Sunday, April 15, 2007

Farming the City Conference

Yesterday was the Farming the City Conference sponsored by The Food Project. I attended, in my effort to educate myself as best I can about local agricultural issues. It was interesting. I was older than most of the participants by at least ten years and certainly the only one wearing pantyhose. I stuck out like an old, overdressed thumb.

I exaggerate, but only a little. There were probably twenty people there older than I am, and SEVERAL of these were attendees, rather than presenters. And I saw one other person in a skirt (no hose, though). (I carry the remnants of my Catholic upbringing with me even when I think I've rooted them out. After ten years of having to wear a skirt to school every day, and of course a dress to church on Sundays, I still am convinced on a deep level that jeans are suitable only for hanging around the house and doing grocery shopping - anything that involves meeting people calls for a proper outfit. Yeah, somehow I managed to attend high school in both the 1980s and the 1950s simultaneously. ) Anyway, to co-opt Elvis Costello - I used to be embarassed, now I try to be amused. And the sight of all those earnest college students, in their fleece and denim, devoted to the ideals of sustainable agriculture and food justice, eager to change the world in really positive, concrete ways - well, it warms the cockles of your heart, you know?

The day opened with Sandor Katz and Mark Smith (campaign director from Farm Aid). Now, here's the disappointing story about Sandor Katz - I was supposed to get to hang out with him, and I was pretty excited. I know - that's pushing the geek-o-meter to eleven. But I love his books. Wild Fermentation got me started making my own sauerkraut, and I read The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved through practically in one sitting. He's obviously a complete kook, and I mean that in the best of ways. So when I find out a co-worker knew him and would be attending his talk with plans to hang out afterwards, I was eager to tag along. Alas, my co-worker was a no-show, so I just got to hear the talk.

Which was very good, if a bit short (the same complaint I had about Mark Smith's presentation - the organizers really should have planned more time for both of these guys, who had a lot to say). Here was Katz's big message (stolen from someone else, though I've forgotten whom, because I never remember to take notes): Sustainability is participation.

I'm still mulling it over, because I think there's a lot there. His general point is that the role of consumer is a limited one. If we're going to stop the tide of destructive materialism, we need to be creators and nurturers and growers, each of us, and not just consumers. Not exactly a new concept, but still an important message, one that needs to be repeated over and over to be heard for even a moment in the din of the overall culture and its constant insistence that we buy!buy!buy!

I think that my grandfather was a relatively happy man. In no way did he live off-the-grid. His life was not exceptional for his time. He and my grandmother had a chicken farm for a while, and he worked in a lumber yard. After he had advanced in the company, they sold the farm and move to the "streetcar suburbs" of Boston (Roslindale). Then they retired to a truly suburban home in Wakefield, MA.

Sounds like a not-uncommon American life and hardly some sort of model for sustainability. After all, he sold the farm - it's probably a condo complex now. And he moved to the suburbs, where he became very attached to, of all things, Days of Our Lives.

But that suburban house had an apple tree in the yard and some blackberry bushes. My grandparents planted two big gardens and grew lettuce, spinach, zuchinni, summer squash, carrots, rhubarb, peas, green beans, yellow beans, radishes, tomatoes, and probably some other things I don't remember. My grandmother made jam from the blackberries and froze beans, peas, rhubarb and carrots for the winter. Of course, she made their meals, simple good food, nothing fancy, but all from scratch. In the basement, my grandfather had a workshop where he fixed things and built things from wood: shelves and small things for the house, dollhouse furniture for his granddaughter. I don't ever remember my grandparents playing a record, but my grandfather pulled out his guitar or his harmonica on most visits. My grandmother made quilts. And every morning they walked around the lake that sits in the middle of the town, visiting the neighbors along the way, stopping to pick up a newspaper, their mail at the post office.

In other words, their lives were defined more by what they made or what they did than what they bought. They made important contributions to their household through the work of their own hands. They had a community with whom they interacted on a regular basis. And I think their lives were so much more in balance than most people's lives are today, when spend-watch-listen has largely replaced make-play-do.

Cooking is the primary way that I participate, though I also make woodcuts and paintings. I wish I could grow things. I used to, I had a garden in my last apartment. But I made a strategic error. In my desperation to find an apartment in Cambridge that was affordable and not terribly depressing, I gave up on access to a yard. I knew that I had loved my garden, but I didn't think it was essential. I also thought that this apartment was a short-term, temporary thing, for a year or so, until I was able to find a job outside the city. Well, I was wrong. It's been three years, and I'm still here. And the loss of the garden has been very difficult. Rather than moving forward, into a life of greater participation, I have moved back, into a greater reliance on being a consumer.

It's okay. I won't make that mistake again. And I've used this time to learn some other skills - I've learned how to knit (at least a little), I've improved my jam-making and canning, I've learned how to make fermented pickles (thanks, Sandor), I've assisted in beer-making, I make my own vinegar. Since I still don't know when I'm going to leave this place, I've decided this summer I'm going to focus on pickling, drying, and freezing local produce. And I'm going to learn the harmonica, because, as Maude said, "Everyone should know how to make a little music."

Hmm, I seem to have wandered from the Farming the City conference. What else to say about that? A lot of great projects are going on. I was particularly impressed by the projects described in the morning session that were aimed at getting farm produce to food-insecure communities. The problems seem insurmountable, but these projects seemed to have great success by starting very, very small and growing slowly until they are helping a lot of people. Which is its own lesson - small steps matter.

Okay, Sunday morning sermon is over. The Mass is over, go in peace to participate as fully as you can in your own life.


Joe Slag said...

As a 30+, slacks-wearing attendee, I also noticed that people's dress was a little more casual than other sorts of gatherings I've been to.

Great anecdotes about how today's revolutionary actions (growing and cooking your own food! talking to your neighbors! making and fixing things yourself!) were par for the course a couple of generations ago.

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