Monday, January 31, 2011

Eating meat from the garden

Wendell Berry famously wrote that "eating is an agricultural act."  Once you begin to think of food as the product of agriculture, of farms and gardens (rather than supermarkets or makers of boxes of cereal or macaroni or whatnot) you are forced to think about the kind of farm your food came from, and the kind of life your food lived before it became food.  Or at least I've found that to be true for me.

Yesterday I cooked a meal for friends, and we sat down together at a big table, gave thanks for the food and the goodness of eating together, and ate bowls of home made beef stew.  But for me the eating (although not the sitting down together) came with remorse.  The beef was from the supermarket, and for a couple of years now I have eaten meat primarily from local farms that raise their animals humanely on pasture, rather than on grain and confined in feedlots.  I've been thinking a lot about why I've been doing that, and how it fits in with my garden obsession.

If eating is an agricultural act, and if the kind of agriculture I want to "eat" is one that looks something like a healthy garden - one that cares for the health and well being of all life within its fence posts - I am required to leave out the feedlot beef and warehoused chickens.  I can imagine a garden with animals (in fact I want one, with hens) but I can imagine no healthy garden that can abide confining a suffering animal.  And so to eat one of those poor beasts I must eat outside the garden, which is something I am trying to do less and less of.

In one of my favorite novels a struggling priest asks his mentor how to know if prayer is successful.  The mentor tells him that prayer works if you can act less like a shit head afterward.  My effort to eat meat from animals that have not unnecessarily suffered is a bit like that - I realize I still act like a shit head when it comes to food a lot, since I do still eat meat in restaurants and take my kid to Five Guys for burgers on occasion, but if thinking of humane meat as meat from animals that have lived a garden life rather than a feedlot life helps me eat less like a shit head...than I can judge it a success.

Friday, January 28, 2011

White on White

A heavy snow fell yesterday.  Perfect for sledding, for coating fence rails just so, for catching on a small boy's tongue.  It made a lovely backdrop for my white amaryllis, just coming into full bloom.  I love the snow for its beauty and for the lovely weight of silence it imposes - and also for enforcing a sort of neighborliness, where people shovel each other's walks and push each other's cars from drifts.  I have neighbors I only talk to after it snows. 

But the snow also took down the wire delivering Internet to the house, shattered my car's back window, and tore limbs from all of the neighborhood magnolias.  And by this morning the pure sheet of white that was my back porch is pocked with yellow holes where Otis the Tenderfooted prematurely relieved himself, too wimpy to go down to the yard.

I am realizing that I am drawn to gardening largely because beauty and fruitfulness are entwined with ugliness and death.  All my attempts to reconcile the beauty and goodness of life with the suffering and evil that goes along with it have failed to deliver a satisfying answer.  But in the garden, where the drama of life and death and decay is repeated in an annual lesson with beings that can commit no sin, I begin to learn the lessons religion might teach me, if it could, if I would let it.  A magnolia may be torn open in January, its newly bare trunk gashed and ugly against the snow, but come spring it will set buds and bloom on its remaining limbs, and send up new shoots to replace the ones it lost.  I am afraid to see what lesson that might have for me - perhaps that one can endure unimaginable pain and yet live and bloom - because it would require me to acknowledge the unbearable possibility of loss.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Political Seeds

It is time to order the seeds.  I usually love looking through the catalogs, marking every single page with yellow stickies and highlighter, fantasizing about all I will grow.  I mark much more than I order, I order much more than I plant, and I plant much more than I eat - year after year, the same old story.  This year, though, I am relying more on my CSA for vegetables and am going to focus on growing the things Gorman Farm won't supply in any quantity - asparagus, peas, fruit.  Sadly, I can order the seeds I need for my scaled-back veggie patch in a few minutes.  Scaling back is practical, but it sure isn't as much fun.

But there is another reason I'm feeling less enthusiastic about looking through seed catalogs.  Buying seed has become a political act, and I feel both resentful and stymied.  Recently Monsanto (the company that brought us Roundup-ready crops) bought a seed company called Seminis.  Seminis provides 40% of the country's seed, and if you buy from any of the mainstream seed companies - Johnny's, Stokes, Burpee - you have a good chance of buying Seminis seed.  Now, just because Monsanto owns Seminis doesn't mean all those seed varieties we've bought from Burpee for years are suddenly evil.  But it does mean some portion of the revenue from that seed now goes to Monsanto, and that sticks in my craw. 

My solution?  I'll probably buy from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  Their catalog is the one on top of the pile in the basket in the photo at top.  The company is owned and run by a couple of wacky back-to-the-landers in Missouri who enjoy dressing up in period clothing and re-enacting pioneer days, which I find somewhat endearing.  I am aware that by buying from Baker Creek I am also engaging in a political act - but it is one I can live with.  Power to the seeds.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Meaning of Life

Seeds.  Doesn't it all come down to that?  We dress up the meaning of life with our human values - love, happiness, making the lives of our fellow beings less shitty - but in the end, there is nothing more elemental than a seed, the embodiment of the everlasting cycle of life into death into life.  We were but seed, and through our own seed we create new life, and in that seed's germination we know that life is everlasting, life out of death out of life forever and ever, as long as seed shall last.

In my soul I have laid the story of God over this story of seed, or maybe God has laid the story of seed over this green and growing world.  I find it beautiful, and comforting.  In my garden I rejoice in green shoots, celebrate the exuberant beauty of flowering vines, mourn the untimely death of a plant taken by disease or predation, harvest the fruit, and in the fall, when frost visits all things, I sweep away the decaying bodies of my plants with small sorrow (for they have lived their full span) and treasure their seeds as the promise of spring's resurrection miracle.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Staying in Eden

I imagine Adam and Eve left Eden in the late spring, which must have made it harder.  Leaving a garden in winter feels much less like a loss.   But regardless, a garden has always been the essence of home, of civilization, of culture, of protection and bountiful life.  That people don't always understand that now makes it no less true.  To leave a home, to leave a garden, is always to be cast out.

We have thought of leaving our house, for the sake of a good school for our son and a nicer house for us.  We can't seem to get our heads around it.  Part of it is money - the house is deep, deep underwater - but the other part is our longing for home. Grant and I both left our Edens young, and until we met each other we never stopped moving.  And now that we have sunk our roots, planted our garden, we cannot leave it.

God did not throw Adam and Eve from Eden - God sent them forth, two young things pulsing with life and knowledge, too full of it all to stay in the private garden of a parent.  And so someday we will send our Noah forth from our garden, when impending adulthood tempts his hand to fruit we can't give him.

As I stare out at my winter garden, I know I am not leaving.  This is my Eden, my creation, and as a child of God, I see that it is good.  God never said Perfect.  So I will enrich its goodness, dig deep, feed my child with its fruit till juice drips from his chin.  And when the time comes, I will send him forth, waving from our garden gate.

Monday, January 10, 2011

If it is too cold to dig...

Build stuff.

I don't remember how old I was when my dad first started teaching me how to build stuff.  He probably didn't even set out to teach me - he was always building stuff, and I was always following him around.  And I learned, and my brother learned, and now we can build respectable, if clearly amateur, bookshelves and other furniture based on right angles.  Chairs...not so much.

And so I continue the family tradition.



 The finished product!