The Ant and the Grasshopper

April 30, 2022

Among the seeds of hope gleaned from the new documentary, The Ant and the Grasshopper, the one that stuck hardest to me this week was this: “I laughed when I should have cried.” That hard-won confession could be the epitaph for an entire generation — mine, the infamous Boomers who consumed too much and did too little too late to protect this planet.

Green Gate Farms celebrated this year’s Earth Day with a small but intimate gathering at our Village Farm agrihood. We shared food from the field, our interns’ accomplishments this semester on farmland preservation, and this bold, understated film we projected on our freshly painted red barn.

A tiny farm surrounded by tiny homes felt like the perfect setting for Raj Patel’s climate crisis documentary. For a generation that accepted McMansions and McDonalds as civilization’s high water mark for shelter and food, a home no bigger than some bathrooms and a diet of plain old vegetables must seem like — what? The diminished view from the bottom of the ladder of success?
Far from it. These diverse and determined residents of Village Farm have downsized willingly. One is a doctor. Another is a retired petroleum engineer who sold her 5,000-square-foot home in Houston. What they all share is their walk-the-talk pushback on a system that entices and pesters every minute to consume more, not less.

It’s not easy to find a fresh and compelling perspective on what, sadly, has become its own category of documentary film. The Ant and the Grasshopper features no big names or neat allegory that offers a solution. Indeed, its heroine, Anita Chitaya, is a small farmer in Africa possessing little more than compassion borne of hardship and a strong voice for delivering the most pressing message of our time.

Like the few yet determined ants that subdue the devouring grasshopper, this debut film, 10 years in the making, takes on what seems like an impossible task: changing people’s minds in a world, which Anita observes with such keen and knowing eyes, is so fraught with lies, denial, guilt and blame.

Nearly two decades ago, Raj, the author of Stuff and Starved, traveled far and wide to uncover why half the world has too much to eat while the other has too little. It is the farmers — at both ends of this spectrum — who get to tell their story this time. Not from a stage or studio but from dinner tables across this country and in a small village in Malawi that has been shriveled up yet unbroken by years of punishing drought.

In Anita, Patel found an unlikely heroine in this greatest of human tragedies. From one perspective — long outliving its time and place on the stage — she is an uneducated and rebellious black woman for an impoverished country who must be kept in her place. The enlightened view — deftly given full exposure from start to finish— is a woman who embodies the Mother Earth or Pacha Mama spirit that is beginning to emerge around the globe.  Given wings, she takes a Monarch-like journey, sustained by the conviction and urgency of her message.

All the tensions that climate change evoke come to a head, of all places, in an Iowa cornfield.  A Mid West farmer with a thousand-acre field and $165,000 tractor listens to this stranger from Africa— a farmer with only one acre and woman no less. What comes out of his mouth when he hears her message is that forgivable laugh. Put it in God’s hands, where it belong, he says, before abruptly changing the subject by showing Anita his endless rows of lush green corn. Inadvertently, he adds insult to injury by complaining this year’s crop is not that impressive. From the dusty bare ground where Anita has stood, it amounts to all the harvests of her lifetime —  or about what it would take to buy his tractor.

Watching Raj’s film took me back five years when Erin and I were guests of farmers in rural Mozambique.  We were invited by Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture to share our organic farming knowledge with small family farmers hooked on conventional agriculture’s dependence on chemicals, fertilizers and hybrid seeds.  In two generation their native wisdom from centuries of organic farming had become as eroded as their soils. Before leaving on our three-week trek into the world’s fourth poorest country, we asked Raj what we should take with us.

Seeds, he said.

The seeds we would share with those farmers included a legume called lablab. Under colonial law, farmers there were prohibiting from growing their native beans varieties, including this one. Ironically, in the next valley over,  a large farm owned by Australians, was growing tons of lablab and exporting it.  The owner gave us a few precious pounds and we presented it to our farmers. The eyes of the oldest farmer there lit up when he recognized the distinct, dark brown line bisecting this flat, pea-sized seed.

“Tonga bean!” he exclaimed.

It had been so long since that bean was grown in its native soil here that no one but this old man knew of this amazing bean, highly nutritious and well-adapted for putting nitrogen back in the soil. We will never know if those seeds or the ones Erin carried nervously through the airports ever bore fruit. Less than a year later, the worst cyclone in Mozambique’s history devastated the countryside and we lost contact with our host who had come to Austin earlier that year. Like Anita, he had stood in awe as we shared the bounty of this city of riches beyond his dreams. Like Anita staring at the corn, the look on his face when he picked up that fine, hand-tooled footwear at Allen Boots is hard to forget.

Erin consults with vegetable farmer in Mozambique

Sharing with our friends and neighbors these precious seeds from The Ant and the Grasshopper was a powerful reminder of how the mills of change grind slowly; as the proverb reminds us, however, they grind exceedingly fine. Ten years is a long time to stick with any project but it is the weight of that long view that is one of the film’s great strength. It takes time to discern the difference between climate and weather. It also takes time to change a mindset. The river that Anita’s village depends on was still running dry years later. The rains that rarely came too often fell all at once, floods that added only more suffering in a tortured landscape.

It is these extremes in weather that more and more Texas are finding harder to ignore. That is why we have launched Friends of the Land. We know how long it takes to save farmland and grow farmers. Village Farm took six years and it is still not completed. Our focus is now on Bastrop County and the prime farmland along the Austin-Bastrop River Corridor that as no protections from wholesale, indiscriminate development and mining.