10. Land Noir


This page is a tour of the section of Softwine City known as Land Noir.

Film noir is a type of movie. That is, film noir is an art form using the medium of film.

Land noir is a type of farm or garden. Land noir is an art form using the medium of suburban agriculture.

To understand land noir, it is first important to understand film noir. And that is the paradox we face: films in the film noir genre are not easily “understandable”; and even defining “film noir” can be elusive.

Now entering uncharted territory

There is a class of films that are referred to as “film noir”. Filmmakers who made film noir films, however, were not consciously trying to create a new genre of film.

By way of analogy, if you were to walk on the grounds of a fair, you might encounter lights, and food stalls, games, and rides. Each vendor’s space would be an expression of what he is selling. The entire effect of all the booths is a carnival atmosphere. But it may be that no one actually consciously said, “Let’s make a fair.” The city simply leased the land to all comers. What happened was a fair. What was planned might have been something else entirely.

So it was with film noir. Filmmakers borrowed techniques and tropes from each other, and built on what the public liked. The final effect is a series of films over decades and continuing till today called “noir”. But no one ever set out, at least in the beginning years, to create a noir film. There is no canonized list of film noir concepts or what elements must be present in a film for it to be categorized as noir.

So what are the characteristics of a noir film?

In my own words, film noir movies “feel lifelike.” Other films have plots the viewer can grasp; have a beginning, middle, and end that corresponds to some storyline. But film noir movies can be more about what’s happening, without classic elements like a climax, denouement, etc. And to me that’s the point: life is not always something that can be neatly cubbyholed. So the events and scenes of films about life should not be easily filed.

I want to apply that to what I call land noir, the art form that uses suburban agriculture as its medium. Sub-ag is filled with idealism, and lofty, but realistic, goals. To make the D.C. region sustainable. To start out in MoCo. But in the final analysis, sub-ag will march to its own drummer. There are just too many players, factors, and conditions beyond any one group’s control to limit sub-ag to some neat definitions such as “providing superior nutrition to schools”, or “feeding those in food deserts”. Where sub-ag will end up is not something I can hazard to guess.

An example from history will illustrate.

Jules Auguste Lemire pushed for private land ownership in France in the years before WWI. As this article demonstrates, his “Society for workers’ gardens of Paris and suburbs” possibly saved France during WWII when the German occupation led to near starvation of the populace.

Lemire had a relatively modest goal of helping workers. In the end, his effort contributed to saving the entire country.

So, our goals here and now in MoCo are to create fresh, local, natural, pure, organic food, clothing and more for our families, friends and neighbors. Whether we succeed or not, or what the final impact will be, is unknown and mostly not in our hands. But for sure, what we can do is talk to each other, take the first steps down the garden path, and give it our best shot.

We will focus on the here and now. The final picture will be land noir, our collective effort as viewed through the lens of history.

Much of the action of film noir often takes place at night, and indoors. So, too, sub-ag work will often take place in the evenings or night. That is because, for many, sub-Ag is an avocation, something to be done after school, or after a days work at some other job. So sub-ag will be known for those contrasts of dark and light that are the mark of film noir.

In practice, I use a Zebralight headlamp for working the land at night. Zebralights are little flashlights that are worn on a headband. They can project prodigious amounts of light in an even, wide beam. The effect is that wherever the wearer turns, it is lit up like daylight for several feet around. Beyond that is plunged into darkness except for street lamps and house lights.

Sympathetic treatment of societal outcasts
Film noirs often examine the lives of those who don’t fit in to society, those who live on the periphery of what is accepted as “normal”.

Sub-ag will be a home for outcasts.

Let’s face it. In today’s world, most students would not think of suburban farming as their first career choice. In fact, I wonder if any MoCo high-school counselor would ever bring that up as an option. College? Sure. Trade school? Yes. Suburban farming? What’s that?!

The students to whom we’ll be pitching this idea of sub-ag as a career choice are likely to be those who have been subtly told that there is no place for them in the standard paths carved out by society. It could be their families have rejected them, also.

Pulled towards a fatalistic ending
Many have tried to implement ideas similar to suburban agriculture. A survey of the internet shows that around the country there are numerous projects, under various names, of groups trying to grow food in suburbia. Friends send me the links to these other websites, or I just encounter them as I research topics.

On the one hand, I find the other projects encouraging and informative. One friend wants to grow a small plot of wheat. He directed me to a site in California that does that, and has figured out how to do tasks like threshing and winnowing on a small scale.

Moreover, urban agriculture projects in some cities seem to have taken off on a large scale.

All that being said, the prospects of success here seem bleak. Despite the fifty or so farmers markets in the area, and many more CSA’s, the amount of small scale farming is minuscule compared to the potential market for food in the DC region. At best, we have a years long uphill battle ahead.

However, even if failure seems inevitable, that shouldn’t faze us. Sometimes film noirs have happy endings. It’s not always obvious where things are headed.

Dealing with moral ambiguity
In film noir, moral ambiguity is a trademark. When a “bad guy” gets punished, that’s good, isn’t it? But who’s to decide good and bad? If the one who judges is just someone who is “less bad”, does that give him the right to reach a verdict and carry out the sentence? In wartime, special powers are granted to soldiers. Do members of the underworld who operate outside the purview of society, are they granted special rights?

Now you might say that with suburban agriculture, we are doing good things. We are on the right path.

Admittedly, it’s legal to grow a garden on a front lawn. But what if the appearance of the garden upsets the flow of the neat green line of lawns on the block? What if a garden at one house lowers the perceived market value of a neighbor’s house? Just because something is legal doesn’t make it necessarily right or even smart.

We may have to step on some toes to make progress. The ends may justify the means in this case. But we should also be cognizant of people’s feelings and keep evaluating and re-evaluating how each project fits into the greater good of the community.

Alienation from society
Another theme of film noir is alienation from society. The anti-hero distances himself from society.

All of these factors — outcast status, alienation, moral ambiguity — interplay with each other. Where is the line between feeling alienated and being an outcast? Is it right if the “good guy” does in the “bad guy” but for the “wrong” reasons?

These are important questions. Just like there can be a flawed heros, bitter that other avenues haven’t worked out, so too when we come to hire sub-ag farmhands we should be prepared to work with people who have their reasons for joining this effort which may be less than idealistic.

Reclaiming abandoned buildings
The settings for film noir scenes can be abandoned factories and less traveled parts of the city, and exotic landscapes like the footings of a massive bridge.

Land noir is very much about using land that otherwise is not productive or ornamental.

Urban settings
Typically, the film noir action takes place in the city. It is often raining. Or out in the country in some dry desolate place.

Land noir is about city rain; and sometimes about drought. Farming is built on faith that the conditions beyond our control will give us a chance to succeed.

Shakespeare compared man to a player on the stage. We should be cognizant there is a producer and director.

Farm Noir
One last point in this discussion of the art of land noir. I originally wanted to call the art form “farm noir” since “farm” alliterates with “film”. Also, http://www.noir.farm was available.

However, Joshua Sternberg of the School of Adaptive Agriculture preceded me in using the term “farm noir”. Mr. Sternberg’s usage in his “farm noir” post focuses on translating into farming the recurring film noir character type of detective protagonist.

Quote: “As with the detective, the farmer follows false leads. There are a million ways to Sunday and the farmer has to find the appropriate flow and function to get there.”

His post makes many other fine points. Moreover, the School of Adaptive Agriculture is a good example of what we are trying to create here in MoCo: a fast paced educational program to jumpstart farming in the region. In our case, suburban farming.

So, building on his post, I will add that land noir is about training new suburban farmers, including giving them the skills needed to think creatively and find “solutions” to the “crime” of a society eating and wearing way too many foods and clothes that have questionable effects on the environment and on ourselves.

One more thought
Film noir often explores actual crime. Land noir stays far away from actual crime — as opposed to social crimes. Yet we must be proactive in distancing ourselves from the actual crime.

In my research on how to live a better life, perforce I encounter examples of people who stumbled into doing bad things. In particular, crimes like human trafficking, and sexual molestation.

Land noir is about taking young people, many who are vulnerable, and putting them to work. The young people are vulnerable because they don’t have work. They are vulnerable because they don’t have much life experience. They are vulnerable because they are trying to please.

We must take active steps to protect the sub-ag workers from exploitation. Some simple rules, it seems to me, can go a long way. Rules like:

-A young person should never be in an isolated place with an adult, and certainly never in a position where they don’t have an “out”, that is, a way to escape if they are uncomfortable.

-Records should be kept of contacts.

-Where possible, video cameras should be installed.

-A sub-ag ombudsman should regularly interview sub-ag participants.

In the majority of cases I’ve encountered, such simple protocol could have averted a lot of anguish.

And the rules don’t just protect the kids. They protect the people in charge, too. A person should not trust himself to watch over himself when it comes to issues of human relations. Again, experience, and the news, is full of examples to back that statement up. So, from the beginning, let us act cleverly and not be sorry later.

When we introduce people to the idea suburban agriculture, I think it is good to offer them some concepts of what it is all about. And I think a good place to start is by showing the movie “Silent Running”. Silent Running is a story of a time when the entire planet has been paved over. Nothing grows anymore on Earth.

Silent Running has many noir elements, updated with science fiction and full-color. It is not an easy film, and people should use discretion before choosing to watch it. There are murders portrayed onscreen. There is a suicide, too. Many of the land noir concepts outlined above are on display. Outcast status, alienation, night time action, claustrophobic indoors scenes, moral ambiguity, the farmer as detective, desolate locale, and a fatalistic ending that in this case somehow manages to be hopeful — it’s all there.