Norman Wirzba

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.

 

Frog days

cropped frogs

The frogs came this week. They are reclusive little things normally. Sometimes I hear them croaking from the crevices in our dry stone wall, or I might get a sudden jolt when I am weeding and one leaps unexpectedly from under a patch of damp foliage.

Once a year, though, they come into full view. For a day or two our tiny pond, less than a metre across, becomes a writhing, splashing melee of copulating amphibians. We counted fifteen on Tuesday, although I’m fairly sure that should be an even number.

Frog Day, as we call it, is the start of spring for our family, that and the wild garlic and celandines bursting into leaf down by the stream. Sometimes we manage to take photographs. Yesterday I was looking back through the albums from previous years and was amazed to see how regularly the frogs appear. The picture at the top was taken on Frog Day 2010 – it was 18 March, just like this year. Our other pictures are dated 13 March 2007 and 15 March 2009.

Frog Day 2009

Frog Day 2009

It thrills me, the thought of these shy, mysterious creatures responding to some inner prompting and arriving in the pond almost as though they had marked the day on the calendar. I wonder about the ponds in nearby gardens: are they also experiencing the same orgiastic celebration of the changing season?

I feel connected to these frogs, for we share a common territory; they are mating in a pond that we dug as a family, sheltering in a wall that Julian built one chilly Sunday afternoon a few years back. And yet I know so little about them and understand even less.

I am especially sensitive to this dissonance this year, this sense of being both connected to the garden and yet through my ignorance also alienated from it. I read a book called Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis, and it turned out to be one of those texts that moves into in your brain, unsettling old ways of thinking and forcing your mental furniture into new arrangements.

I knew the Hebrew Scriptures were permeated through and through with references to the land but if I ever thought about that at all, I assumed that was because they were written in a pre-industrial age. Davis exposed the superficiality of that.

Her book showed me that it goes far, far deeper and that the Bible speaks of God always intending there to be a kind of kinship between people and the land. She demonstrates how in Biblical thinking the relationships we have with one another, with God and with the soil are all interrelated: in the Biblical story, violation of the land leads to the destabilising of everything else we depend on.

Davis’s teaching made me see for the first time that our little garden is profoundly important: it is land and in substance it does not differ from the grandest scenery you can imagine. The frogs, along with the ladybirds, the woodlice and every other facet of this patch are part of a vast ecosystem that connects them and us to the rest of the created order and what we do with it really matters.

In Biblical terms, it is a gift and we have a responsibility to it. Gardening is not just a hobby, something I pick up and put down according to my whims, but an outworking of discipleship.

In practical terms, as industrial agriculture continues to swallow the countryside, suburban gardens are rapidly becoming one of the most important habitats we have. For example, a report by the charity Froglife in 2007 found that eighty per cent of ponds in the countryside were of poor or very poor quality, often because of nitrogen-run off from arable land.

frogs

Davis’s book has spurred me to take our garden more seriously this year than I have in the past.  I want to work our land properly, finding ways to make it as productive and eco-friendly as possible, pushing through my natural reluctance to go outside when it is cold or wet and facing down the the boredom that sometimes sweeps through me when the garden is yet again full of weeds and the vegetable plants failing to produce as I hoped they would.

I am not saying we will save the world just by cultivating our gardens. But I do think paying serious attention to the land on our doorsteps is foundational to responding to the environmental crisis. Another book I read recently, Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith, puts it well:

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.

I think a lot of us need to develop this ‘imaginary’. In her book, Davis asks why we in the industrialised world are not ‘stricken to the core’ by the way we are relentlessly despoiling the earth. I think part of the answer is that we have become so desensitised to the natural world that we simply do not appreciate the enormity of what is happening.

One way of recovering that sensitivity is, I think, simply to get outside and grow stuff. I am hopeful that by engaging more deeply with our garden I will grow too and be able to live more intelligently at this critical time.

I am worried about the frogs, by the way. For two days after they came the night frost was so hard that the pond froze over. Then it snowed for 36 hours solid. I have taken it for granted that we will have tadpoles in the pond every spring. Now I am not so sure.