I have a confession to make: I don’t celebrate Earth Day. Every spring, the day comes and goes and I’m always too busy planting the season’s crops to pay it much mind. This essay is my humble attempt to honor Earth Days past and future.
One of the articles that I regularly present to my adolescent students is by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. Titled How to Feed The World, the piece argues for a concerted shift away from industrialized agriculture, and toward small, decentralized “peasant” farms.
Let’s at last recognize that there are two food systems, one industrial and one of small landholders, or peasants if you prefer. The peasant system is not only here for good, it’s arguably more efficient than the industrial model.
I’ve read and re-read this article so many times that it’s become like a sacred text. The vision is clear, the reasoning is compelling. It’s as close to a belief system as I’ve ever come. And yet still I am left with the nagging question: What to do? How do we put Bittman’s thoughts, and similar thoughts of millions of concerned people around the world, into action? If “we” is you and I, how do we feed the world?
It is tempting to think of the World as something out there, outside of our back yards, our city, or our particular place in the socioeconomic strata. It is also tempting to exclude oneself from the “peasant” category, since the word conjures medieval scenes of dirty, rag tattered poverty. However for the sake of discussion let’s agree that “peasant” in this context can refer to anyone not at the decision-making tables of the few multinational Big Ag corporations. As John Lennon once sneered,
You’re all just f***ing peasants as far as I can see. A working class hero is something to be.
A bit harsh mate, but we get your drift.
To feed the world, start by feeding you, and work outward from there. Not unlike following the path of the dharma, those whom you connect with will be effected by your actions. And each in kind, like individual waves in a vast ocean, will create positive change by the simple fact of their relationship to the universe and all worlds within it. This idea is beautifully expressed in the Jodo Shinshu tradition by the “Golden Chain”:
I am a link in Buddha’s golden chain of love that stretches around the world. In gratitude may I keep my link bright and strong. I will try to be kind and gentle to every living thing and protect all who are weaker than myself. I will try to think pure and beautiful thoughts to say pure and beautiful words, and to do pure and beautiful deeds. May every link in Buddha’s golden chain of love be bright and strong and may we all attain perfect peace.
If the metaphor of a golden chain of love feels a little lofty, let’s get back down to ground level. Can YOU feed the world, which is the one you inhabit? “I have a busy life”, you say. “I buy packaged food from a supermarket and I barely have time to rinse the broccoli, much less cook with it, and growing it is simply out of the question”.
And yet it’s not out of the question. It’s just within reach, and the knowledge to do it is already in you. It’s actually very simple. Just follow this step by step guide.
Step 1. Be mindful of the breath. We’ll come back to that.
Step 2. See that neglected patch of yellow grass and compacted dirt that you have a habit of calling your “yard”? Grab a shovel and dig that up.
Step 3. Start growing some kind of food (any kind of food), from seed. Radishes, kale, strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, stevia, cucumbers, whatever…the important thing is not what you grow, it’s the urgency with which you grow it.
Step 4. Fail spectacularly.
Step 5. Plant that same species again but this time try to avoid the conditions that precipitated Step 4. While you’re at it plant an additional crop.
Step 6. Repeat Step 3 and 4.
Step 7. Meditate. Don’t worry if you’re “not doing it right”. Right isn’t important at the moment.
Step 8. Begin to move with the rhythms of the changing weather. Adopt the Last Freeze Date and First Frost Date as the bookends of your yearly cycle.
Step 9. Tend, tend, tend to that garden. Take an occasional “mental health day” from your job when you get behind on weeding, watering, etc. (Note how your “dream job” is starting to feel more and more like just a dream.)
Step 10. Let go of your compulsion to wear clothes that are free of stains & rips. Remember, you’re a peasant farmer now. It comes with the job.
Step 11. Are those mature veggies and/or fruit? Harvest them. Consume most if not all immediately. Share any leftovers with your neighbor. I’ll explain why later.
Step 12. Repeat Step 3 and 4 again.
Step 13. While doing your grocery shopping for everything that’s not in season at your modest yet respectable peasant garden, consider a banana. Study the banana with great attention. Note the greenness that gradates into pale yellow. Note that the label places its origins in Ecuador. Smell the humid air of Ecuador. Hear the chatter of the laborers as they harvest and package many thousands of pounds of bananas. Feel the Ecuadorian sun on your shoulders. Contemplate the energy and international coordination required to transport that banana to where you now stand. With that in mind, consider the very low price, per pound, for that banana. Now recognize your desire for the banana. Acknowledge the guilt and self-loathing that arises as you purchase the banana. Let that go, it’s really not helpful. Don’t just eat the banana, eat the entire miracle that brought the banana to you, and be grateful that you have the privilege to do so.
Step 14. Install a rain barrel and drip irrigation, and watch your water usage plummet.
Step 15. Since you are on a first name basis with your neighbor (thanks to your aforementioned generosity), invite her over to pull some weeds. She typically acts like she’s not interested in gardening, but she is. Her very existence is made possible by thousands of years of doing just that. She might claim to “have no idea what she’s doing”, but she does. She just needs to remember, in an evolutionary sense. It’s literally in her DNA.
Step 16. Feel a sense of anxiety that arises when you are overwhelmed by the amount of work that your peasant farm demands. Use your meditation practice now, in your “real” life. Listen to your shallow breaths become longer and easier. Notice how your so-called problems have become opportunities.
Step 17. Cancel your gym membership.
Step 18. Now that your garden comprises not only your former “yard” but also every flower bed, pot, and even that old claw-footed bathtub you’ve been meaning to restore, it’s time to set your sites on that abandoned lot across the street. Remove as much garbage as you can. Buy a bucket of sunflower seeds and scatter them liberally over the lot. Every Summer, marvel at the increasingly dense field of towering sunflowers that rise from the earth. After a few years, cut those down and trash them. They are full of lead and other toxins that their roots have leeched from the dirt. Start planting rows of crops in this newly cleaned soil.
Step 19. While you’re at it, plant some trees along one side of your guerrilla lot. As Mark Bittman wrote,
…by diversifying crops, mixing plants and animals, planting trees — which provide not only fruit but shelter for birds, shade, fertility through nutrient recycling, and more — small landholders can produce more food … with fewer resources and lower transportation costs …, while providing greater food security, maintaining greater biodiversity, and even better withstanding the effects of climate change.
Step 20. Neighbors in every direction are showing up to help. Urge them to start their own gardens as well, only suggest that they grow something different than what is found in your garden. Congratulations! You are now a peasant village.
Step 21. Invite groups of school children to learn your village ways.
Step 22. Mid-mornings after you’ve tended to the garden, meditate. Rest your palms lightly on your knees. Let go of “should”. Forget about obtaining. When thoughts arise, simply label them “thinking” and return to the breath. Keep your eyelids slightly open so that you include the world as it really is.
Step 23. What peasant farm would be complete without animals? Salvage that perfectly usable lumber from the alley that was left behind by a construction crew after they slapped up another $600,000 condominium. Use the lumber to make a chicken coop. Relax. It will not win any design competitions. Focus on function, not form. Besides, it has a certain rustic charm, don’t you think?
Step 24. Get chickens. Enjoy eggs that are so fresh and delicious, you feel sorry for your former self who suffered through countless dozens of bland, hormone-laden eggs.
Step 25. At your day job that is like a dream, say pure and beautiful words about your garden.
Step 26. Become more passionate about composting than you previously were about anything on television.
Step 27. Unplug your TV that hasn’t been turned on in six months. Place it on the sidewalk with a sign reading “FREE TV. NOTHING GOOD ON. BUT IT WORKS” In the empty space where your TV once sat, place a comfortable chair upon which your neighbors may tell stories.
Step 28. Note the way the morning sun casts dappled light across your modest garden in a miraculous pattern. Understand, with great certainty, that now is all that exists. Mark this understanding by watching your breath fog the air as it exits your nostrils.
Step 29. Fall is coming again. Invite your elderly neighbor from the Ukraine to come over and teach you how to preserve those late-season cucumbers, using fresh dill from another neighbor.
Step 30. Take a break. Sleep in. Listen to your biorhythms. Read.
Step 31. It’s January. Open one of the jars of pickles and taste Summer all over again.
Step 32. Turn your South-facing porch into a seedling room. Slap together a hoop house to get a jump on the Spring.
Step 33. Repeat Steps 3 and 4.
Step 34. Help a neighbor to install honey bees and watch the entire village explode with rapid pollination. Bonus: honey.
Step 35. Help a neighbor to get goats. At least two (goats are social). Volunteer to milk them. Bonus: milk.
Step 36. Notice that your garden supply bills are going up considerably, and your grocery bills are going down only slightly. Don’t worry if it “doesn’t make sense on paper”. You’re in it for the long haul now. It will all come out in the wash, as they say. This is not about being reasonable.
Better, it would seem, would be to ask not how much food is produced, but how it’s produced, for whom, at what price, cost and benefit.
Step 37. Continue buying the occasional banana if that helps you maintain emotional stability, but don’t get attached to it.
Step 38. Start weekly neighborhood dinners to share the bounty.
Step 39. Repeat steps 3 and 4.
Step 40. Share the success of your peasant agroecological village with others. Read about other success stories all over the planet. Find solidarity in shared purpose.
Step 41. Be a strong link in the golden chain of love. Feed the world by first feeding yourself. Return to the breath. Continue with pure and beautiful deeds.
Step 42. Repeat.