‘Culture’ is a slippery word with many meanings. On the one hand it can denote the support of human existence with the physical and economic resources needed for food production and trade. But it is, perhaps, more popularly identified with the development of human culture as identified with factors that inspire the human spirit – the religion, myth, folklore, magic, literature, and art that add meaning, metaphor, and symbolism to human life. In a way these two approaches to culture emphasize the distinction between human life in nature and its expression in art.
The advent of agriculture and the transition from nomad to farmer was a momentous historical change in the human condition. It led to not only more intensive land management, but to an acceleration in the division of labour that facilitated new technology and social organization. Large populations could create technology on an unprecedented scale, that allowed societies to look outward to conquest, trade, and exploration which, when combined with knowledge accumulation of the written word, opened limitless possibilities for an increase in social complexity and sophistication.
This was a transition from nature to culture as humans created their own environments behind stone walls.
Living together in ever-increasing numbers required the careful management of both people and physical space as more and more land was appropriated from nature and turned over to human use.
The Agricultural Revolution altered for all time the relationship between humans and nature in at least three critical ways: it changed the human evolutionary environment; it created a world consisting of new physical spaces (including gardens, parks and fields) with a corresponding new world of associated words and ideas that emphasized a distinction between nature and culture; and it produced the conditions necessary for the emergence of new forms of social organisation and development.
Paradoxically, though humans were the domesticators, it is as though they were themselves being domesticated. And insofar as agricultural crops were determining lifestyles, humans were being domesticated by plants. The coevolution of humans and plants had entered a new phase.
As cities grew, so too did the corresponding agricultural space needed to feed them and this
produced a trichotomy urban/rural/wild in which enclosure, a feature of urban space, would become
of increasing historical significance to rural space, eventually even applying to wild space through national parks and bounded wilderness areas.
All these themes, collectively subsumed under the distinction between nature and culture, arose largely as a consequence of the advent of agriculture.
The natural forces of evolutionary selection that had forged human bodies and minds were being replaced by human-derived selective forces: humans had moved out of their environment of evolutionary origin into an environment of their own making. From this time on, changes in human social circumstances would, for the most part, be a consequence of accelerating cultural change, rather than slow biological change.
With agriculture came more intensive efforts to select kinds of plants (and animals), especially cereals, with higher yields, better flavours, and habits more amenable to cultivation.
City dwellers now lived behind walls that both separated and protected them from what lay beyond. The distinction between nature and culture (as civic space) had been literally set in stone. Though nature was accessible outside city walls, plant cultivation in urban surroundings would become more and more the way of engaging with nature and the natural seasonal biological rhythm of growth, maturation, death, decay and renewal.
Even in the earliest phases of urbanisation we can recognise at least seven kinds of special human spaces – all potentially containing cultivated plants and all with counterparts today. These were structural or bounded spaces that suggest values (the basic needs of human agency) as well as functions:
• space for domesticated plants and animals as grazing land and cereal crops, also orchards, vegetable plots and vineyards
• space for domestic housing and private gardens
• communal space: a city square or forum for discussion generally including a place for trade
• places for recreation, relaxation and entertainment
• an administrative centre, usually the ruler’s palace and its grounds
• religious space for temples and various monuments associated with the dead
• connecting space for the passage of people and goods.
What is not so obvious is that urbanisation created not only functional physical enclosures but a new set of words, categories and ideas that were absent from the Palaeolithic mind. The new mental categories expressed a dialectic between objects of nature and objects of culture. Those relating directly to plants included: natural/man-made, wild/cultivated, urban (town)/rural (country). Other distinctions that related to cultivated plants were public/private, formal/informal, sacred/secular, work/pleasure and utility/luxury.