Growing our own food: for a spiritual connection with the earth

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One of my previous blog posts focused on our efforts to change a local zoning bylaw to make it legal to raise backyard hens.  A side effect of this work has been several interviews with the local press, in which I am invariably asked why I raise hens.  

Frankly, I don’t always tell the whole truth.

I tend to talk about my desire to uncouple from the industrial food system and factory farms that contribute to diminishing fossil fuels, the threat of pandemic, and global climate change.  I also talk about my desire to be more self-sufficient and to have food to give to my neighbors as the reasons for growing a garden and raising hens.  And this is all true…. but not quite complete.  The truth is…..

…raising my own food also gives me with a spiritual connection with Mother Earth.

Going out in the morning before work to check for eggs and “say hello to the ladies,”  is a daily reminder of my connection with all of life.  It is away to reaffirm that we are part of – rather than apart from Mother Nature.  If I do this simple act with mindfulness, it can be a brief spiritual moment at the start of my day.

What and how we eat food can also be a sacred experience (or not).

Putting food in our bodies is the most intimate act we do on a regular basis (generally more often than sex).  Eating food can either be a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy – or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with other people, the earth – and thus with all of Creation.  According to Wendell Berry “when food… is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.” This amnesia prevents us from realizing the contribution food makes to our lives as a source of both physical and spiritual nourishment.

Berry presents a few ideas on how we may free ourselves from this amnesia when he suggests that we:

  • participate in food production to the extent that we can,
  • prepare our own food,
  • learn the origins of the food we buy,
  • deal directly with a local farmer, and;
  • learn more about the biology, ecology and sociology of our food.

I would add to the list, composting all usable kitchen and garden waste (cycle of life).

How we grow food and what we eat is a reflection of our relationship with Mother Earth.  If we are willing to accept continued dependence on a mechanized, specialized and industrial agricultural system, we will remain disconnected from the land, from Mother Earth, and perhaps from the Divine.  While an increasing number of people seem to desire a more intimate relationship with the earth through good food, most simply assume that industrial agriculture is a necessary component of an efficient global economy.

Francis Moore Lappe’ challenges this assumption when she asks; “why do we tolerate rules of economic life that violate our sense of the sacred“?   At the heart of this question is a tension between the economic world we know and the sacred world many of us desire.

Collecting my own eggs from backyard hens makes little economic sense, as industrial eggs are really cheap.  But I am more than an economic being.  Lappe’ writes: “only as we leave behind this false notion of the economic self will we be able to critique and resist economic rules that violate our deepest intuitions about our most basic human values, including… our need to cherish the sacred.”

Growing and eating our own food or purchasing from people we know can be both an economic and a sacred act.  Most Americans however worship the economic act, while ignoring the deeper, sacred implications.

E.F. Schumacher seems to agree when he wrote in his classic text, Small is Beautiful….

“the crude materialist sees agriculture as essentially directed toward food production.  A wider view sees agriculture as having to fulfill at least three tasks:

  1. “to keep man in touch with living nature, of which he is… a highly vulnerable part;
  2. to humanize and ennoble man’s wider habitat; and
  3. to bring forth the foodstuffs and other materials which are needed for… life.”

It seems that Schumacher is acknowledging the need to serve both the economic and the sacred self (if we can look past the sexist language in this 1970’s text).  He  continues…

“I do not believe that a civilization which recognizes only the third of these tasks, and which pursues it with such ruthlessness and violence that the other two tasks are…  systematically counteracted, has any chance of long-term survival.”

Strong language!  But I generally agree.  Hens raised in battery cages (for the efficiency required to keep the eggs cheap) are treated with ruthlessness and violence.

But it is not only the chickens that suffer from the industrial system!

Industrial agriculture has been eminently successful at displacing millions of people from the land, thus reducing the opportunity for most of us to have a personal relationship with our food and with Mother Earth.  Disconnection from the earth is a human disease, perhaps contributing to an increase in drug, alcohol and prescription drug use in the U.S.

Rediscovering the sacred is an act of healing  – or perhaps remembering.  In forgetting the sacred we have become unhealthy and un-whole.  From this place of illness, we ask the wrong questions and seek after the false-gods of consumerism and superficial amusements.  I believe we must rediscover ways to reconnect with the earth, perhaps by growing our own food, raising a few hens (for the eggs and the laughs), and buying real food from people in our own communities we know and trust, if we are to heal the damage we have caused to the global ecosystem and the human soul.  What do you think?

Please share your own thoughts below.

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Quotes from:

Berry, W. 1990. The pleasures of eating. IN: What are People For? North Point Press. San Francisco.

Moore Lappe’, F. 1990. Food, Farming, and Democracy. IN: Our Sustainable Table. Ed. R. Clark. North Point Press. San Francisco.

Schumacher, E.F. 1972. Small is Beautiful. Harper & Row.

This blog was adapted from an essay I wrote; Agriculture is a business, a lifestyle, and a conversation with the universe.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Changing bureaucratic institutions from the inside

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Last week, I wrote about fighting city hall to make my home town more “chicken friendly.”  After reading the blog, one of my students asked me “how do you work to change a bureaucratic institution without getting angry?”  This blog focuses on my experience working with bureaucracy; from local government to large universities.   I know that getting angry (even when its justified) rarely helps.

I’ve spent much of my academic career trying to change university programs (as both a faculty member and an administrator) to be more supportive of sustainability principles.  I’ve also worked within local government (serving on several town boards and commissions) to support local sustainable agriculture.  While institutions of power, may be influenced by outside pressure (including protests which certainly have value and are needed at times), my own experience is largely trying to change bureaurcacy “from the inside.”

When asked by students how to change bureaucratic institutions, I tell them the story of The Shambhala Worker Prophecy.

This story, adapted with permission from Joanna Macy, is said to have emerged from Tibetan Buddhism about twelve hundred years ago.  It predicts a time when great destructive powers have emerged – perhaps a time not unlike our own.

The Shambhala Worker Prophecy claims that “…there will come a time when all life on Earth is in danger.  In this era, great barbarian forces will have arisen which have unfathomable destructive power.  New and unforeseen technologies will appear during this time, with the potential to lay waste to the world.

Do you believe “all life on Earth is in danger” today?

What “barbarian forces” might have created this situation?

“In this era, when the future of sentient life seems to hang by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala will appear.

“The kingdom of Shambhala is not a geopolitical place, but a place that exists in the hearts and minds of the Shambhala Worker.  These workers wear no special uniform, nor do they have titles or ranks. They have no particular workplace, as their work is everywhere.  In fact, they look just like the barbarians on the outside, but they hold the kingdom of Shambhala on the inside.”

Do you know any “barbarians”?

Do you know of any “institutions of great destructive power”?

“Now the time comes when great courage – intellectual, moral and spiritual – is required of the Shambhala Workers.  The time comes when they must go into the very heart of the barbarian power, into the tall buildings, corporate offices, factories, and the citadels of learning where the weapons of destruction are made – to dismantle them.

“The Shambhala Workers have the courage to do this because they know that these destructive systems are ‘mind-made’.  That is, they are created by the human mind, and they can be unmade by the human mind.  The lie that these systems are the inevitable result of progress must be exposed by the Shambhala Workers.  Shambhala Workers know the dangers that threaten life on Earth are not visited upon us by any extraterrestrial powers, satanic deities, or preordained fate.  They arise from our own decisions, our own lifestyles, and our own relationships.  They arise from within us all.”

Do you know any Shambhala Workers?

Might you be one?

“The Shambhala Workers go into the corridors of power armed with the only tools that the barbarians don’t understand, and for which there is no defense.  The tools of the Shambhala Workers are compassion for all, and knowledge of the connectedness of all things.  Both are necessary.  They have to have compassion to do this work, because this is the source of their power – the passion to act along with others.

“But that tool by itself is not enough.  Compassion alone can burn you out, so you need the other tool – you need insight into the radical interdependence of all things.  With that wisdom you know that the work is not a battle between good guys and bad guys, because the line between good and bad runs through the landscape of every human heart.  With insight into our interrelatedness, you know that actions undertaken with pure intent have effects throughout the web of life, beyond what you can measure or discern.  By itself, that knowledge may be too conceptual to sustain you and keep you moving, so you need the energy that comes of compassion as well.

“Within each Shambhala Worker these two tools, compassion and insight, can sustain you as agents of wholesome change.  They are gifts for you to claim and share now in healing our world and our destructive institutions of power.”

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There are several interpretations of this prophecy.  Some portray the coming of the kingdom of Shambhala as an internal event, a metaphor for one’s inner spiritual journey.  Others present it as a transformation of the human social system that will occur at the just right time.  Now would be a good time!

So, when students invariably ask me if the time is now, I tell them that I think we have a choice.  I believe we can create the kingdom of Shambhala whenever we are ready to begin.

Do you know of anyone who might be a Shambhala Worker?  Are you?

Please post your own Shambhala Worker story in the comments box below.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.