Photo by Kai Pratt
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
– Joy Harjo –
Every morning, the students here at Maggie’s gather around a table to share a breakfast lovingly prepared by our classmates. These past few months, our breakfast gatherings have had a different tenor about them as we split up the Boston Globe and divide it into sections to find out what drastic things are happening to our country and our world today. We eat our scrambled eggs and sip our coffee trying to read the paper or trying not to read the paper or distract ourselves with the crossword. We are in a place that is beautiful, where people are kind, and our days are full of good, meaningful, necessary work, and yet, there is a nagging sense that we are not doing enough to invest in the structures of our government and in the movements that are fighting for justice, human rights, and equity. There is an urge to go to all the protests, to join a campaign, to work for a lawmaker, to feed the refugees. All good work, that needs to be done. But the urge to stop farming to join the “movement,” I pose, is a false one. Farming and attempting to do it sustainably, is the movement.
When I say that sustainable farming is the movement, I mean that it is the embodiment of the values that are counter to the prevailing culture. A culture that tells us to value money instead of worth, power instead of strength, to count calories instead of accounting for nutrition. When thinking of civil disobedience, the images that spring to mind tend to be of marches on Washington, signs waving, shouting, grand acts of peaceful demonstration that make a lot of noise, that get attention and get people talking. We tend not to imagine the lady in a rural Midwest town attending a farmers market, even though she knows Walmart sells cucumbers for half the price. We don’t think of the backyard herbalist, the rooftop beekeeper, the heirloom seed saver, the school garden coordinator, the vegetable CSA farmer. But maybe we don’t think of a woman taking a seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama either. We should. Because it is not elections or protests that change cultural norms, though surely they can keep the ball rolling, it is people intentionally living out their lives in integrity with their core beliefs regardless of the status quo.
Small-scale farming has acquired a reputation, probably largely due to back-to-the-land movement of the 60’s, as a way for people to live independently from society. It has often been seen as a way of opting out and getting away from it all: to get off the grid, have a few solar panels, some goats, have a garden, home school your children, etc… All good things for sure. It is the concept of “opting out” that I have a problem with. The agrarian lifestyle should not be a way to run away from society, rather it should be, and be recognized as, a very active way of investing in, and caring for one’s world and fellow humans. Growing people’s food is a strong social link, not just a capitalist transaction. Food is not just another product on the market. When someone hands you a tomato, they are giving you life in a red package. When someone teaches you how to plant a seed from that tomato, they are offering you freedom. When someone gives you a family recipe, they are sharing a tradition and a heritage.
Food, even without a relationship to the growing of it, is communion that erases boundaries. We live in a culture of dichotomy, where it is easy vilify and condemn our fellow humans without ever knowing them. A meal brings together family members, neighbors, friends, and strangers. At its most ordinary, it involves hospitality, giving, receiving, and gratitude. When we gather around a table we are affirmed in our humanity and given the opportunity to deepen our awareness of the people and the world around us. Every religion has feast days. There is a reason for that. Food is a necessity, one we all share, and necessity must always be made a little ceremonious. When sitting across from someone and sharing a meal, it is that much more difficult to vilify them for voting liberal or a conservative, being Muslim or Christian, rich or poor.
Growing healthy food and trying to do it sustainably takes the interpersonal connection created by sharing food even further. Sustainable agriculture has personal, interpersonal and environmental dimensions. A sustainable agriculture must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just. Protecting our own personal environment is not enough. The idea is that we are conserving and protecting resources for those of the future. Profits are necessary but not sufficient. The economics of short run, self-interests are inadequate. And a society without justice is not sustainable — no matter how profitable and environmentally sound it may seem. The economic, ecological, and social dimensions are all essential and inseparable. Sustainability requires harmony among all things personal, interpersonal, and ecological.
Using almost anyone’s definition, concerns for sustainability imply concerns for intergenerational equity, a need to meet the needs of our current generation while leaving equal or better opportunities for those of generations to follow. Sustainability is about “equity, forever.” Concern for sustainability reflects need to treat fairly those in whom we have neither self-interests nor shared-interests, in any sense other than the fact that we are all human. The key point is that the reward comes from knowing that we are in harmony with some unseen order rather than attempting to leverage every opportunity to exploit for our own personal benefit.
Growing food, cooking, and eating binds us to ourselves, to each other, and to the world we are a part of. The way we interact with food is the way we live. How and what we eat is who we are. Are we eating and growing food mindlessly or mindfully, randomly or deliberately, cruelly or compassionately?