they say it will, I’ll have to respond to that as well.

All of this labor is important. It benefits my soil, my plants, my harvest, my family, my students, my program. As a scholar, though, the pandemic will look less like a “gap” in my CV and more like a cliff.

That I’m choosing to do everything else rather than work on that new article idea is not a sign that I don’t care. I actually enjoy my academic writing. But in the wake of the pandemic, the great many things to care for has multiplied, which has meant priorities have had to shift. And one thing to know about gardening is that tilling is not an inherent good. Many things do not survive shifting the soil.


Farming Rhetorics

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve fretted about the disjunction between scholarly productivity and the bountiful harvest—the miles between the office and the barnyard—and I’ve realized that rhetoric can teach me a lot about how I live and work on this land.

A good friend and colleague of mine, Travis Rountree, came out to the farm recently. We share a deep love of the mountains and, as scholars, Appalachian rhetorics. I was showing him around my new plantings, the chicken shit I had dutifully shoveled out into a compost bin, my fledgling-but-alive plan for a small orchard, and he said something he had mentioned several times before: “You should write about ‘Farming Rhetorics.’”

A large pile of clippings, cuttings, and dirt sits by some wooden posts and a chicken wire fence.

Image 6: One of my best compost piles to date.

I have been dismissive of the idea when he has mentioned it before because these two parts of my life haven’t occupied the same space for me. I’m not out here as a writer preparing for some non-fiction essay. I’m not playing around at this so that I can have a cool paper presentation title at the next conference. I’m trying to grow healthy food, to rely less on the industrial food system, and to add benefit to the soil while I do it. I’m here caring about this spot—the origins of the plants that grow here, the birds and pollinators that pass through and those that dwell, the ecosystems it receives from and flows into—and writing about it is the last thing on my mind while I do that.

However, that evening I was sitting in my “orchard”—two thriving pear trees, two peach trees that were almost killed by deer last year but bounced back after we put up some fencing, and imaginative space for new heritage apple trees I’m trying to propagate—and it hit me. “Farming rhetorics.”

I define rhetoric for students in my composition and graduate courses as “thinking ethically and artfully about our communication.” The “ethically” angle comes in as we think about the consequences for our audiences when we use language; the “artfully” angle comes in by thinking intentionally about how we communicate. As I often tell them, “Rhetoric, at its best, is an ethic of audience care.”

Teaching rhetoric and writing is teaching writers to care for readers. Not in a paternalistic way, but in the way that you care about outcomes for those around you. That caring involves a lot of emotional and literal labor. Their feelings, beliefs, ideals, messy humanity, and arguments have to matter to us and we have to take meaningful action to engage and adjust. That’s rhetoric; it’s also why we have to teach about the scope of many rhetorical strategies we teach. For instance, I teach students that you should not practice some of the counterargument strategies we are using in an academic paper when someone denies your place at the table (or your humanity); in that case, the fundamental grounds for deliberative engagement are broken. Such situations require other actions, which are also rhetorical but not geared the same way (these days, much of my instruction about rhetorical strategies includes the caveat “except with Nazis and white supremacists”). Teaching an ethics of care has to also be bound up in an ethics of self-care.

For me, rhetoric is bound up in carework much the same way gardening and farming are bound up in care for the land on which you do it. Did you know that under your foot in the garden or forest live fungal threads called mycorrhizae that, if lined out, would stretch for miles? Those threads work with plant roots to help them share nutrients further out and down than the plant’s roots can reach; they can facilitate “communication” signals between plants and other areas that tell the plant about environmental stressors so that they can adjust accordingly. These threads also hate disturbance and are decimated (along with other organisms) with the introduction of chemical fertilizers and tilling. That’s something a gardener has to decide whether they care about or not.

A long wooden countertop or table full of green, red, and red-green tomatoes. Some garlic sits in a small plate there too.

Image 7: Speaking of tomatoes . . .

That self-care is bound up in care for others is a part of what we need to keep in mind with both rhetorical and farming practices. As I garden on land that has been sacred to the Cherokee through time immemorial, I’m constantly working to remind myself that I have a responsibility to do more than harvest from it. I have to think carefully about my inputs and do what I can to be a good guest despite what the deed may say on paper. I grow more than I need so that I can share; I work to be sure I gratefully receive what others bring to me. Whether it is fungal threads or a rich history that is not mine to mine, I’m aware that disturbance of the soil here always disrupts some communication and impacts the overall ecology—human or otherwise. Even though I’m starting my beds with tilling to break through invasive Bermuda grass, my goal is to get no-till as soon as I can accumulate enough compost and organic material in that space to make it feasible. Remembering that disturbance also impacts the efficacy of the soil over time for the humans who cultivate it is a point of constant reflection and design that I have decided I care about an awful lot.

I’m a little too small-minded and practical to call any of that “rhetoric,” though. I know, I know—OOR, Latour, New Materialism. But it’s just not rhetoric. It gives me meaningful metaphors for rhetoric the same as it gives me tomatoes (perhaps the former is even more prone to disease than the latter), but it isn’t a rhetoric—not for me, at least.

Even so, I’ve found rhetoric does offer up ways of thinking about carework with the land. 

Rhetoric is thinking ethically and artfully about our communication with audiences. Gardening is thinking ethically and artfully about the consequences for our ecologies when we work the land. In that way, both are forms of “carework” if we are looking to do more than persuade someone to “our side” or to just harvest for “our use.” If I think of rhetoric as a way of thinking that calls me to an ethic of audience care, it shares affinities with a mindset that is responsive and intentional with our land use and relationships with the ecologies within which we live.

Is that rhetoric? No, not by the scope I apply to rhetoric. Is it composing? Yes, I constantly reevaluate and reflect on my own decision-making around the farm and the consequences for specific actions. Is it carework? That is almost all it is, and it doesn’t admit time or energy for much else. I worry sometimes that it may be at the expense of considerations such as my “reputation in the field” and “scholarly productivity.” But I suppose that’s the thing about carework. We put care into parts of our lives that then turn around and change us and our priorities.

Anyway, I have to get back to fretting about this frost. You ought to see those apples when they come on . . .


Jonathan L. Bradshaw is an Associate Professor of English Studies at Western Carolina University and director of the Writing, Rhetoric, & Critical Studies Program. His work can be found in Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Computers & Composition, enculturation, Present Tense, 10 chickens, and 5 acres.

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