From the good earth: lessons from the past, inspirations for the future

Michael Ableman

Fairview Gardens Farm and Education Center, Santa Barbara, California, USA

One day in the spring of 1883 in North Dakota as immigrant farmer John Christiansen plowed his fields, he looked up to find that he was being watched by an old solemn Sioux Indian. Silently the old Indian watched as the dark soil curled up and the prairie grass was turned under. Christiansen stopped, leaned against the plow handle, pushed his black stetson back on his head, and rolled a cigarette. He watched amusedly as the old Indian knelt, thrust his fingers into the plow furrow, measured its depth, fingered the sod and the buried grass. Then the old Indian straightened up and looked at the farmer. "Wrong side up" he said, and walked away. One hundred years later, and the words of the Sioux Indian are just beginning to ring true. 'Wrong side up' is more than a commentary on the plow's action on reversing the soil structure, 'wrong side up' is emblematic of our current food system, and of the conquering mindset that we inherited from those early American settlers. Their westward conquest, clearing the forests and plowing the land, reached the West Coast shores of the Pacific to what we now call California, and to the small farm I now work. But there were those who came to my land long before land ownership and agriculture existed as we know them.

My International 484 three-cylinder tractor requires full throttle these days. It is tired, and pulling the disc across the front field under the best of soil conditions is a chore. With a worn muffler it is loud too, very loud, so it was a small miracle I even heard the clink from somewhere behind me. I immediately stopped, throttled down, took the tractor out of gear and got off. There behind the disc was a stone pestle, perfectly preserved except for the marks left by the steel blades of the disc. It fitted comfortably in my palm, buffed smooth by Chumash Indian hands some 2000 years ago. The farm was soon to celebrate its 100th anniversary, and suddenly holding this ancient tool we were newcomers.

I have plowed this field a hundred times in fifteen years of farming here, but the trace of my native predecessors was inconspicuous. As hunter-gatherers they fed themselves off this land for generations, hardly disturbing it, leaving it virtually unaffected by their presence.

The farm is one of the last in a valley that once boasted some of the deepest and richest topsoil on the West Coast. We have survived, as fields of tract homes have replaced the walnut and citrus groves of the past. On our twelve acres we grow nearly one hundred different varieties of fruits and vegetables in a virtual year-round harvest, most of which is sold without ever leaving the farm gate. We have a store on the farm that supplies the local community with fruits, vegetables, eggs, honey and fresh-baked bread. We also work under a community-supported agricultural model with seventy families who are members. In a return to a form of social agriculture, community members throw in their lot with the farm by buying shares at the beginning of the season. Good year or bad, they are nourished by our labors but also share in our risks. We hold several farmers markets per week, as well as feeding the constant flow of visitors who come for events, tours, a yearly concert series, and various educational programs. Recently we formed a non-profit organization to oversee our educational programs, and raised the funds to put the land under a conservation easement. This will insure that it will always remain as an organic farm and education center. Twelve acres surrounded by suburban development feeds three to five hundred families and employs 15 people full-time. Current agricultural economics would say that's impossible. The farm has become a model for what can be done on a small acreage in an urban environment.

But perhaps what is more important is the way in which the farm has become a center for the community. It is in the area of community building that I think farms and gardens have a very critical role. Growing things slows us down, puts us in touch with the earth, and with each other.

Children respond to this more immediately than anyone. A big part of what we do involves children. Some of that is inevitable. Those growing up in the tract homes surrounding us have nowhere to go, the developers who designed and built those homes did not concern themselves with incorporating elements of nature, with space for gardens, with creating an environment where children have a sense of place. Those kids are magnetically drawn to the farm, to the open space, the hidden spots where they can put their forts, to the smells and the feel of soft ground under their feet. They know every nook and cranny, they play king of the mountain on the large compost piles, hide and go seek amongst the maze and tangle of our peach or avocado orchards. This is one place where they can be free, that they can feel connected to the earth. And while we discourage kids from picking foods without asking, we don't mind seeing the odd orange peel or carrot top left behind, that tells us that they are in fact touching base with real tastes from the earth.

But we also have had big success with more formal programs—children come through by the thousands each year for everything from two-hour tours to 5-day live-in programs. I always begin by having them gather around in a circle on the ground. I ask them to cup their hands and then I fill each set of hands with some rich topsoil. At first many of them respond with "Yuk" or scream when they encounter an earthworm, but I remind them that this is where their food comes from. I ask them to examine the soil closely and to close their eyes and smell deeply. I tell them that one pinch of living soil contains millions of forms of life.

I have found that if I can have even just a few hours with these kids I can open up that forgotten part of themselves that is connected to the earth. And when they stay longer they begin to let go of the world of shopping malls and video games. But the most important thing that we do is to go grazing. The harvesting and tasting of fresh foods from the fields is the most powerful tool that I use.

We had a group called Rites of Passage—they were 14 fatherless boys who were up from South Los Angeles. Many of these kids had never tasted real food, picked fresh. But when I let them harvest and eat a fresh cherry tomato or split a melon still warm from the sun, the response was incredible. These kids were tasting real food for the first time in their lives, nothing more needed to be said.

It is gratifying but it is also sad. It reminds me that we have become a culture of refugees from the land and that the environmental and social crisis we now face is a result of this alienation. After all, how can we be expected to take care of what we no longer understand if we no longer feel close to it?

I have had the privilege of living close to the land and to the source of food, but with that has come a great responsibility. I know that culture and food are entwined, that when we separated our families and our communities from the land we separated from much more than that. Returning to the garden, returning to food as the center, the gathering point for family and friends is so vital to our collective health and education.

This idea became so important to me that I went looking all over the world to make some sense of it: to understand how food, culture, land, and people fit together.

A couple of years ago I was sleeping in the old farmhouse where I live, when it started to roll like a ship, sending me flying out of bed. It was 4.30 in the morning and we had been hit by an earthquake. I plucked my son out of bed and headed out the back door, arriving just in time to see all of the electricity in southern California go off in a wave. It was a rare and beautiful experience to be able to gaze into the sky and experience the full array of brilliant stars in this urban environment where ambient light normally pollutes our night skies. Lost in that still beauty I forgot about the disaster that had just occurred.

When the sun came out that morning it was one of those perfectly still crystal clear days that often occurs after an earthquake. I thought I better investigate and see if the world around me still existed. What better way to feel the pulse of our suburban neighborhood than to visit Vons, the local supermarket. So I walked the few blocks from the farm to Vons. On the way cars were colliding in mid-intersection (the traffic lights were out), the gas stations had lines of cars (the electric pumps were not functional), and when I reached the door of Vons on this brilliantly clear sunny day and walked inside it was completely dark. The ice cream was melting in the freezers, the meats were going off on the shelves, and hoards of people were frantically filling their shopping carts using flashlights to navigate the aisles. When they reached the checkout counters there were signs that said 'Sorry no change'—the ATM machines were down. I looked around amidst this frenzy and it struck me how incredibly precarious and fragile our current food system really is.

My neighbors who shop in that supermarket are well paid, highly educated individuals who work at high-tech defense research companies. Yet if that supermarket had stayed closed they would have been hard pressed to know how to feed themselves. For all their money and education they are powerless when faced with taking care of the most basic human need.

By contrast I think of places like 'The Garden Of Eatin' at 25th. Street and 'Dickinson' in north Philadelphia where the average income is $8000 per year, where infant mortality and violent-crime rates are some of the highest in the country. Yet there in that most vulnerable of places neighbors banded together to clear a lot of trash and rubble and were planting foods from their roots in the South. They were not only feeding themselves but were, in their own words: "Growing extra to feed the poor". Marina La Pinia, also from Philadelphia, who although she is Filipino, grows peppers for her Puerto Rican neighbors and at the end of the season opens the garden to the neighborhood and serves a feast from her bounty. Abundance in the midst of poverty. We have to ask ourselves-who really are the poor?

It is in those places where opportunities and choices are few that real community often comes forth. And there is probably no greater basis for community than the gathering together to work with the earth. I saw this at fifteen thousand feet in the Peruvian Andes, where hundreds of people gathered to prepare a field for potatoes for feeding single mothers and orphaned children. I have also seen it here in the heart of the Bronx where gardens bordering crack houses are cultural centers for the local neighborhood. A sense of self-reliance can come from the simple act of planting a seed; success on one's little plot can lead to success in other areas of life. Gardening is truly a pathway to community.

Now many believe the responsibility of feeding the world belongs wholly to farmers. But when the food system no longer fulfills the needs of the people, whether it is for economic or distribution reasons, or because of concerns about food safety, or because people want corn that tastes like corn, or potatoes that are more than a tasteless medium to convey salt and ketchup to their mouths, then people take that responsibility into their own hands. And so while many look to agriculture as the source of salvation, the truth is that the real revolution is happening in neighborhoods, communities, and towns. The revolution is taking place in small gardens, window boxes, in the most unlikely of places. And lest anyone dismiss gardens as units too small to have any impact or to indicate any trend at all, consider the United Nations study published this year that states that gardens and urban agriculture are providing food for a significant portion of the world's population. Gardens are also, as Gene Logsdon writes, "the incubators of the new farm ecology where seeds are saved, biological relationships are explored, and new methods of soil fertility and pest control practiced".

Botanic gardens have traditionally had the reputation of being exclusive enclaves where rare and exotic plants are protected and displayed. What we see today in the focus of this conference and amongst those gathered here is historic in turning that view around. The potential for these institutions to become the centers, the gathering places for local communities, places where local and traditional seeds and plants can be preserved and disseminated, where young people can regain an understanding and appreciation for the environment and those pieces of the natural world that are left around them. Botanic gardens may in some places represent the only living examples of that natural world. The challenge for these institutions will be to help growing urban populations to remember their roots, regain an understanding of the environment in which they live, feel identified with it enough to want to protect and restore it.

Our work is powerful, for no matter how complex, how stressful, or how difficult one's life has become—when one plants a seed and sees it grow, one cannot help but be renewed. Knowing that power is knowing one's personal power. Through the garden, poverty can become abundance, fear trust, and despair hope. The garden also feeds us in ways less tangible than the ripe tomatoes, the squash or the corn that we harvest from it. Ultimately this movement is about renewing our selves and our communities, through the simple act of planting that seed. It seems simplistic, but healing and renewal are accomplished in simple ways by increments—one spade full, one bucket of compost, one garden at a time.

You have the opportunity to become the front line of this revolution. Those centers that you nurture and steward are part of a much greater whole; one that holds promise for real change. I would like to end by sharing a quote from an old Hopi friend of mine who wears his wisdom so lightly.

"Sometimes I come to my field in the evening and stay all night because the porcupines were eating my corn. I'd sing all the way up and down the rows. My dad said this corn is like children and you have to sing to it and then it will be happy."

And each day as I observe my life and the world around me, racing about in its blind quest for more. I think of my 87-year-old Hopi friend, of a life lived with respect, and harmony in action and when I close my eyes I can see him as he slowly makes his way down the rows of corn, singing the songs of his ancestors, his every footstep like food for the soil, his voice echoing in the canyon. And then I remember, this is who we once were. And I ask myself, where are we going?

Forward    |    Acknowledgements    |    Table of Contents