Greetings Neighbors and Strangers,
Indian Summer they call these warm days between lengthening nights. Goose and Cricket song descend and rise respectively, meeting and mingling in the dry air where we sit to offer thanks before the noonday meal. Sand River flows cool, her smooth surface adrift with feathers from the wayfaring flock, now hundreds strong. Will they still be wild after they’ve feasted and fattened for weeks on spilled GMO corn kernels in the surrounding fields? Will we begin to shed our tight-fitting, civilized skin once we feast and fatten on groundfall Apples and hedgerow Grapes? After we paddle out to the cliffs at day’s end, slip our clothes past our ankles and dive into the liquid body of a being as old as the high mountains from which she descends? It’s been nearly a month now without measurable rain, and yet she still flows clear and deep. Back from the pre-dinner dip, we smell Tomatillos and Lamb bones from last Sunday’s Feast roasting next to a low, smoky fire in the brick oven. The stock pot will simmer through the night with a splash of cider vinegar—to draw calcium from the bones.
When we place the word abandon after reckless—as in reckless abandon—we point to a state of unguarded participation in the tidal flow of life. What is it that we’re abandoning when we behave in such a way? One synonym for reckless is “wild.” So perhaps I’ll go so far as to describe the Gratitude Feast as an uncivilizing affair.
This last Feast had that feel to it. The magic seems to slip out once we’ve let our guard down. In a quiet moment during the pre-dinner gratitudes an older woman with gray hair pointed toward the sky and said, “I am grateful for this.” She heard Geese overhead. Another man who’d come to the August Feast said, “I’ve been thinking about what I might say, so that I would be ready. I look around and see people from all different walks of life here, and they’re all getting along. We can do this, people. Let’s turn off the TV and meet one another again.”
The word civility implies a peaceable human overlay upon a bestial state of affairs—the imposition of order and cooperation upon a ruthless world. Each time I offer food as a gift, however, I see the exact opposite. Last month I delivered boxes of grass-fed beef to many neighbors, some of whom I was meeting for the first time. The interaction was unfamiliar to both of us. Given the many rust spots on the modest hatchback I was driving and the rips in my jeans it was clear that the gift wasn’t charitable. I wasn’t positioned as a class superior, or a benevolent savior. I would say, “I’ve begun to graze cattle on the old Schermerhorn Farm and I’d like to share some of that food with you. Would you be willing to eat some of it?” Almost universally, I heard something like the following response. “Yes, but surely someone else needs this more than me.” The magic slips out once we’ve let our guard down. But where does that magic come from? Imagine if we paused to wonder who needs the food more than we do at the grocery store meat counter, or in the checkout line of any store for that matter?
When food is de-commodified it moves differently, from wild to human, from human to human, and then ultimately—and perhaps most importantly given our current ecological predicaments—between the human collective and the surrounding life-world. Between humans and the ongoing conversation from which we have attempted to extricate ourselves by using the word nature. When food is passed from hand to hand as a gift it seems to stir our human nature from its civilized slumber.
For years now I’ve carried the following line by memory, from Lewis Hyde’s prescient book The Gift. I can assure you Lewis is not describing civilization when he writes, “Our generosity may leave us empty, but it is then our emptiness that tugs gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us.” The image is heartbreakingly beautiful, is it not?
With some inspiration from Hyde, I’ve just typed following line into the book I am writing on my experiments in de-commodifying food: “I have become increasingly convinced that owning, buying and selling things amounts to a form of preemptive self-defense against the assumed ungenerosity of the other.”
On September 1st of the year 312, Roman emperor Constantine declared that private property assessments would be rewritten after fiscal periods of fifteen years. By my calculation, we are currently entering fiscal period number 115. In The Gift, Hyde writes, “When all property is privatized, faith is privatized and all men feel fear at the boundary of the self.” That fear is the basic building block for the fortress we call civilization.
The Gratitude Feast—tables covered with homegrown Lamb, Cabbage, Squash, Potatoes and Turnips granted generously by the surrounding pastures and gardens—affords me the opportunity to abandon my civilized fears for a few precious hours. There’s no charge for the meal. No donation jar, even. I can hear your well-warranted concern: “Starting a Farm where nothing is for sale is never going to work out in the middle of our modern lives.” I think you’re probably right, but not exactly in the way you mean.
If I started a conversation with you by telling you exactly how you could enter into conversation with me, would it still be called a conversation? Transaction isn’t relational in an ecological sense—the outcome is decided before either party releases hold of their securities. Buying and selling mark the ritual transfer of private property from one owner to another. If you’ve ever attended a real-estate closing, you will have seen the ornate ritual involved in those transfers, officiated by the high priests of private property.
What will become, then, of the Farm and its resident human custodians if they steadfastly, and stubbornly refuse to defend themselves against our incapacity to keep one another, and the landscapes that sustain us in mind? The answer: I have no stinkin’ idea. The conversation that becomes Sand River Community Farm, or doesn’t, will be nothing more and nothing less than the ways people come up with to keep the Farm in mind. Replace “the Farm” with “the natural world” and suddenly Geese are calling from the sky above. Cricket song rises from the ground and pours in through the open windows. Deer graze, fat and plentiful, at the meadow’s edge; Grapes hang dark and sweet in the hedgerows; Cabbages ripen in the warm Sun of an Indian Summer.
This food is offered as a gift to anyone who is hungry for any reason. Their request: that we partake in the gift and then remember how to keep the whole in mind as we move through the day. Saying yes to that request will ask us to abandon our precious civilization, at least for a few hours at a time. How else will we live? Or, rather, how else did we live? Lewis Hyde answers that question with the following, heartbreaking invitation: “Our generosity may leave us empty, but it is then our emptiness that tugs gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us.”
Many thanks to you for reading. Don’t hesitate to reach out. It is a pleasure to hear from you.
Photo at top courtesy of Adam Wilson.