“Nature is boring. I played in it once. There was nothing to buy. It sucked.”
I have often talked about population on this blog. It is a controversial and difficult subject to tackle, because of the emotions and reactions it immediately stirs.
This article quotes the man who is said to have destroyed the idea that population was a problem, the Father of the Green Revolution. In his Nobel prize acceptance speech he said,
We have bought the world some time, but unless population control and increased food production go hand in hand, we are going to lose this.
Even those who don’t agree about population might agree with the solution.
So what’s Weisman’s solution? Importantly, he is no supporter of coercive population control measures such as China’s infamous one-child policy. Rather, Weisman makes a powerful case that the best way to manage the global population is by empowering women, through both education and access to contraception — so that they can make more informed choices about family size and the kind of lives they want for themselves and their children.
This is a well known poem of Wendell Berry’s. I have wanted to avoid some of his more well known works, but they are still so full of meaning and poignance for me that I cannot ignore them. This one is short. So, I will quote the whole thing.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
This poem in particular gives me a lot of comfort. As an activist, environmentalist, follower of Jesus, father, husband and someone who cares about the world we live in, it can be easy find myself where the poem begins, in despair. It seems that those who want to make the world a better place often begin by trying to overwhelm us with fear and guilt about the state of the world. I have certainly felt that in order to make change I needed to shock people out of complacency with pictures, statistics, stories and a narrative about how the world is so completely messed up. So, we begin our task of repairing the world by creating as much discomfort, anxiety, guilt and fear possible.
This strategy has the benefit of working, at least for a while. People become fearful and guilty about what the world has become and their role in it. Then they reach despair, the beginning of this poem, but people can only stay there so long before turning suicidal or mentally ill. Many people choose then to opt-out of any resistance and try to get the most they can out of the status quo. They recycle and do little things that reflect their deeper values, but they have despaired of greater change and left behind any radical dreams of a better world. That grieves me. Have we not learned that people motivated by fear or guilt tend not to do the things that make the world better?
Perhaps Berry feels the weight of despair from this disaster narrative that haunts our global society. Regardless of where his despair comes from initially, he places his fears in their proper place, future generations. This is what should motivate us, not guilt and fear, but a rootedness in this place called earth, and our own particular places that causes us to contemplate the future of this place and these people. This is the place to which the rest of the poem brings us.
Berry has often been contrasted with another poet, Mary Oliver; he, the poet of farm and field and she, the poet of wilderness. Yet Berry often lingers on the edges of fields, more than he rides the tractor. He also often contrasts forest and field, wilderness and cultivated land. They are deeply intertwined in his work. This is because, as he demonstrates in this poem, there is an an underlying “grace of the world” his sense of what farming is and what it means. In another poem, “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer”, Berry says
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing and reaped as I knew by luck and heaven’s favor in spite of the best advice.
Berry’s way of living with the land, rather than off it or from it, is centered in the world of living things “who do not tax their lives with forethought”. The natural world is not planning out how to survive, or how to win the battle against encroaching civilization. There is no conspiracy of beavers and bears plotting how to protect their homes. I believe it was David Quinn who said that the point at which human beings departed from other creatures was our ability to tell the future from the past, to look at a set of tracks and say that someone or something came from this direction and went that way. Perhaps the point at which we began to “tell time” in the modern sense is when we domesticated ourselves, no longer living among wild things without forethought.
The “presence of still water” obviously calls to mind the 23rd Psalm, but it is almost as if the poet wants us to look again at this well known phrase in a new context. In the context of the Psalm it evokes the comfort of God in difficult times, but we don’t think much about the actual still water. It is incredible to me that even our faith tradition can get in the way of our seeing and reading the Bible. In this poem the still water evokes the fact that it has not been disturbed. Think about how long you have to sit and watch a pond or lake reach that glassy equilibrium. In the poem the peace of that water just sits there waiting, just like the stars, obscured by the sun’s light.
Finally, there is a freedom in this kind of wild peace that is exponentially more than the negative freedoms we have come to associate with that word. Plants grow and bear fruit, animals mate and die, rivers flow, the rains come and it all happens beyond all our machinations and our control. We have used science to understand a lot about the world, but it continues to be beyond our control. I still believe that our attempts to control it are the definition of hubris and a lack of true understanding. It is as if we have equated freedom with control, where we are the ones in charge. Yet real freedom lies in the world beyond our control, that continues without us and continues to support us in spite of our best efforts to manipulate, exploit and destroy. It is not freedom for the heron or wood drake to try and become like us and live in air conditioned houses. Their freedom is their ability to be what they were meant to be, to exist as they were created to exist, apart from our care or exploitation, but beside us in the grand dance of ecology.
To return to the despair in the beginning, this kind of freedom and peace puts the activist, the radical, the follower of Jesus, those who want to make the world better in a completely different frame of mind for their work. Using fear and guilt to make change is another way of manipulation, exploitation and control. How would we work toward change if our thoughts and actions grew out of the peace of wild things and the freedom of the world beyond our control?
I’ve been reading Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto by David Tracey. It’s been fun to read, very informative and very inspiring. Many of the nation’s oldest established community gardens were started by a group of people that claimed some abandoned space or vacant lot and started planting something there. I love the idea of sneaking life into dead places. It sounds a lot like the gospel to me. It really simplifies the idea of urban gardening. Your main tool is a good shovel. All you need are seeds or plants to put in the ground, and many of these are found for free.
There is something inspiring to me about looking around you at an urban landscape and seeing, not the endless sea of concrete, but the possibility of grass breaking through the sidewalks. I’m almost halfway through the book and I can already whole-heartedly recommend it to you. It’s full of great quotes, sidebars, lists and tips. Enough to keep the most ADD of us interested and inspired. I see urban landscapes and abandoned places in a whole new light when I can imagine them becoming life-giving gardens.
Tracey’s definition of guerrilla gardening is “gardening public space with or without permission.” I like that it is both “with or without permission.” He points that a lot of times if you ask the city or owner would be happy to let you garden in certain places. It’s not about being anti-government or only working with the system. It’s about another way of life. One that transcends whether or not you have permission. I think the mark of something that truly transcends our current systems and forges a path forward to new ways of being and living might just be something that is not so much concerned about whether or not the Powers sign on to the movement, but interested in embodying the reality of another possible world. If the Powers become converted, subverted or join us along the way so much the better.
So, then my son came home from the library with a wonderful book called The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. It was guerrilla gardening for kids. It starts off with a dreary urban landscape. The kid in the story goes to play on the abandoned railroad tracks where he finds some plants growing. He begins to take care and nurture them. Slowly his garden takes over the entire railroad tracks. Eventually it spills over to the rest of the city. As everything greens up other people become gardeners too.
Planting life, beautifying ugly places and making the world a better place should never be against the law. I have no problems teaching my kids that Jesus would be a guerrilla gardener, because he most certainly would.
This post concerns a “conversation” that has been happening within the church for a while called variously emerging church, missional church, emergent and maybe some others. I have been involved in it for a number of years and therefore feel passionate about these issues. If this seems too esoteric and tangential to a theology of food please feel free to skip this post.
Third, I bet you’re not disappointed with Shane Claiborne. That’s because, to this point, Shane has made the very noble decision to live a chaste life, and he has committed his whole self to an irresistible revolution. Meanwhile, most of the founders of emergent are raising children and paying mortgages and coaching YMCA t-ball. Martin Luther King didn’t coach t-ball; neither did Ghandi. Start a revolution if you want, but that’s not a price that I’m willing to pay.
The above is part of Tony Jones’ response to a growing chorus of voices saying they are disappointed with Emergent Village. Just to be clear this is about the organization, not the amorphous movement some call “emerging church” which cannot be attributed to Tony (or anyone else really). Tony has many good and important points to make in response to his critics. In fact, I agree with pretty much everything else he says. However, this paragraph made my jaw hit the floor.
After reading through the comments, it seems that the main issue people have with this comparison to Shane and his book is that it makes them feel guilty and not everyone is called to his radical lifestyle. I have previously taken on this issue in my post Relocation and Reorientation. I don’t think Shane or others in the new monastic movement would claim that all faithful Christians must follow their example. However, I will reiterate that the witness of those living out radical lifestyles (families too by the way) in following Christ both 1) criticizes the complacency and cultural accommodation of the rest of the church and 2) invites us into new ways of being the church in the world.
Far from creating a singular model, these radicals both inspire and challenge us where we are to live out our faith in more radical and subversive ways. Some commenters pointed out that they shouldn’t feel guilty for their lifestyles. I agree that what we do where we are at matters more than what someone says we should be doing.
However, my missions professor was fond of pointing out that “when everything is missions, nothing is missions.” The call to follow Jesus is a radical one and it should question our consumptive lifestyles and the way we allow the culture to organize our lives (including mortgages and T-ball). You can follow Jesus anywhere, but following Jesus means something particular. It does not condone our lifestyles or our culture. It calls us to a new way of being and living that is an alternative vision for the world. This includes a better balance between family and ministry, but it does not mean less radical.
If mortgages and T-ball are really what’s holding us back from embodying the kingdom, then those things need to be sacrificed. We must be willing to pay that price at least.
Too try and tie it back into the purpose of this blog, many young people and families are willing to trade their suburban lives for the farm life. Some have said that we will need 50 million new farmers to create a local/regional food system in North America. We will need people to buy that food and do other things. So, not everyone will become farmers, but many many more must if we are to move forward. The same could be said of the church. Many more will need to live out radical lives like Shane and others to bring the church into balance.
What can the rest of us do where we are to support those with such a call? What can we do to incorporate more radical practices into our lives where we’re at?