I’ve never been one for tomatoes. In truth, I have no real desire to consume a tomato unless it has been diced and transformed into pico de gallo. The texture is off. Too juicy. Or bitter. Or not juicy enough. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t like them.
I say this because it adds to the irony that in the fall of 2014, I packed two large reusable Ingles bags with tomatoes—a gift to my classmates at Appalachian State.
Our professor had asked us to present the class with a gift over the course of the semester as a way of “building and supporting our community.” I decided to bring tomatoes not because it was an easy way to rid myself of the abundance in my apartment (though that was undeniably helpful), but because I felt that if the goal of this exercise was to build and sustain community, then nothing could accomplish that goal better than food.
My now in-laws’ tomato crop had been quite fruitful that summer, and before I trekked up the mountain for my last semester of college, they filled my backseat with Cherokee purples and yellow pears, grown organically and with love. I couldn’t think of a better gift to bestow upon fellow students of Sustainable Development.
So I lugged the tomatoes up the stairs to our classroom and passed them out with pride. A soon-to-be friend grabbed the largest tomato in the bag, and after inspecting it briefly, took a large, apple-sized bite. I was filled with gratitude for the gift given to me and then to another.
I also shuddered. Tomatoes are gross.
Though I still struggle to enjoy tomatoes, I marvel at the ability of food to bridge gaps in communities, build relationships, and in the words of Susan Sides, garden manager at the Lord’s Acre in Fairview, N.C., “make love visible.”
This theme of Wake Forest School of Divinity professor Fred Bahnson’s book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith resonates with me deeply—the idea that, from the first seed sown to the last harvest and the final homegrown meal, gardening is an act of love. Through the gift of working the land the gifts of nutritious food and sharing a table become possible. Community is born.
Participation in the work of agriculture can bring us closer to God. By working the land, we rediscover a holy piece of our Judeo-Christian identity—a piece that has yearned to live out the sacred commandment of Gen 2:15 to ‘avad (serve) and shamar (preserve) the soil. The words of former Trappist monk Brother Dismas deeply move me, as I too feel called to “put the faith in my hands.”Agriculture provides us with a way to do just that. To feel the earth from which we were made, the earth that is still so very alive, and to create and sustain life, alongside God, through its very substance.
But gardening is not all roses. Anyone who has ever farmed organically knows this to be true. First, it’s truly hard work. Second, though the ministry of gardening has fed many in both body and soul, there is a temptation in the process. I feel it often, perhaps never so intensely as the day following Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, the day when the reality of the next four years came crashing down around me.
The temptation that called to me on that January day was the lure of retreat. I thought about moving somewhere pastoral—nice and quiet—and spending the next few years on a picturesque piece of land, gardening organically, and silently contributing to the resistance by raising carrots and large heads of lettuce.
Rebecca Solnit speaks to this temptation in her article “Revolutionary Plots,” published in Orion Magazine. She discusses the power of agriculture and the ability of urban gardening to revitalize and “reconnect” often-struggling communities. She talks about a jail in San Francisco where gardening programs for inmates have thrived for over 20 years. She references Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard Project and praises its influence on campuses around the globe. She opens with a story of guerrillas-turned-community-gardeners in southern San Francisco.
But Solnit also warns of the temptation in idealism. She writes, “The list of ideas being planted and tended and sometimes harvested is endless, but the question is simple. What crops are you tending? What do you hope to grow? Hope? Community? Health? Pleasure? Justice? Gardens represent the idealism of this moment and its principal pitfall, I think. A garden can be, after all, either the ground you stand on to take on the world or how you retreat from it, and the difference is not always obvious.”
I think she has a point. How do we ensure that our gardening does not become a means of retreat? How do we center our time working the land in our desire to grow closer to our Creator and better love our neighbor? How do we keep ourselves from treating a sacred task and opportunity as a distraction?
The words of Wendell Berry may provide us with answers. In his essay “The Pleasures of Eating,” Berry describes the problems of industrial agriculture and the typical “agricultural consumer.” These consumers fail to see food as the product of an agricultural process involving sunlight, rain, toil, and in the case of meat, real flesh and blood. He writes, “The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach… The industrial eater is, in fact, one who does not know that eating is an agricultural act, who no longer knows or imagines the connections between eating and the land, and who is therefore necessarily passive and uncritical—in short, a victim.”
And how does Berry propose we avoid being, or becoming, such victims? He provides us with seven suggestions regarding how to avoid the “cultural amnesia” of industrial food consumption. I feel these suggestions may also prevent us from giving into the temptation of pastoral societal retreat. The suggestions include:
- Growing your own food.
- Cooking your own food,
- Learning about your food, its origins and care.
- Buying your food locally.
- Educating yourself regarding industrial food production.
- Learning “best practices” in gardening.
- Learning about your food through direct experience and observation whenever possible.
They suggestions overlap a bit, here and there, but they do get to a point.
Grow. Cook. Learn.
If we commit to growing our own food, cooking said food, purchasing it locally when necessary, and educating ourselves thoroughly regarding the “hows” and “whys” of agriculture, I believe we can keep ourselves focused on the prize—the sacredness of agriculture and its ability to bring us into communion with God—instead of falling victim to the temptation of escapism.
Like faith, agriculture is hard work. It is not work that yields to escape or absentmindedness. It requires our whole selves—our bodies, minds, and hearts.