We Must Tend Our Own Garden
Voltaire was right: Il faut cultiver notre jardin.
It’s been a rather terrifying few months. Revolutions in the Middle East; an outright war being waged by Republican governors on the working and middle classes of the American Midwest; cataclysmic earthquakes in New Zealand; and the tsunami and nuclear plant disasters in Japan. It’s enough to leave a person hard-pressed to get out of bed in the morning. It’s also the kind of wake-up call that has some of us re-examining our lives, our choices, and thinking about ways to get off the grid. Perhaps it's because I grew up on my mother’s World War II stories of being made to memorize, as a very small child, how to walk from their apartment in Chicago the 90 miles to our farm, that my reaction to world upheaval is to start planning what to grow this summer. During those days of blackouts and air raid drills, my mother and her three siblings were schooled to believe that if something happened, the four of them should stick together and start walking, and if they could get to The Farm, they’d be OK. Omie, the tenant farmer, could feed them all on the vegetable garden he kept; there was a milk cow; and chickens. We bought that farm in 1867, and that it’s still in the family is a source of comfort to us all. A homing beacon. If it all goes to hell, I know I can start walking to a place where you can grow enough food to live on.
And so, with the world in a state of chaos, and my faith in pretty much everything flagging, I did the only thing I know how to do: started another batch of tomato seedlings in the mudroom, bought six new laying chicks, and turned once again to stories of those folks who are trying to revive American farming and restore our food system to some kind of state of health. The group of books I’m looking at this month has in common the idea that we can each do something, whether it’s leave a city job to start a farm, or build a backyard chicken coop, or simply learn to grow a few herbs and vegetables in our backyards (or on a fire escape, or a terrace, or, as I did in grad school, in repurposed recycling bins in the back alley). What these books have in common is the idea that by taking back some of the ownership for our food sourcing, by subverting even one tiny corner of the commercial food and agriculture industry, we can begin the long task of restoring health to ourselves, our loved ones, the earth, our communities and the world. We can do it, one plant at a time.
Let’s start with the most radical, if only because I’m of that age where one starts to wonder what life might have been like if you’d zigged instead of zagged back when. Kristin Kimball, author of The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, was a travel writer, living in the East Village, when she went on an assignment to Pennsylvania to profile a farmer -- and with very little ado, they fell in love. She wasn’t someone who had ever contemplated living on a farm, but even her first encounter left her feeling “ideas moving around in my head, big and slow, like tectonic plates… It all seemed so much simpler than I’d imagined. Dirt plus water plus sun plus sweat equaled food… I felt, of all damned things, safe. Anything could happen in the world. Planes could crash into buildings, jobs could disappear, people could be thrown out of their apartments, oil could run dry, but at least we’d eat.”
The thing is though, she didn’t fall in love with just any farmer, she fell in love with Mark, the guy who stated flat out, early in the relationship, “I don’t want to be your boyfriend, I want to be your husband,” the guy who wanted not just to start a CSA, but who wanted to start one that would provide a whole diet to its subscribers: meat, chicken, grain, milk, vegetables, honey, cheese; and to top it all off, if he could have done it the way he really wanted to, no money would change hands, it would all be done in some semi-magical barter system.
And so they set out to do it. The book is the story of how they came to find land, built a farm together, and got (and stayed) married. Kimball is a terrific writer, and the story of her transformation from a city girl to a bona fide farmer -- someone who can birth a calf or plow a furrow behind a team of horses or boil maple sugar -- is told with the attention to detail that comes from being thrown into a situation and having to figure it out as you go. It’s also the story of how finding a true life partner causes you to stretch and grow and shed old parts of your identity in ways that are sometimes surprisingly painful. Somehow though, the two of them manage to get through those first really difficult years: they build a farm, they find a community, they learn to work with draft horses, they have a baby, and they work very, very hard every single day. Kimball is brilliant writing about the sheer physical work it takes to run an old-fashioned mixed-use farm, but she’s just as brilliant at describing the seductive power of a life lived so directly in one’s body, mostly outdoors, in contact with the elemental tasks of raising animals and food, and the attendant pleasures of eating really really well.
This book was a surprise. I picked it up at the library expecting a sort of trendy story of how the city girl became a farmer, but what I found was a much deeper exploration of how two very smart, driven, and creative people came together to do something improbable -- build a life together, a life that isn’t simply centered on their own couple-dom, but one which places them at the center of something larger and safer, a food system that feeds, by the book’s end, nearly 100 families.
Amy Franceschini and Daniel Tucker's Farm Together Now: A Portrait of People, Places and Ideas for a New Food Movement contains portraits of 20 groups across the country who are actively working to subvert the “get big or get out” agricultural ethos that has led to the consolidation of not only farms, but of the systems by which food is bought, sold, and distributed. It’s a varied group. There’s Jim Kopnik, a Nebraska rancher who became a community activist when Big Ag threatened to build a series of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) housing as many as 50,000 hogs each in his county. There are portraits of “intentional communities,” both new- and old-fashioned hippie communes where folks are growing not only food for their larger community, but are continuing a centuries-long experiment (think the Benedictines) in choosing to live not as individuals, but as a group. There are urban agriculturalists like the Chicago outpost of Angelic Organics and the Atlanta-based Georgia Citizens’ Coalition on Hunger who are working to build community food systems, including gardens, in some of America’s worst food deserts, those big stretches of urban neighborhoods where there are no food stores at all. The portraits in this book are as varied as the problems that plague our corporatized farming and food systems, but what I found heartening was the display of creativity and energy with which people are meeting those problems. This is not a prescriptive book at all, there’s no one problem, and hence no single solution. What this book does describe instead is just the tip of a big network of farmers and activists and educators who are working to fix whatever part of the broken system they’ve got their hands on. The sheer variety of ideas presented here is enough to offer some shred of hope to nearly all of us.
Farm dreams aside, most of us are not going to marry the charismatic farmer and head off to grow vegetables and work with draft horses (even if we have dreamed of draft horses for decades). So what can we do? There are two more conventional cookbook-type books this month that are stuffed full of ideas. From Seed to Skillet by Jimmy Williams and Susan Heeger and The One-Block Feast by Margo True and the staff of Sunset magazine are both filled with great ideas for projects of all sizes and scopes that any of us can feasibly pull off at home. Taking control of our own food doesn’t mean we all have to run of and start farms. We can learn to grow food plants, start a chicken coop, keep bees, or even just pick up a few DIY skills like making a simple home cheese, or putting up a jar of jam or pickles. The first step is to get over the lie, sold to us for generations now by the food industry, that taking control of our own food lives is too hard, or too dangerous, or too time-consuming.
Jimmy Williams of From Seed to Skillet grew up in a family of 12 children in the Shinnecock Indian community of Eastern Long Island. The Shinnecock are an interesting community, having long intermmarried with African Americans, and Williams learned to garden from his grandmother, a Gullah woman who grew up in South Carolina. One of the fascinating things about this book is the way he brings the long, deep African American gardening tradition to what appears to be a quite wealthy California clientele. This is a beautifully-produced book with gorgeous pictures that make even worm composting look glamorous, and while some of the projects might be too pricey for a lot of us (like the beautiful raised beds with drip irrigation systems built in), Williams also includes a ton of really useful tips that don’t cost much, and that he learned as a poor kid growing food out of necessity. For instance, he’s a dedicated seed saver, an act of real subversion in this age of Monsanto-patented GMO seeds.
Williams was a successful designer of sportswear when about ten years ago he felt “the pull of the soil… I dug up my Los Angeles yard and obsessively planted every available space in edibles.” Before long, he was hosting seedling sales on the front walk, then people started asking him to plant their yards, and before he knew it he’d traded the garment business for farmers' markets and a custom organic garden design business. What I loved about this book were the practical tips (I’m going to crush beet and chard seeds from now on, and soak others before starting), and the sheer joy he takes in growing food plants. This is a very joyful book written by someone who knows full well that the world is not always a delightful place. And yet, this is someone who firmly believes that engaging in the whole cycle, planting, tending, growing, harvesting and cooking some of our own food is a way to bring communities together. Although the recipe section is fairly small, the foods are really interesting -- cornbread with sweet potato, collard greens cooked with “burnt onion,” vegetables stuffed with rice, succotash, and a berry cobbler that I had to try with cherries I put up last summer. There’s a warmth that radiates from this book that certainly cheered me up during this dark spring as I wait and wait and wait for things to warm up and watch too much terrifying world news.
The other how-to book that came across my transom this spring is The One-Block Feast by Margo True and the editors of Sunset magazine. I adored the doorstop Sunset Cookbook that came out last fall, and as someone who gazed enviously at the Sunset campus every time I drove through Menlo Park back when I lived in California, I was thrilled to get a glimpse at the experiments they’d been working on at their one-square-block offices. What I particularly liked about this book is that while they were interested in producing a soup-to-nuts meal off their own property, the editors of the book also realize that not everyone has the kinds of resources that they do, and so they propose a variety of projects, each of which is designed to give you a do it yourself glimpse at some aspect of the food system that might have seemed mysterious, or at least better left to experts.
The book is divided by season, and each section includes a garden plan, a series of projects, and recipes for the “one-block dinner” they threw at the end of each season. The garden plans include plant descriptions, and a diagram of how each garden was laid out, along with the kind of specific planting instructions for which those of us in the West have long relied on Sunset. (I have a whole shelf of garden books, but Sunset's Western Garden Book is the one I consult most often.) And although those of us who don’t have the luxury of gardening year-round like the Californians do might have to fight back our envy, there’s a garden plan there for almost any temperate zone, for instance, those of us in colder northern zones would just focus on the spring, fall and winter gardens, while those farther south could do really well with the spring, summer and fall garden plans.
The project sections were the ones that really sparked my imagination, and what I loved about this book was the variety of projects. I don’t have any interest in making my own olive oil or wine (although my sweetheart is an accomplished home brewer who made some terrific hard cider for me last fall); however, I am really interested in cheesemaking, raising chickens, and although I haven’t tried it yet, I’m thinking about keeping bees. There are instructions for all of these, as well as for growing mushrooms, finding a share of a dairy cow, making vinegar, and brewing mead. While their chicken coop is a little fancier than mine, I could really have used this primer on getting started when I brought my first peeps home two years ago. I went through a cheese phase a couple of years ago, when I was buying raw milk from a local rancher, and their recipes for ricotta, fromage blanc, feta, and gouda (a cheese I always wanted to try, but couldn’t justify the price of a cheese press) are clear and simple, and are something any city dweller could easily accomplish -- and they have me jonesing to break out the cheese cultures again.
Much like the Williams book, this one brims with a joyous spirit of experimentation. This isn’t a tale of experts imparting information from on high, it’s more like any group of office workers who set out to just try a bunch of stuff, and who happened to have all the resources of a magazine to document it. And not all their projects succeed on first try. The Sunset campus has a lot of olive trees, for example, but when they go to harvest them they discover a decades-old infestation of olive fly maggots. While they begin the long process of fighting the infestation, they also just go buy a bunch of olives from a commercial grove, and take them to a press. While some might call it cheating, in this age of so many food rules and stunt projects, I loved the “oh well” attitude. What they wanted was to make olive oil, and they followed the whole process through and wound up with a lot of nice local olive oil that they had a hand in producing. They knew more at the end of the process than at the beginning. That can-do spirit lends the book a delightful air of amateurism, and yet, because they are Sunset, the instructions and recipes are clear and easy to follow and can be relied on. Myself, I can’t wait for summer because the egg baked in a hollowed-out pattypan squash that graces the cover looks absolutely delicious.
Voltaire’s aphorism that all we can do is “tend our own gardens” has usually been wielded as a sort of shorthand for political apathy, for the kind of throwing up of hands one does when one is overwhelmed by say, your senator bargaining away the crucial public option before the horse trading even started. But now that I'm going into my eighth year of keeping a garden and learning to cook and to preserve what I grow, I think that interpretation is too narrow. Turning to projects like growing a garden or making a cheese or learning how staples we take for granted like olive oil, beer, or wine are made can serve to forge connections that undermine the anonymity and separation that allowed corporations to take over so many of our basic functions in the first place. Cooking is not hard and it is not some exotic hobby that only the wealthy or the hip can pursue. Growing a few things you can eat does not necessarily require a big yard and a lot of expensive raised beds (go Google “bucket garden” for one alternative idea). Making cheese is not something only a big company can do, human beings have been preserving milk for centuries that way. The more things we can actually learn to do for ourselves, the less we need to rely on huge anonymous systems. While learning to cook a recipe, or make a cheese, or keep a chicken alive and laying eggs in your backyard won’t stop the radioactive water leaking into the ocean off Japan, it will make each one of us just slightly more capable of taking care of ourselves and our loved ones in an emergency. Having some skills can take each of us a long way toward feeling less frightened, and less vulnerable, which, I would argue, makes us all more capable of making the kinds of decisions we’re going to need to make if we’re to get ourselves out of our current mess.