Edible Sunlight

This morning I gave the keynote address for the Green Thumb Grow Together conference. It was wonderful to meet so many community gardeners (Green Thumb is a community garden organization), people from the Parks Dept., and elected officials who actually care about the green spaces in our city. If you were there…well, you may still be there at one of the excellent workshops going on all day. If not, here is what I said in the keynote:

I’d like to talk about edible sunlight.

In these times, I find it comforting to remember that my true security, my survival and more than that, my ability to thrive, doesn’t come from my jobs, my paychecks, or my government but from the ground I am standing on. The plants that grow in that earth under my feet—and I try to remember that even under the pavement there is fertile soil–those plants harness sunlight through photosynthesis so that I can enjoy it as…dinner. Because that is what food is: edible sunlight, given to us by plants. Even the animals we consume, if we eat meat, ate plants. This is really what keeps all of us alive. Without fertile soil, sunlight, water, and the plants that make use of those forces, there is no life as we know it on this planet.

In World War II, following over a decade of economic depression, the government urged American citizens to plant Victory Gardens. The idea, at the time, was that if people could produce more of their own food, it would free up resources that needed to be sent to the troops overseas and thus reduce the strain on the national budget. By 1943, 20 million Americans had planted Victory Gardens, many tearing up their front lawns in order to do so. Including, by the way, Eleanor Roosevelt, who tore up part of the White House lawn to plant a Victory Garden. And yesterday, Michelle Obama broke ground for the first family’s own vegetable garden on the White House South Lawn.

During the World War Two victory garden era, 40% of the produce in this country was grown in home gardens. 40%–just in case you were wondering how much of a difference individual gardens could make. Though there are parallels, these are different times. But once again gardens are a path toward self-sufficiency. According to an article in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle, nationwide “industry surveys show double-digit growth in the number of home gardeners this year and mail-order companies report such a tremendous demand that some have run out of seeds for basic vegetables such as onions, tomatoes and peppers.”

Gardens are a path away from isolation and dislocation towards something grounded in community and connected to the rest of the ecosystems of which we are a part. Most of you here are community garden members. Who among you hasn’t shared a cutting or a division or a seed from one of your most prolific plants? Who among you hasn’t shared your gardening advice, or gleaned a tip from a neighbor? This is not business as usual in New York City, but maybe it should be.

Gardens are also an opportunity for young people to understand what it is that actually keeps them alive. A few years ago, I led a community garden event for junior high school students from the Bronx. Knowing that they were coming, I deliberately didn’t harvest any tomatoes from my plot the week before. I wanted there to be plenty for them. The tomatoes were hanging red and ready on the vines, but the students shuffled and stared at the ground and looked confused. Finally one of them asked me, how do we know which ones are ripe? I showed them how to tell, and then made a salad of the tomatoes they’d harvested plus some basil and other things from the garden. At the first bite, the adult chaperones let me know that they were in tastebud heaven. But one of the boys said, “There’s something wrong with these tomatoes; they’re all juicy and wet.” He’d never had anything but mealy supermarket tomatoes. Let’s reintroduce our children to what a tomato can be. As Michelle Obama said in a recent New York Times piece, “When you grow something yourself and it’s close and it’s local, oftentimes it tastes really good. And when you’re dealing with kids, for example, you want to get them to try that carrot. Well, if it tastes like a real carrot and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy. So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they’re fresh and local and delicious.”

In the growing season ahead, I urge you to think outside the box as far as reclaiming your right to provide for your own survival and your own ability to thrive. Go beyond those ubiquitous (though tasty) tomatoes and the over-productive zucchini plant. Encourage your friends, who may not be community gardeners, to do the same. If they say they have no sunlight, tell them shade gardens can also grow food: they can grow the plants that sustained the first nations of this land, the fiddlehead ferns, wild leeks, wild ginger, and groundnuts that are native to our Northeastern woodlands and thrive in the shade. Building fronts needing ornamentals could think in terms of plants that do double-duty, such as native Juneberries that flower spectacularly in early spring but also provide blueberry-like fruit in early summer. Many herbs and vegetables can be grown indoors. Rooftops and windowsill boxes can also be planted with edible sunlight. New gardeners can take classes in food gardening at the New York Botanical Garden here in the Bronx, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and other places offering gardening how-to’s.

And don’t forget the gorgeous, wasted food already growing all around you. Instead of listening to your neighbor complain once again about the mulberries staining the sidewalk, why not harvest that delicious fruit and share and educate by bring your neighbor a mulberry pie? What about those “weeds” you’re throwing into the compost bin? Many of those weeds are edible and more than that delicious and nutritious. A bit of time at one of the many wild edible plants classes and tours available in our area, or even time on your own with a field guide, will let you know which plants you should be considering as crops rather than compost.

Wendell Berry famously wrote that eating is an agricultural act. It is also an environmental and political, almost revolutionary act nowadays to choose foods that are outside the industrial food chain. Recently bill HR 875, The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009 was introduced by Rosa DeLauro, a woman whose husband works for Monsanto. Supposedly a food safety act, according to Spence Cooper writing on the blog Friends Eat, “Lurking within the maze of technical lawyer-like jargon, the bill places wildly restrictive regulatory incumbrances on the…small organic farmer, or anyone for that matter who may one day decide to grow a small garden…you would be required to conduct special tests, maintain samples and records, and allow government officials to mandate the use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, specific types of nutrients, packaging, and temperature controls.” This is unacceptable. I urge you to contact your representatives immediately and ask them if they have actually read the whole thing. If they have, then they will know that this bill is not about food safety but about profitable control of the food chain by a very few companies, notably Monsanto. Any proposal that could take away the right of individuals to choose which crops to grow and the right to grow them without chemicals that are known to harm both the environment and human health is unacceptable.

With every food plant that you grow and every bite you eat you are casting a vote for how you believe food should be produced and what impact it should have on the planet, on your community, and on your health. It is for all of these reasons that local foods are starting to get as much press as organic foods. Well, there is nothing more local than the food you grow or forage yourself.

In these times, I’m not sure that “Victory Garden” is the right label for our part of the green revolution. Maybe it would be better to call our gardens the Gardens of Joyful Defiance: defiance of any suggestion that we can’t provide for ourselves and do so in a way that is good for both us and the environment; reassertion of the fact that our region is capable of sustaining us. Not just our region, but the very spot of earth on which we stand. Nature does not distinguish between New York City and, say, a wildlife refuge. You have only to see a dandelion popping up in the cracks in the sidewalk to know that nature is as active here as anywhere else on the planet. In 2009, may we share with others our understanding that gardening, foraging, and farming are by definition co-creative and cooperative acts between humans and nature, and that they are what always has, and still does, sustain us.

I wish you an abundant and joyful growing season in 2009.


Botany, Ballet, and Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes by Leda Meredith

2 responses to “Edible Sunlight”

  1. Miriam says:

    Honestly, I don’t know what scares me more, the nuclear threat from Iran or Monsanto’s attempts to monopolize the world’s food supply. It’s like The Ministry of Plenty in George Orwell’s “1984.”

    Can you imagine – Clandestine Chamomile? Illegal Leeks? Detention Duxelles? Back-Room Brussel Sprouts?

  2. raulteesha says:

    I just read through the whole bill of HR875–so great that you linked to it! To my non-legal (but educated) eye, it doesn’t seem to apply to individuals or non-profits, or to organizations that sell prepared food direct to consumers. So anyone who wants to grow stuff for themselves is not affected.

    The “small organic farmers” do seem to be in the bucket, but I couldn’t see where Spence Cooper’s dire predictions were outlined. If it is indeed a big-corp muscle move to shut out smaller producers (I suspect it’s highly likely that there’s a bit of truth to that), it’s pretty craftily written — I’d love someone with more savvy political insight to point out the sneaky sections and translate them into what the “sounds like” intent is (cuz it sounds like it’s meant to provide oversight for companies like Monsanto), and what the “real-life” meaning is–from the perspective of the small organic producers, who we need to be promoting, not stifling!

    I think sending ultra-specific comments to our representatives is much more practical than broad, vague “don’t pass this bill” type messages.

    Wow — I really do have some time on my hands, don’t I? 🙂

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