By Marshall Scott
It’s garden time at our house. My wife loves to garden, while I love to harvest. There is, as I’m sure you know, a price to be paid for the opportunity to harvest. For me, it’s the heavy labor. So, some of the tilling is done. The raised bed is built, as is a trellis stout enough to hold butternut squash. There’s more to do, of course, but things have started.
It’s garden time. Seeds started in peat pots and customized potting soil are thriving on the seed benches. Tomatoes, beans, eggplant, and peppers show their promise. Soon they’ll be spending daylight hours hardening off, adapting to the rigors of the world outside.
Last year’s blackberry stakes are, starting to leaf out, as the new stakes of the blackberries and raspberries break ground. The blueberries are greening up and blooming. And the peach tree is spectacular this year. Blossoms are as large and as plentiful and as floridly pink as I can remember.
Perhaps that’s because they suffered so last year. Last spring, just as the peaches and blueberries bloomed, we were hit by an ice storm. Blossoms were literally frozen on the bough. While the ice covered them, they seemed preserved in glass. When the ice was gone, the blossoms were gone as well, and with them a year’s harvest. There were no local peaches or blueberries or apples to be had last year because of that storm.
We do eat from our garden, if as supplement rather than subsistence. We were saddened by the loss of peaches and berries, but nothing like the costly losses to the orchardists in our region and beyond. But we were certainly aware of our loss, and more sensitive to theirs.
We make some effort to “eat local,” from our garden or from local farmers or from the few supermarkets that have discovered that there’s a market for it. While it’s not the only reason for the effort or the expense, we are certainly more aware of where our food comes from and how. A generation ago a large pressure canner or a large dehydrator would have been a remarkably unromantic birthday gifts. Over the last couple of years those are the gifts my wife has cherished most. And I will say as a cook there are a number of pleasures to take in having one’s own canned tomatoes and dried basil. I take a particular pleasure in the dried herbs, perhaps because I don’t have all that good a sense of smell. There is a visceral pleasure when, instead of shaking a small jar, I fill my palm with dried leaves and rub them to powder between my hands, allowing the tiny bits to fall into the hot skillet. When all the spices are in – basil and tarragon and oregano – I can put my face in my hands and breathe deep. The scent fills my nose, and my kitchen; and on my better days, I will smell it for hours, every time I come in from outside.
Long ago, as an undergraduate I participated in a class experiment. We fasted from solid food from the end of the Tuesday class to the beginning of the Thursday class. Much to my chagrin, I discovered that I was never hungry. My routine was somewhat disturbed, but I could always find something else to keep me occupied. I learned much, although not what was originally intended. I had gained no sense of identification with the poor and hungry. I was so well fed that I had not suffered at all. I had learned instead just how blessed I was. I also learned what a false effort it would be, for me at least, to attempt to “show solidarity” by some temporary experiment. It might offer some intellectual stimulation, and even some moral compunction; but it wouldn’t come close to identification. Perhaps it was one of the first times I realized why, later as priest and chaplain, I could never say, “I know how you feel.”
The garden, I think, takes me closer. It’s still not enough for identification. I am not a farmer, much less a subsistence farmer. At the same time, I know what effort I put in. I know how often I bark my knuckles in the process; and so I know some of my sweat and blood feeds the roots of the peppers. I know what it means to put in two hours in the hot sun; and if I don’t know what it means to put in twelve hours, I do know that my life would be very different if I had no choice. I know how I feel about the squirrels in the peach tree and the robins in the blueberries and the rabbits in the beans; and if I can only imagine what it would be like to have my family’s life on that line, I have at least some basis for that imagination.
And so I am more aware of the news about food, at home and abroad. I am aware that rice exporting countries in Asia are withholding exports to protect their own people and their own stability, while rice importing countries scramble. I pay attention to the food riots in Egypt and Haiti. I note the news of cold snaps that damage the fruit crops in California. I realize the increased costs of fuel raise the costs of food around the globe. I am conscious that while these changes are, for me, a matter of what I eat, for many they are matters of whether they eat.
As an Episcopalian, I am conscious that my church has spoken to issues of hunger and food many times. I was struck by this simple resolution, passed in 1976: “that this General Convention encourages simple eating lifestyles for all those scheduled to attend the 66th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Denver, 1979.” (1976:D071( [link: http://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution.pl?resolution=1976-D071] Still, in all our current troubles, it’s easy to lose our voice on these things. We have passed our commitment to the Millennium Development Goals. At the same time, resolutions on food security (2003-A016) [link: http://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution-complete.pl?resolution=2003-A016] and on eradicating hunger in the United States (2006-D085) [link: http://www.episcopalarchives.org/cgi-bin/acts/acts_resolution-complete.pl?resolution=2006-D085] have died for lack of concurrence at the end of General Convention.
Each of us is called, I think, to consider how our lives affect the lives of others. If we watch how this plays out in our eating – whether the cost of oil for transport or fertilizer, or how that affects use of food crops for ethanol, or how industrial agriculture affects issues from the environment to immigration to small farmers – we will recognize the ways, perhaps new ways, to “think globally and act locally;” and to continue to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” however far away they may seem. I’m not sure I would agree with Dorothy Frances Gurney that
“One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.”
But if it is true, for me it is not because of pious rapture but because it puts me that little bit closer to those who struggle for their daily bread. And I am certain that God is there.
The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.