Uncategorized

Nurturing the World With Our Own Two Hands

Imagination opens again to earth. We
believe in bees, the wild rose’s grail filled
with summer–from “In Late Winter,” Thomas R. Smith

The world has changed. Worldwide we feel it. It has been changing all along, but in the solitude of our current sheltering in place situation, we feel it more distinctly. I wash my hands or cook food and consciously consider the scarcity of everything I have, and contemplate the multitude of unknown and unseen people throughout the world who have cooperated in order for me to have the food I eat, pen and paper I use, books I read–packaging and transportation included. This is no simple thing.

Though each of us have different approaches to coping with the shelter in place, if we didn’t recognize it before, we recognize now that we literally depend on each other’s work and actions for survival. Because of the variety of perspectives, insights, knowledge, and skills found in the larger community, we have the strength to hold each other up and to meet problems. Our need to depend on each other is bigger than what divides us.

As a child, I grew up in a home in a rural area with parents who lived during the Great Depression. They knew how to live on sparse resources. We grew food in a garden, and we had an orchard. My mother gave us haircuts, sewed our clothes, and also wore hand me down clothing my great aunt sent in boxes that my mother resized or remade for us. We lived minimally, learned to care for things so they would last, as well as to save, repurpose and recycle. I’m glad to have had as a model my parents who had many skills for fixing things and making things by hand.

While living abroad, my husband and I grew small gardens in pots and containers on windowsills and balconies, and while living in India, had a small plot in a community garden as well. Living in California again now, we have a garden once more where we’ve built raised beds. When we first returned home, the yard was filled with weeds. We had built some of the raised beds earlier as well as a grape arbor, and a place for berries, but in our absence, weeds grew prolifically, even though we periodically had someone weed.

It has been hard work, a long process of pulling weeds, creating compost, filling the beds with new soil and compost, saving seeds, watering, learning about what kinds of light various plants need, and how to prune them, but the physical rewards of working in the soil and watching things grow into blossom, fruit, and vegetables is a continuing delight. Recently, I dug weeds out of new areas in the garden and planted the many flower seeds left from plants last year. We just planted arugula, berries, beans, cilantro, collard greens, pickling cucumbers, kale, lettuce, onion, peas, squash, and tomatoes. The grape vines are beginning to bud, and the lemons are ready to pick. It’s a joy to see on the front porch in the morning listening to the bees and hummingbirds at work, and to see the visible evidence of physical work. In his poem, “Morning Song,” Don Colburn writes,

Spring is the dangerous season, awakening
this bee-crazed meadow to overgrowing-
and in me awe, and ache, avid to begin
like birds and the earth all over.

It doesn’t have to be spring to watch a bee-crazed garden, light illuminating flowers and the undersides of leaves as if living works of art. Cloudy days and rain filled days are good too, each bring their own mood.

Laura Spinney explains in her article in the Guardian, “It takes a whole world to create a new virus, not just China,” that the pandemic we’re currently experiencing “wouldn’t emerge in food markets if it wasn’t for factory farming, globalized industry, and rapid urbanization.” Humans have pushed further and further into wild places. industrialized farming in China has pushed millions of smallholder farmers, in order to survive, “into the production of more exotic species – animals that were once eaten only for subsistence. But the bigger operations have pushed the farmers out geographically too, as they have taken up more prime farming land. The smallholders have been forced closer to uncultivable zones such as forests, where bats – reservoirs for coronaviruses – lurk.”  What we eat, our lifestyle choices are costly, Spinney explains. It’s a systemic problem. The globalization of farming industries have marginalized the majority of the world’s farmers, and we are all bearing the cost.

Growing our own food is a creative act, connecting us in a relationship to the earth and its cycles. We understand this in a new way with the effort it takes to garden and grow your own food, and it is a way to come back into a healthy, life-giving relationship with the natural world. When I garden, I often remember what I learned years ago when beginning my own garden for the first time, as I describe in this poem.

What You Planted
–for Michael

Years ago, you knelt                
in the garden’s dark soil,
planting carrots,

tucking them into the earth
one by one,
telling me

“You’ve got to treat them
gently, as if they are
your babies,” then you

pulled a blanket of loam
softly over
the next seed
and tamped it down.

Tiny roots
waiting inside
reached into the earth’s
rich warmth,
and stretched.

Look at the garden now.

published spring, 2012, phren-z

Just as artists give themselves creative challenges, time in confined space can push us in new directions, allow new creative exploration. Gardens have requirements. If you want certain things to grow, you have to take care of them by renewing the soil, giving them with adequate water, continuous weeding out of what you don’t want so the plants producing food, fruit and beauty can flourish.

During this time indoors, I hope you’re able to find a way to plant a seed and grow something on your window ledge, on your balcony, or if you’re able to, in your back yard. While you’re waiting to go outside again, you will be nurturing something that grows and gives you sustenance. If you can’t order seeds to grow something or have no space, perhaps you will find some other way to allow the stillness to quietly nurture your imagination so that when doors are able to open again to the outside, you will be like the rose in Thomas R. Smith’s poem above, a grail filled with summer’s abundance.

poetry, Uncategorized

What We Need is Here

 

20161227_124415
Parco delle Madonie, Sicily

Sicily’s countryside speaks in dramatic beauty–sheer stone faced mountains and sweeping valleys fringed by sea, pastures with grazing sheep and mists drifting below craggy ridges, olive groves speckled with wild yellow sour grass (oxalis stricta) blossoms, and wide fields waiting for wheat. Though the historical centers of Sicily’s cities are filled with stunning architectural beauty, since ancient times, agriculture has been central to Sicilian life. Along with several other products, the Greeks introduced grapes and olives to Sicily. For the Roman Empire, Sicily served as its breadbasket. When the Arabs arrived, they introduced irrigation, which served to further intensify farming in Sicily. Traveling though Sicily, it’s exhilarating to see vast expanses of open space on land that has been inhabited from so far back in time that the stories of the original people seem to seep into the earth itself–roots half hidden in the soil, and not completely understood.

In trying to learn more about Sicily before visiting it, I came across the beautiful film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily, describing Sicilians’ connection to food through the celebration of sacred rituals. Fabrizia Lanza, historian and museum curator, heads the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily, previously run by her mother. One of Lanza’s projects is to archive videos demonstrating food techniques, that, as she explains on her web page, are in danger of extinction. In Sacred Flavors of Sicily, Lanza describes her deep interest in food. “To me, food holds significance far beyond consumption. It is a chain of humanity, encounters, and sensuality. More than an object, food is our guiding metaphor.”

As I listened to and watched Lanza’s film, it occurred to me that the people she interviewed weren’t simply describing their work as cooks or bakers. Food wasn’t a commodity. The Sicilians in her film were intimately part of the food they grew, made, and ate. Food was the tangible representation of people’s shared coexistence with the land and their neighboring community. The film shows an elderly woman, Nellina Selvaggio, making lace cookies to place on an altar for the feast of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the family. A tree of life motif decorates every scartuciatte cookie, explains Selvaggio, “with a stem that is never interrupted.” Food in her world demonstrates the interconnectivity of all life, and serves as a bridge from the past to the future as she passes on her skill. The fruits and flowers on the lace cookies “represent the things we create through our lives as offerings to God,” explains Selvaggio. The community prepares an abundance of foods for the Feast of St. Joseph, and people make vows. When people prepare food with their own hands, present it as a sacred offering, and share it with others, an I-Thou relationship is nurtured with the land and neighbors. One of the household members in the film offered up this prayer for St. Joseph’s, beautifully summing up this lived connectivity between the soil, human activity, and the sacred.

Love the bread, heart of the home
perfume of the table, the joy of the heart.
Honor the bread, glory of the fields
fragrance of the land, feast of life.
Respect the bread, sweat on your brow
pride in work, poem of sacrifice.
Don’t ruin the bread, richness of your country
that holy gift for human toil.

Surprisingly, when I looked up who wrote the prayer, I learned Mussolini was the author. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, in her book, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy, explains that these lines are actually from a speech Mussolini made to imitate the structure of a prayer. Mussolini words were part of a larger intention. He used people’s dependence on bread as a political symbol, connecting it to the nation’s wealth, explains Falasca-Zamponi. Mussolini embodied his idea in what he termed the Battle of Wheat. Speaking to representatives of the agricultural unions of the time, he played on their sense of pride, telling them it was a shame that Italians had to look for work abroad. He appealed to values of hard work rural Italians held in order to gain their support in so they would be willing to become soldiers. Falasca-Zamponi explains Mussolini’s aim was to gain rural people’s backing in order to accomplish his desire of expanding Italy’s access to resources through invading and controlling other areas such as Ethiopia. Quoting Mussolini, Falasca-Zamponi states he wanted to ‘”augment the nation’s [Italy’s] power and virility.”‘ Different, however, is the way his words are used in Lanza’s film, Sacred Flavors of Sicily. When the speaker in the film reads the words about the bread, nothing of Mussolini’s political motives appear to inhabit them. Instead, the words demonstrate honestly valued connections between land, food, human labor and life. Placed in a context that honors the flow of life embodied in their presence of bread, and without ulterior motives, the words function truly as a prayer–affirming life, and the human effort to bring forth its bounty.

Wheat, vegetables, and fruit growing in the fields all look beautiful from a distance, but few of us pause long to consider the link of life connecting from field to farmer to food on the table. Farming has always been a difficult life. In southern Italy there are nuances to farming beyond the struggle with nature to achieve a harvest. The Maffia has controlled the food system there, making farming even more difficult. In February 2016, Reuters reported that “Italy’s mafia has infiltrated huge swathes of the country’s agriculture and food business, earning more than 16 billion euros ($17.7 billion) in 2015 from the industry.” Additionally, as Rebecca Roberts explains in her May 2014 article, “Rise of the anti-mafia land movement,” The Mafia uses food as “a tool of power, with the residents of southern Italy literally relying on the Mafia for their daily bread.” The food costs less when bought through Mafia controlled businesses, but also is often coated with pesticides or E.coli. Cooperatives like Libera Terra, however, are working to free people from this kind of oppression, and to give control back to those working the land and shop owners who sell agricultural products.

Much of the food we buy today at grocery stores is raised on commercial farms, farms, which according to Jeff Vidal’s article, “Corporate stranglehold of farmland a risk to world food security “are growing in size, and squeezing out small farmers, even though their farmland is generally more productive and sustainable. Roberto Romano’s 2010 film, “The Harvest/La Cosecha,” depicts the difficult life of farmworkers this century on commercial farms, and their struggle for necessities, education, as well as their altogether herculean effort to hold on to dreams.

20161220_112705The loss of the sacred, our turning most everything into mere commodities demeans existence. When we our gaze consistently views the world through a lens of self gratification, when we value earth’s fecundity and wild abundance only for utilitarian purposes, we reduce and diminish life to a few hard, dry crumbs. We want more from life, but end up with less. We have it all, but remain empty. In Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Berry writes about the experience of this kind of life,

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.

It’s inspiring to see people in Sicily working the land, and to watch women like Nellina Selvaggio in Lanza’s film create art with the food they make. Most people, though, will not likely be taking the time to create such food in this way, or at least not frequently. How, then, do we find a way to step off the treadmill where everything must be accounted for, everything compute? How do we nurture an awareness of our connection to the earth, our food, and our communities so we find again an I-Thou relationship with life? Berry, long an advocate of knowing the land you live on and understanding its needs, suggests that if you eat, you are a part of the food system. In his article, “The Pleasures of Eating,” Berry presents several ideas we can consider in an aim to find a deeper connection with food:

1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can… 2. Prepare your own food… 3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home… 4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist…5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production…6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening…7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.

Though we may live in cities where open land is difficult to come by, we can grow a plant in a container for a window to help ourselves remain mindful of the earth and our ultimate dependence on it. In California, as part of a Curated Feast, and in a collaboration between historians and chefs, you can sit with others at a meal and learn about the origins of the food as you eat. This could be an engaging way to kickstart a venture into learning to be your own curator of the foods you eat, as Berry suggests. Beginning with one thing, one practice, we can change our story into a different narrative, one with a more satisfying plot.

In Berry’s poem, “Wild Geese,” the poem’s speaker goes on a horseback ride one Sunday morning where he eats persimmon and wild grapes, and opens a seed with the promise of a tree to be–

what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

We have what we need to connect to the earth. Simple, daily practices can help us understand how. We have what we need to feel alive again. It is a seed inside us. We can help it grow into a tree.