For my entire life, I have enjoyed gardening--especially growing herbs and vegetables. I'm sure I got the desire to grow my own food from Granny, and from my mother who carried on the tradition for many years. Growing up, I had cherry tomatoes growing outside my playhouse. In college, I kept a pot of mint on my windowsill for making tea. In grad school, a variety of herbs on a fire escape. And as soon as we bought a house, David and I began to plant vegetables in our back yard. There have been years when we've grown a lot and others when we've let the weeds get the better of the beds. I did not plant in order to be self-sufficient or for environmental reasons. I did it because it was a pleasure. As our son grew up, he got excited about what we were doing and enjoyed puttering around in the sunshine as we dug, planted, and weeded.
Every summer we spent days away from our garden at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. And in 2005 when our son had just turned 6yo, one of the themes was American Food Culture. I was excited to learn more about the variety of food traditions and tastes from all the cultures that make up this diverse country.
What I really did not expect is how world-expanding this summer festival would be for me. Rather than only celebrating the abundance of cooking creativity around the country, the festival focused on SOLE food--that is, sustainable, organic, local, and ethical food.
Slow Food was there, articulating the connection between the pleasure of community and the politics of our food practices. I loved their message and it resonated with not only my hedonist side but my old-fashioned plain side. They also talked about the need to celebrate and protect our native foods to keep them from being eradicated. This was an entirely new message for me.
I also learned much more about how organic farming methods not only were good for our bodies but good for both the workers on organic farms and the land itself. I learned how "corporate organic" was an inferior choice to sustainably-raised organic (even when it is not certified organic). And, due to lectures about naturally-raised meat and animals' role on a family farm, I even started to question some of my beliefs about vegetarianism and began to think about eating certain kinds of meat again. (This is a question that continues to rattle around in my head and one where my practice changes over time.)
Perhaps even more important to my increasing radicalization was the presence of Berkeley's Edible Schoolyard. They planted a garden on the national mall complete with an outdoor pizza oven to demonstrate and a shady gazebo-like structure to welcome visitors to sit together. My son and I went everyday for two weeks, listening to folks talk about everything from the how-to's of gardening to the goals of the schoolyard project. The organizers got to know my young son so well that they pulled him on to the front and handed him a microphone so he could explain the purposes of mulching to newbie gardeners.
The Edible Schoolyard combines lessons in organic growing, healthy food preparation, community celebration of that abundance, and even a chance to practice a new language. (The school where the Schoolyard is located is middle school which includes a high number of students new to the US.)
At the end of the festival, the head of the Edible Schoolyard told my son that if he was ever in California, he should stop by for a tour. As luck would have it, we happened to be going to a conference in San Francisco just two months later! So we had the great fortune to visit the real schoolyard with its little chicken tractor and beautiful plants--and also the cooking-and-eating facility and the seed saving room. My son held chickens in his lap, collected and saved amaranth seeds, and help fold tablecloths in the dining room.
I came home from the summer festival understanding that food--in both its growing and its cooking as well as its distribution--is a way of combining the fight against hunger, the fight against corporate power and globalism, the fight for workers' rights, the fight for better health, and the fight for the planet.
I stopped hesitating: at that moment, I knew I was an environmentalist.
(continued from yesterday)