garden rage

When I pledged to take our garden more seriously this year, I didn’t expect that I would end up full of anger.

We have had a proper old-fashioned summer here in Sheffield: long days of balmy sunshine and the odd torrential downpour have brought the best growing season for years.

And mostly I have succeeded in my goal of taking good care of our plot. The courgettes have flourished, the rainbow chard has been an endless parade of luminous, candy-shop brightness and for the first time ever we had enough raspberries for a proper pudding.

chard stalks ready for chopping

But when I decided to take more care over the garden it wasn’t just because I wanted us to have more food to eat, although that has been great. It was because I wanted to understand the land better. I was responding in part to the theologian Norman Wirzba, who wrote in his brilliant book Food and Faith:

Gardening work creates in us an indispensable ‘imaginary’ that enables us to think, feel, and act in the world with greater awareness for life’s complexity and depth. Gardens are the concentrated and focused places where people discover and learn about life’s creativity and interdependence.

lettuce

salad leaves in our garden

And this is the first lesson I learned: life is abundant. Nature’s default position seems to be excess.

Two packets of mixed salad seeds, for example, produced more than our family of five could cope with. For a few weeks in midsummer I took bags of lettuce everywhere I went, to give to anyone who would take them.

Meanwhile, down on the new allotment, our neighbour had us in stitches describing how she has battled to cope with the courgette glut: lasagne, cake, pickles – her family has forbidden her to have more than four plants next year.

It might sound as though my conclusion that nature tends to be abundant is based rather solipsistically on one good growing season. Not so: Enough Food If, a campaign supported by more than 200 organisations in the UK, is based entirely on the premise that if we can tackle the unjust structures that dominate our food system, then there is no need for anyone to go hungry. Anywhere.

Growing my own vegetables has brought the issue of food justice more sharply into focus than anything I have ever read or watched on the television.

Harvesting bowl after bowl of raspberries from just a few canes in the back garden has made me both more grateful for the food that I have and more angry about the fact that so many are not able to do even this very little thing.

Giving away lettuce to anyone who would take it and still feeling that we would never get to the end of it exposed for me like nothing else the lies that dominate our consumer culture and fuel a system where around 4 million people in one of the richest nations in the world do not have access to a healthy diet.

The lies are perpetuated by the god of consumerism, a god that needs us to be fearful of not having enough, because otherwise we might stop buying things.

This god works tirelessly to make us feel anxious, distorting language to encourage more and more purchasing. Can we really not live without double cream? Because that is what is implied when it comes packaged with the word ‘essential’.

cream

The offer of ‘buy one get one free’ that we see in so many shops is not generosity: it’s yet another way of tapping into an anxiety that says you’d better take a bit more than you need just in case there isn’t enough tomorrow.

When our whole experience of food is mediated through large corporations and industrial agriculture, it is almost impossible to stand up against these messages about scarcity.

On the other hand, reconnecting with growing and harvesting food can help us recognise them for the lies that they are – lies that, once perceived, can be beyond ridiculous.

I have four kilos of blackberries in the freezer, all gathered for free from some wild brambles. That same quantity would cost me FORTY POUNDS to buy in Tesco today. Someone’s having a laugh and it’s presumably not the people who are buying them.

blackberries

When we move from scarcity thinking to an awareness that abundance is possible, all kinds of things can happen. Like sharing. Like finding that our minds are calm enough to recognise the lies of a consumerist culture for what they are.

It’s a simple thing to grow a few vegetables in a bed or a pot. But it seems it has the power to give us a whole new way of engaging with the world.

 

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39 comments

    1. Lovely to ‘meet’ you Becca. I will be reading your blog too – I am very interested in Christian community and full of admiration for people who have embarked on that way of life.

  1. I would love to grow my own vegetables but with a north-facing back yard where the sun doesn’t actually reach the ground it isn’t really possible. I managed to grow some lettuce this year by putting a container on the shed roof and I created a hanging herb garden, but woman cannot live by lettuce and herbs alone 🙂

    1. would it be possible to get the sun into your garden any way using mirrors? I don’t know if this would work it’s just what came to mind when I read your post.
      Grow the seedlings up on the shed roof and then transplant them in the garden
      perhaps.

    2. Wow Angie – you sound so resourceful! I would love to see a hanging herb garden! I do hope you get a chance to grow more food soon. Is there a community allotment near you perhaps? I have noticed community growing projects seem to be on the increase at the moment. Love the mirror idea, Gillian

    3. We have a north facing garden and don’t get too much sun, but I have managed to grow herbs (sage, chives, oregano, thyme – the basil was not a success!) and chard. I’ve had loads of it from a small space. A tomato plant in a pot gave me a few toms too – I moved it round with the little bit of sun we get on the patio. But try the chard – i am really not green fingered, but would count it a success.

  2. A brilliant post. I came to this realisation a couple of years ago, I feel so lucky to be able to grow the food we eat and to be able to turn away from the ridiculousness that is the modern supermarket.

  3. I’m here via A Girl Called Jack as well. This is a great post, good food for thought. I’ve had an allotment for a year now, and consequently my freezer is stuffed full of food and I’ve given things away. I’ve written down most of what I’ve harvested, and one of these days I will add it up and see what it would have cost.

  4. Another link from Jack. We’ve grown our own for years now and I agree it really changes you. Even if you only have limited spare time it’s amazing how much you can produce. I do think it needs commitment on the kitchen front as well as the garden, though. You can get into the mindset of seeing all this wonderful stuff as a burden to be got through. I make a lot of jam, I freeze stuff, and when you’ve the money to go to the supermarket or eat out, you have to commit yourself to actually honouring Nature’s abundance and eating what you already have. Consumerism has meant that we’ve accustomed ourselves to so much variety in our diet, but it comes as a cost when it’s grown unsustainably and unethically, and transported long distances.

    1. I completely agree about the time issue and i think it’s important to be realistic about that. I do spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen but mostly it enriches my life – I can’t really describe the pleasure I got from chopping those chard stalks, for example, and I find jam making a great way to wind down.

  5. (Yes, also here from “A Girl Called Jack”).

    This is an interesting one as over the last couple of years or so I’ve been pretending to resolve to get out into the garden and start growing stuff, but never do except maybe the odd time, like last Saturday- I do know we had enough brambles in the back garden to make at least a few jars of bramble jelly, and we were trying to cut them back as they were growing rampant! It makes me wonder why we feel the need to spend huge amounts when we do have the luxury of a patch of ground of our own to grow stuff- which often gets used for ornamental plants. Perhaps I should not begrudge the latter but there you go.

    I think the trouble with endless consumerism is that the system is almost set up to require it- the economy must grow, possibly in order to pay back loans needed to inject capital into the system or to make returns on investment, don’t know- and if that doesn’t happen companies will cut back to remain profitable and people will lose jobs. This actually is not sustainable- many resources are finite and with a growing population, will there be enough work to go around? The system encourages unnecessary waste instead of using resources to ensure everyone gets a fair share. Trouble is, how to create a system that manages this? I think it requires a change in attitude amongst people so that we don’t need to be driven by material gain- it cannot be imposed from on high which is perhaps why communism failed. And as a Christian, I wonder if this can be done without dealing with our sin natures- which can only be done through Jesus. There is only so much we can do to change ourselves. (I know not everyone will accept this but it is my understanding).

    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I think the whole thing is to start with what’s manageable, even if it seems like a very small thing. If you don’t have time for bramble jelly, how about stewing blackberries with some Bramley apples from the greengrocer, for example? I completely agree with you that the problem is systemic and for a long time I felt overwhelmed by that and didn’t really do anything because I thought it wouldn’t make any difference. But I think that is actually one of the lies that we need to confront. Small actions do have power! I share your faith and i actually believe that these steps can open up a kind of space where God can work and from which we can be led to the next stage.

      1. I guess in my case it’s less a matter of not enough time (I’m currently unemployed and whilst I need to be applying for jobs, the requirements of paid work are not a hinderance!) as being wiling to make an effort I’ll have to admit. But starting small could still be a good idea. I think the crop of brambles is exhausted from the garden at least for this year (I can be sure they’ll grow back next year though!) but I’m sure there are other possibilities. Even considered just growing seeds on the windowledge at one point, which I might still do- bought a few winter salad type seeds once which may still be viable, or cress failing that. The last attempt (with cress) failed due to lack of due care and attention (namely, watering), though. Like much of the modern world, I’m doing too much sitting around staring at a screen contemplating the possibility of change, not actually getting on with it. Yet.

        And you are perhaps right that such small actions can have power- as a certain proverb goes, every journey begins with a single step. I think for these small changes to really be effective though, society will somehow have to wean it’s way off the current means of doing things, and even then that is going to be hard when fallen human nature seems to tend towards greed or complacency. It’s amazing though, that if we really wanted to, and with the right approach, it wouldn’t be all that difficult (or complex, anyway) to achieve a much better, fairer world as the “IF” campaign suggests. Perhaps I’ve been hanging around the “doomers” too long, although I am a confirmed premillenial as well which kind of ties in.

        I’m glad to see you share my faith- but it seemed necessary to make qualifiers as it seems there are a lot of confirmed unbelievers who’d take issue with me sharing such a viewpoint and suggest I was “forcing my religion on them”.

        Thanks for your encouragement, nonetheless.

  6. Here from Jack too. My parents are lucky enough to have an allotment, and I can remember (and still benefit from) enough potatoes, onions and raspberries (never mind anything else) to see us through the entire year for a family of 4! Oh and my Mum’s jam beats any of the supermarket’s hands down.. Fresh? Picked one day and jarred that or the next day… Can’t beat the sweetness. Bring back allotments for all or better still guerrilla gardening ah la Hugh Fearnly Wittingstall!

    1. So true! I didn’t taste home made jam until I made some last year and couldn’t believe the difference. We’ve just got an allotment as it happens but I think it’ll be a while before we are as productive as your parents!

  7. Could I just say regarding any future lettuce overflow – if you have friends who keep chickens they will love it.
    Mine are obsessed with it.

  8. Another jack visitor, great blog and I’ll be back too. I already grow some veg in my garden, but have been considering turning the flower beds over to veg (as there are long waiting lists for allotments where I live), this will give me the push I have been needing. Thank you.

  9. This has really changed the way I think about food – thank you. I’ve always had a vague idea that I’d like to grow my own vegetables when I have my own garden. Now I’m determined, and I might even start soon in my parents’ garden.

  10. I have just come across your blog and love this first, to me, post. One thing, there are often homelessness shelters or food banks that will take surplus food you can’t preserve in any way. It’s also possible to offer it on Freegle or Freecycle or such. – share the plenty, rather than waste it, as it were.

    Now off to check out more of your posts!

    1. I’m glad it’s on your mind too. The more I think about it, the more I think reconnecting with the land and where our food comes from is a really urgent issue for our discipleship today.

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