A few years ago, I had the opportunity to be on a panel with Raj Patel and others, as part of my work at Westtown School as Earth Literacy Teacher and farm educator. It was an incredible honor to share the stage with this man who speaks so eloquently about the connections between the food we eat and the state of injustice in the world. We were talking about agriculture and sustainability, each speaking from our own locations about why we do what we do, why it matters, how it speaks to the needs of our world.
I remember, I was incredibly pregnant at the time-- or at least I felt that way, though it got harder (I was 6 months pregnant at the time). I was really embarrassed to be waddling around on a stage, in bright orange, trying to share my passion for farming and justice while not sounding like a madwoman. I often feel that way, that my passion, my most precious gift to bring to the world-- that we all have to bring-- is sometimes seen as mad, out of control, not all right for polite society.
But I did it-- spoke to the work I do making often grumpy young people dig in the dirt, turning earth, making space for our tender growth we hope to cultivate and bring to harvest. And there is no doubt that it's work. And there is no doubt that it is a metaphor as well as an action, a set of tasks and tightly held visions that painstakingly bring us closer to a more right relationship with the earth, and with each other. I host workdays at the farm, have 4 times a week work job participants, all of whom are required to help things grow. I visit science, health, history classes, working to make the connections between our food systems and our survival. This is often a hard sell.
My question always is, though, do we get a choice? When we come right down to it, do we get a choice about our responsibility to help things grow? Maybe we all don't have to farm (though the more the merrier, and with the lack of farmers in our country, it might be the most employable profession right now), but as metaphor, I think there isn't much else we can do, these days.
As a larger metaphor, even, food itself is a prism of health, justice, and wholeness. The folks at the Coalition of Imokalee Workers, the group seeking economic justice for vastly exploited farmworkers in Florida, speak to the true price we pay for our cheap hamburger. Every window is a well of possibility. Today, I work with plants on the farm. This weekend, I go to protest Chipotle Mexican Grill for their refusal to sign on to support farmworker justice. This afternoon, I care for my son. On the dorm, it is my neighbor who I am called to care for. On the street, the stranger. Wherever we look, there are things that need our nurture, our cultivation, and support.
At the end of our panel, I remember walking up to Raj Patel and trying to speak with clarity about how his visit would fuel my work for years, was confirmation of my work, and affirmation of this stream I hope to stand in as I teach and grow food at Westtown. He smiled at me, mentioned his spouse who had just had a child, and told me he hoped that we at Westtown could do the work of moving beyond 'the walled garden.' I nodded. I thanked him again and made my way off the stage.
These walls in our gardens are there for a reason-- to keep out the deer, the rabbit, the groundhog. Without them, none of the hard work of our cultivation will come to fruit! These walls and boundaries make it possible for us to live with a level of care for ourselves, as well. But they are not the end. If we look closely, and open the windows into the well of meaning, then the walls themselves are meaningless. Without my work on the farm, I would not have the strength to stand with my neighbor in protest. Without our experience of what it means to grow food, we cannot understand what is at stake in our communities and continent when we speak of the need for farmworker justice. What I know is that I move beyond the walled garden by traveling deeper in, and finally through to the other side. The deep work of nurture and connection calls to all of us, demands much of us, and is required of us for our mutual survival. Come into the garden-- it will carry you through.