Food is more powerful than we give it credit for—especially plants, which feed all the other food we eat. It isn’t enough that plants sustain us, providing us with literally the only way of accessing energy from the sun above and nutrients pulled from the rocks below. We depend on food to give us life, so we expect it to enhance our life as well, like Jesus, or Superman. And it delivers.
After fulfilling its primary function to sustain and nourish, food begins to work its second most potent potion, that one which brings people together. When there is literally no other way for people to relate to one another, there is food. And when people cannot even find common ground over a meal, there is still the raw material. Everyone may not like mayonnaise, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a human whose diet doesn’t include eggs, oil, or vinegar somewhere in there. And if you don’t mess with any of that, you mess with the seeds that chickens eat to make eggs, or the olives pressed to make oil, or some sort of alcohol. The raw components of food bind us, and working with these ingredients binds us even more, to ourselves, to each other, to the world and its natural rhythms. A dinner party, a community meal, or a romantic dinner is a potent human experience that binds people across all space and time.
I’d like to take it a step further. I know it’s a flimsy and anecdotal argument, but I will contest that everyone I have ever known to play in the dirt will agree: farming pulls people from every walk of life together in a way that no other hobby, pastime, passion, job, or meal has the power to do. Those who have grown food can relate to others who have grown food on an exceptionally friendly and personal level, even if they have no other thing in common. Maybe it’s because holding so much life and death in our hands humbles us to how petty our human squabbles, tribulations, and triumphs really are. Chess and soccer maybe have similar powers, but only just barely. So we should all grow food, play chess, and watch soccer. Even if we all just knew the rules to these particular pastimes, the world would be a significantly more perfect place.
There is a lot of emphasis on “knowing where your food comes from” in the local food movement, and rightly so. But knowing the names of the chickens whose eggs or flesh you are eating is not knowing where your food comes from. That is a co-opting of the notion of knowledge, a replacement of the idea of knowledge with a name and a marketing tactic. Knowing where your food comes from means knowing what it takes to grow food, how long it takes to grow food, how much space is needed to grow food. It’s well and good to be aware of the birthplace of your foodstuffs, and I think local food is absolutely crucial to our wellbeing as a species, but we would appreciate the very notion of growing local infinitely more if we actually understood what it really meant to grow food viscerally, physically, personally.
I don’t imagine a world where everybody is growing their own food all the time and sharing their bounty with neighbors in a pastoral eat, sleep, and farm utopia. That sounds boring and horrible. We have spent millenia trying to pull ourselves from that drudgery into a humanity filled with culture and civility, and tearing that down is moving backward into oblivion. This is how we lose chess and soccer. I instead imagine a world where everyone has grown food and retains a basic knowledge of the nitty-gritty that goes into sustaining us. We should treat growing food like we treat math. Most students won’t go into their adult lives needing the in-depth mathematical formulas and equations that are drilled into their impressionable minds, but having that latent skill set greatly expands our perspective on the world and our mind’s capacity to manage all sorts of life events, both casual and extreme. I think growing food is no different. If everyone knew just a bit firsthand about the interactions between the sun, soil, water, time, and ourselves that makes eating everything from kale to pigs in blankets—civilization itself—possible, then we would treat each other and the world we share infinitely better.
Straight up: if everyone knew how to grow food, the world would be an infinitely less fucked place. It is not enough for everyone to “support local,” “eat organic,” “know where their food comes from,” or for everyone to “eat kale.” This changes nothing, or not much at best. This creates a world wherein an awkward weight forever rests on the shoulders of a begrudgingly idealistic few who are doing the actual work with forced smiles, so that the rest of us may feel comfortable knowing that they are doing the right thing. Words have power, but buzzwords will not change the world.
Certainly, gardening can be therapeutic: a great way to get light exercise, ground yourself to the earth, enjoy some solid vitamin D, and destress all your life mess. That’s all well and good, and yes, if we all could do all those things a little more often, we’d all probably be kinder to one another. But the sort of mind-body trip I want to take you on goes just a little deeper. Growing food will change your worldview.
Spending time with food makes you understand that all good things in this world take time to grow. I know this isn’t a unique perspective, but it is one thing to know it’s true, and another to witness that truth daily, from the ground up. We live in a world of high expectations and instant gratification. Nothing good happens fast when you are growing food, only bad things. Rewards come with time and patience. A carrot takes three months to grow, if you’re lucky. You scream at your computer screen when the internet goes down for two minutes at the coffee shop. A turnip takes four months to grow, if you’re lucky. The sociology undergrad expects autonomy in the workplace and a salary with benefits straight out of college. An onion takes six months to grow up. A budding local food distribution start-up doesn’t make tens of millions in its first year and is considered a failure. Beets take four months to grow and even still, they’re never as big as you want them to be. I realize I am using only root vegetables as examples, but other vegetables take equally long to grow.
Growing food makes you patient, and if it doesn’t, at least it makes you appreciate that the world doesn’t work on the timeline you have been led to believe in. If you can align yourself ever so slightly more with that rhythm, the world will treat you better. It’s kind of like looking up at the stars in awe of the universe, but better, because you can actually touch these stars.
In food growing, there is no end; there is no real beginning, even. There are no plateaus to reach. There is only a cycle…
Thank you for bearing with my Taoist bizarro Michael Pollan-esque rambling yoga meditations this month. I mean it, though. I think growing food is an experience that ought to be had by all in order to help ledger the imbalance between the real world—wherein time moves slow and attention span is measured in months, not screenshots—and the myriad illusions we find ourselves hopelessly swimming through in search of meaning and purpose day by day. Slow down, pay attention, nurture something, change yourself, fix the world. I’ll be back next month with a more practical sort of advice to help you do these things as well as I know how.
Questions or news about gardening? Email the Dirt Nerd at firstname.lastname@example.org