“Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing. Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels.” – Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating”
One afternoon during college, a professor was lecturing on the idea that college is a sort of like slash and burn farming–we are raised in communities and they nurture us, and then we leave them (with all of the gifts and wisdom they have invested in us) and we go to college. There we feed off the riches of the professors and the learning community there until we suck them dry and walk off with our degrees. And some of us go home and reinvest in our original communities, and return to them what they gave us. But most of us follow the jobs and go wherever we can find work or the career options we like best, and leave behind two communities we have benefited from, but have not given returns on their investments.
And he then asked us what we were doing, there in that town at that little college, to invest in the community while we were there. We mostly looked at our notebooks and vigorously pretended to be taking down every word, not wanting to get called on. So he changed the question: “do you know where your water comes from?” And when we again looked stupid, he proceeded onto his conclusion, visibly irritated with our lack of interest in the place we had chosen to live for those four years.
When we moved from California to Virginia, I was just about to enter high school. I suppose it was unusual that my first (and initially, biggest) culture shock was the realization that I didn’t know the crops or the flora and fauna of our new region. The county where I had grown up was highly agricultural and I knew the seasons and the implications of a weather pattern on the crops around us. I knew to recognize artichoke fields, and to pray for rain for the broccoli farmers, and I could tell you all about the process of harvesting cotton or walnuts or oranges. My favorite smell was in early April, when the air became alive with the scent of orange blossoms. I visited the local water reservoir with my homeschool co-op and we toured the dam and learned where the water came from and where it was treated and how it got to us. I could recognize birds by their calls and tell you where to look for them, and I recognized the different types of pine trees in the nearby mountains by their different needles and cones.
But when we moved to Virginia, I felt bewildered. I couldn’t recognize or name anything, there were very few farms near us, and I didn’t know anything about what foods grew well in the area or when they were in season.
Over time, as I learned to cook more and helped with the shopping for the family, I began to get a feel of the seasonal rhythm of the Virginian produce (ever lamenting the fact that those things requiring a Mediterranean climate would never be quite as good on the East coast–I haven’t had a good artichoke in years). And I slowly learned to appreciate it–the peanut soup and boiled peanuts, the eastern shore crab harvest, the fall apples, the local wines, the sweet corn, the venison, etc. I have acclimated, and I am able to navigate eating locally with some degree of skill now.
Obviously, this is important to me because that’s one thing I love about my dad (his awareness of the geographic attributes and produce the region where he lives). But it’s important for Christians in a larger way, too. If eating isn’t just something we do for fuel, and if Jesus affirmed the physical world with his incarnation, and if we are made to be stewards of the earth, we have an obligation to shop for our food in a way that reflects these things.
I feel frustrated sometimes, with other conservative Christians who assume that issues of environmental concern are just “evolutionist” or not worth their time. For them, loving Jesus is enough for life. And…strictly speaking, they’re not wrong. But to use “loving Jesus” as a carte blanche to ignore ethical living on the earth is indulging in a sort of Gnosticism that allows disinterest in where one lives and how one lives in that place, which runs against the concept of human stewardship of the earth and the embodied Christianity that Jesus established in his incarnation.
There are a lot of causes related to this idea of stewarding the earth well, and many of them are silly or reactionary. It’s hard to know how, in this industrial age of suburbia and mass production, to live well in the place one lives. To do so entirely holistically would be overwhelming–so much of our society is built around ignoring place and refusing to let the unique nature of a geographic locale influence how we live. Everything must be standardized, democratized, universal. We transplant ourselves to new place, following jobs, and don’t think much about being affected by where we live (except to grumble about various inconveniences). And it’s hard to actually go off the grid without cutting oneself off from relationships with everyone else on the grid, which would be ideologically contrary to the concept of Christian community and fellowship.
I live in a place and I am part of a physical community, whether I like it or not. Wendell Berry calls the idea of belonging to a community “membership.” But membership doesn’t (according to Berry) come by just living in a community. It requires active participation in it to the point that you identify with the community and the community in return chooses to identify itself with you. This requires more than just living in a place, commuting to your office, and then coming home and getting groceries at the supermarket, taking out your trash, and checking your mail. It means interacting with your neighbors, it means making the land better than how it was when you came to it, and the people richer culturally. Suburban “bedroom communities” are the antithesis of this idea of real community and membership therein. And I would argue that it is the thinking Christian’s obligation to choose wisely how to become invested in the membership of his or her physical community.
So how to do this? Determining how you choose to live well in your physical place will be a rather individual decision. But some basic steps to get started might include: learning about your town or county, perhaps by attending a meeting of the local planning commission, to understand the ways land is being used where you live, and why; or perhaps you might do research to learn about the food co-ops available in your area, where you can purchase produce seasonally from local farmers. You might see if you can find a local butcher, and purchase humanely raised meat. Or you could start a small garden in your backyard or on your windowsill, and make compost from your refuse.
All these things take time and deliberate effort, so it’s worth being thoroughly careful to make sure that you do these things out real conviction, rather than jumping on a fad because you feel guilty.
[Following up next week, we’ll have a guest post by the delightful Marianne, with a sort of Eating Locally 101 for those who interested in the practical elements of this.]