Local Food and Sustainable Religion

I'm not what you might call "self-motivated." I often need external prompts to keep me going on my more mundane projects. One of those projects is gardening.

So every year now (for the second year in a row!) I'm reading a book that relates in some way to the growing of food. Last year was Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a gift from one of my hippie author friends, who noticed that I had read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma (a gift from another of my hippie author friends) and assumed that I must be a hippie foodie. I'm not, but the book was great.

This year's entry is Year of Plenty: One Suburban Family, Four Rules, and 365 Days of Homegrown Adventure in Pursuit of Christian Living, by Craig L. Goodwin. I met Craig at the Inhabit Conference last year, an event sponsored by the Parish Collective, a network of mostly urban and suburban hippies who want their religious life to be homegrown, organic and slow. It's a great event, if you're into that sort of thing.

Craig's family spent a year living locally, and facing up to all the implications of that. They went in fairly ignorant (less ignorant, I suspect, than he likes to suggest in the book, but by no means were they stealth hippies engaging in fraudulent life experiments), and dealt with the surprises as they came. I'm now at the point where the family is running out of staples, like flour, and running in search of homegrown replacements.

The family visits any number of processing plants with very little luck, until one food industry representative directs them to a "recovering conventional farmer." Fred proves to be a good match for Craig's "recovering conventional consumer"; I suspect I'll hear more from Fred as I continue to read. Anyway, Fred turns Craig on not only to local sources of flour but to the ecological logic of what has become, after a century or two of industrial progress, unconventional farming. Show concern for the sustainability of topsoil, Fred suggests, and your land will not dry up. I found this interesting: "The richness of the tropical rainforest is in the way it recycles the nutrients"--the interdependency of the soil and the plants growing in it. "Once the native vegetation disappears, so does the productive capacity of the soil." Deforestation in the Amazon, for example, won't result in more land for agricultural use; it'll result in more useless land and a starker, less stable environment.

The kicker of chapter five, for me, was the surprise twist at the end, in which Craig steps way back from his search for flour and sugar and cheese, and reflects on the parallels between environmental responsibility and congregational life. He's a pastor, so he thinks that way, but I found his insight to be quite compelling, and fertile ground for the church's ongoing reformation. Here's what he wrote:

I am learning that what farmers like Fred are doing agriculturally, I need to do theologically and pastorally in the church. Like farmers, our lives have become disintegrated and fragmented by rapid cultural and technological change. Maybe we've imagined the whole world as little more than a medium for growing souls, pushing and pushing until we erode the fertile topsoil that's essential to our faith--justice, goodness, mercy, compassion. Imagine what might change if we thought of the earth and everything in it as part of God's redemptive plan, as an integrated process of life breaking out "on earth as it is in heaven." Maybe even our stop at the dairy aisle and our choice of flour could be fertile ground for faithfulness.


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