Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

When I was in the 7th grade, some liberal rag of a magazine showed up in the mail and I read it, which is unsurprising since my eyes can't seem to keep from reading whatever wafer of text are put in from of them. It lauded the society in Amsterdam, where drugs were legal and health care was free and probably discussed baby seals and whales. The latter is probably what drew me in. I remember showing my Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Herrity, this mind-blowing new truth I had found and she said as politely as she could that possibly there were other sides to that story. You've got to respect her sense of restraint.

But another article in that 1988 periodical was about organic farming and how some folks in San Francisco were starting to be able to make a living on smaller plots of land, tending their crops by hand and selling the more expensive produce to restaurants.

And thus was born my ultimate fantasy.

At age 11, I pictured raising my children in a rustic farmhouse with no TV, getting up early in the morning before school to harvest the eggs. With my shiny Prodigy account, I knew that we wouldn't be too remote as long as we had a computer and a phone line. I could live life the way it was meant to be lived: with the middle-man cut out and possessing the ability to feed myself directly, rather than working for money that would then be used to purchase my sustenance.

I had taken a summer school class for gifted kids that taught us the basics of economics by creating a marketplace where we all had something to sell and were given monopoly money to purchase the commodities produced by others. I baked a coffee cake before class every Wednesday so that I could serve it still warm and cinnamon-y. So, this is not revisionist history. I really did understand capitalism enough to fantasize about circumventing it.

And the fantasy has continued to exist fairly consistently for the last 20 years or so.

When I lived on the island, I even volunteered once a week or so with on my friend Rhonda's start up organic farm, plunging my hands into goat poop, feeding the trimmings to the chickens and getting my hands stuck my nettles as I weeded the strawberries. I also learned that the island also has an organic farm camp, where kids come to spend a week doing that exact same stuff. I still have two giant balls of yarn that some kids spun and sold at the farmer's market. Then, I altered the fantasy to having a farm camp where urban kids could come to let down their emotional defenses for a moment while school is out. That combined my two passions, you see.

I'm not sure when I will make this fantasy a reality, but when it doesn't seem exhausting to think about, I'll know it's time. That's how I've known when every other decision was right in my life. When an idea shifts from seeming like an uphill battle to bringing images to my mind's eye of flying down that hill on a bike, I know I'm ready. If I start before then, I only fuck everything up.

Still, I can be brought nearly to tears at the sight of a stray kohlrabi at a farmer's market because I remember Rhonda giving one away as a gift to a customer. She covered the woman's protest by saying, "It's just a kohlrabi; please take it," but I knew it wasn't just a kohlrabi. I knew exactly how much effort had gone into sprouting and cultivating and fertilizing and weeding and harvesting and cleaning that kohlrabi. It was an enormous gift Rhonda was giving this woman.

So, yesterday, when I rounded the corner on my lunch hour and saw a farmer's market in Federal Plaza, I considered carefully before entering.
But August is food month at my church.

It only makes sense. August is when the harvest starts rolling in. Why not spend that time meditating on and talking about the life-giving routine that we practice every day? I mean, if religion can't address the daily routines of life, really, what can?

As a church, we're reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and I have to say that it's blowing my mind in the same way that Irresistible Revolution did. One of my favorite authors writes about her family's attempt to eat only local food for an entire year, growing and preserving much of it herself.

So, I had to go and at least smell the farmer's market. Earlier this summer, I was admiring my friend Emily's tomato plants and had a visceral sense of being three feet tall in my mom's garden again. It made me think of my friend Carrie's daughter Caitlyn coming in from the backyard through the dog door when she was two years old, clutching tomatoes in her chubby fists that she had picked herself. It's moments like those that I want for my someday family.

I actually ended up coming home with a little of the farmer's market.

The problem right now with following in Barbara Kingsolver's footsteps right now is that I rarely cook. Almost every night I am meeting friends for dinner at a restaurant or at their homes. They don't come here because a) I actually don't enjoy cooking very much b) my house is a mess and c) many of them now have children.

But, contrary to popular belief, I can cook. But if I only have a couple of hours of rest in an evening, I'd rather spend it reading a book than shopping and cooking my meal.

But Kingsolver really reinforces the idea that how we spend our money will ultimately determine what the market offers. If traditional farmers can't make a living, the option of better-tasting, more nutritious and carbon footprint-reducing produce won't exist very much longer. Both my 6th grade economics summer school and my University of Chicago graduate degree tell me that.

Plus, I believe that how we spend our money is a spiritual practice and I'm working to transform myself into the kind of person who spends money in proportion to my priorities rather than society's priorities. For instance, I'm trying to get to the point where I spend as much money every month on maintaining the institution of my spiritual community (church) as I do on Netflix.

I want to use the world's currency to express my spiritual beliefs. Those currencies can be my money, my time or even my relationships. I mean, if I don't care about something enough to talk about it with my friends because I'm afraid of their reaction, it must not really be that important to me. I think that I can shape my spiritual identity by committing to act out my beliefs because those commitments create a mold that I can grow into. So, I signed up to have money deducted every month automatically for my church.

And I cooked local green beens for my dinner instead of eating an organic frozen pizza that had been trucked across the country to my local Trader Joe's. I planted the cilantro plant in my window box with my morning glories.I'm saving the eggplant to make a tiny experimental batch of baba ghanoush.

It's a start.

Barbara Kingsolver describes part of the store her family put up for winter:
. . . I took inventory of our pantry. During our industrious summer we'd canned over forty jars of tomatoes, tomato-based sauces, and salsa. We'd also put up many jars of pickles, jams and fruit juice, and another fifty or so quarts of dried vegetables, mostly tomatoes but also soup beans, peppers, okra, squash, root vegetables, and herbs. In pint-sized freezer boxes we'd frozen broccoli, beans, squash, corn, pesto, peas, roasted tomatoes, smoked eggplants, fire-roasted peppers, cherries, peaches, strawberries, and blueberries . . .

Our formerly feisty chickens and turkeys now lay in quiet meditation (legs-up pose) in the chest freezer. Our onions and garlic hung like Rapunzel's braids from the mantel behind the kitchen woodstove. In the mudroom and root cellar we had three bushels of potatoes, another two of winter squash, plus beets, carrots melons and cabbages. A pyramid of blue-green and orange pumpkins was stacked near the back door. One shelf in the pantry held small, alphabetized jars of seeds, saved for starting over - assuming spring found us able-bodied and inclined to do this again.

. . . Right now, looking at all of these jars in the pantry gave me a happy, connected feeling, as if I had roots growing right through the soles of my shoes into the dirt of our farm.


My parents live in the original farmhouse of their neighborhood. At some point, previous owners sold off the land in suburban-sized lots but they left an acre for the house to live on.

A common theme in this blog is my search for community, for a connected feeling. After three years in Illinois, I'm just now starting to feel comfortable with the group of people that is sprouting out around me. They are like the leaves that photosynthesize food for my soul. But I left the community I had on the island partly because I didn't want a community without my family in it. Lately, I've been starting to wonder if I'm not supposed to incorporate my parents' backyard into this fantasy of mine. My personal roots are already planted there. Why not pull in my branches just a little closer so I can really focus on opening blossoms that will ultimately become fruit?

I have a long way to go until I can realize this dream. The longest distance will be actually learning how to garden. I'll rely upon my mom to teach me how to can and preserve things. I have such pleasant memories of standing at her hip, being told not to touch the sterilized jars and being warned not to get under foot lest I get burned or one of the newly sharpened knives "cut my heart out." And Jeffrey's mom has spoken of my mom's canning kettle in rapturous tones that came quite close to breaking the 10th commandment.

The fact that I'm starting to dream like this makes me think I'm getting a little closer to the top of the hill of possibility.

Two summers ago, I bought this painting at the Renegade Craft Faire from Johanna Wright. It's the most expensive piece of art I own (at $125) but the lifestyle it portrays is so exactly the life I want.

I believe that I get to be a citizen in the Kingdom of God whenever I follow her commandment to be connected to the earth and to other people.

Slowly but surely I'm spending more and more time there and I couldn't be happier.

5 comments:

rickshawdiaries said...

Warm greetings of peace,

I just finished this book last week and loved it. I am inspired to eat in season and cook at home and have been enjoying the taste, experience, fragrances, and colors so much.

What a joyful and nourishing way to renew the world.

Warmly,
Baraka

Jake and Jess said...

yes.
yes.
yes.
when you, rachel, jake, myself and whomever else wants to join us decide to engage in these/this dream i will feed the goats.

Ali BG said...

I LOVED this book. It continues to embody much of our approach to how we eat and why we eat what we eat, etc. Our biggest success this summer was U Pick Blueberries for $2 a POUND--we picked 25 pounds--froze some, ate some, and made jam, syrup & conserve with the rest. Antioxidants all winter. :)

Kerry said...

This book is on my list to read - although I'm already sold out to the idea!

I'm hosting a "Farmer's Market Report" Mr. Linky. Maybe you'd like to submit this post? Come on over and check it out!http://toeverymeal.blogspot.com/2008/08/farmers-market-report-aug-16th.html

duckbill said...

i liked this post. it's refreshing and encouraging.

and i'm not doing nearly enough to be sustainable. (ouch.) i'd like to work on that.

:)
sean