Supposedly Thanksgiving is about gratitude, a rather pagan-friendly appreciation of the harvest that will help us get through the hard winter ahead. In my experience, it’s primarily been a time to get together with family and/or friends, eat lots of food (and for some people get tipsy or drunk on whatever booze is available), and not have to go to work. Other than a prayer before the meal, I’ve observed very little overt gratitude being given amid the festivities. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of time with good people and plenty to eat, and I definitely disapprove of the growing trend of nonessential personnel having to work on Thanksgiving proper. But the original meaning of the holiday seems to have been rather lost in practice.
Perhaps this is in part because deliberate harvest festivals have been a part of my spirituality for the better part of two decades. Because I came to paganism after being raised Catholic, and I didn’t have a coven or other group to indoctrinate me formally with a predetermined set of spiritual parameters, I had to really consider what beliefs and practices I was adhering to and why. So I learned about the three harvest Sabbats–Lammas, Fall Equinox, and Samhain–and their historical counterparts in various European cultures. As I spent more time gardening, I was able to put theoretical practices to the test, exercising a new layer of gratitude as I watched seeds I planted sprout, grow, and come to fruition. The older I got and the more my path developed, the less I took my spirituality for granted.
These days, gratitude is deeply ingrained in my path because I know too much now to sustain ignorance. My roots are firmly embedded in urban sustainability and environmental awareness, and so I am acutely aware of where my food comes from and the cost it exacts on the land. “Harvest” isn’t just something to be celebrated in autumn; I’m able to get all sorts of food year-round, and that means there’s a harvest going on somewhere every day. As much as I try to stay local and seasonal, it’s not always within my budget (financial or temporal), and so I sometimes find myself buying out of season produce flown in from far away and processed foods whose ingredients were harvested weeks ago, moreso in the winter.
This means that each meal is infused with awareness and appreciation for the origins of each of the ingredients, whether I grew them myself or not. I can’t help but be grateful to those who made sure I was able to eat, whether that’s the animals, plants and fungi that died (or were at least trimmed back) to feed me, or the people who took care of them throughout their lives, or those who harvested and prepared them. I also have gratitude for the land that supported the food as it grew, particularly those places where chemical pesticides, fertilizers and other “enhancements” have destroyed the health of the soil. And I think, too, of the air, water, and land polluted by the fossil fuels used to grow, process and transport the food to me, and the other wastes that result from the sometimes convoluted path from farm to table.
All of this is summed up in a short prayer I’ve said before meals–quietly or out loud–for many years:
Thank you to all those who have given of themselves to feed me, whether directly or indirectly.
May I learn to be as generous as you.
Notice there’s two parts to that prayer–the acknowledgement of what others have given to me, and a hope that I can be as giving myself. Considering how much some beings sacrifice in order for me to eat, it’s impossible for me to give back exactly as much, at least until I die and my body is buried in the ground to be recycled into nutrients for others. But I can try to give back through more sustainable food choices, and attending to the tiny patch of land in my community garden, and donating food to charity. I can support efforts to gain better rights and working conditions for the migrant workers who pick the produce I eat and the underpaid employees of food processing plants. I can work to educate others about the problems inherent in our food systems and what we can do about them. All these are a far cry from being as generous as a being that died to feed me, but they’re a start.
My gratitude drives me to do what I can each day, not only to appreciate what I’m given but to care for those who have given it to me. The more I know about where my food comes from, the more driven I am to be a responsible part of this unimaginably large network of supply and demand, resource and consumption. Being grateful isn’t just about taking things with a “Yes, thank you”. It’s also the desire to give back, to demonstrate appreciation. The prayer at the beginning of the meal is only the barest glimmer of that urge, and it means little if it’s not followed up by action.
And so this Thanksgiving, as I am surrounded by others and as we prepare to eat turkey and stuffing and green beans and the canned cranberry sauce that retains its cylindrical shape all by itself, it’ll just be another day in which I am grateful and in which I try to enact as well as voice that gratitude. It’s also a good day to renew my commitment to that thankfulness and all it entails, in thought and deed alike. I may never achieve perfection; there are always more thanks to be given. But let this time of year be the rejuvenation of my efforts nonetheless.
Recently I’ve run across a few online discussions and blog posts asserting that vegetarianism and veganism (abbreviated as “veg*nism” from here on out) are the proper dietary choices for pagans and other spiritual people. The arguments for this have ranged from “meat is icky and does icky things to your energy” to “such and such culture is/was primarily veg*n so we should be too” and, of course, “no TRUE pagan (Scottish or otherwise) would ever bring harm to another living being” (forgetting, of course, that animals are only one of several kingdoms of living being). I’m not going to link to any of these discussions because I don’t want people to go start arguments there; I think that sort of brigading is a form of harassment and an ineffective way of getting one’s point across.
On that note, before we go any further, I want to speak to the sometimes thoroughly aggressive and unnecessarily hateful speech and behavior that I’ve seen a small portion of people use in these debates over the years. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay for someone to scream at you that you’re a murderer because you eat meat. It is not okay for someone to say “Ewwwwww, you eat meat/drink milk/eat eggs? That’s so gross it makes me want to vomit!” or “You’re an evil bitch/bastard who’s going to burn in hell for hurting poor little animals!” It is not okay for someone to tell you they wish someone would kill you and cut up your body and cook it, or that they hope you die of a heart attack from eating meat. It is not okay for someone to call together a bunch of their friends to leave hateful messages on your Facebook profile or fill up your inbox with the same in a harassment brigade. That shit’s just not okay.
At the same time, I also don’t think it’s okay to antagonize veg*ns for their dietary restrictions. If you are an omnivore, pagan or otherwise, it is not okay to deliberately annoy veg*ns with stupid jokes about meat. It is not okay to tell a veg*n that they just need to eat more bacon, or that they can’t possibly be in good health, or being all “Oh, yuck, tofu? How can you EAT that?” It is not okay for you to question a male veg*n’s manhood just because he doesn’t eat meat. And it is most certainly not okay to sneak meat into a veg*n’s food, whether or not you then tell them you did it. That shit’s also just not okay.
Now that we’ve established some ground rules, I want to address some reasons why it’s okay for you to be an omnivore if that’s your choice. These are talking points you can draw on if someone ever comes in swinging at you for your diet; they’re not meant as bludgeoning objects to try and convince someone that their veg*nism is wrong for them.
Your Body, Your Diet
Bodily autonomy is a basic human right. Regardless of how you may feel about the autonomy of other living beings, almost all of us can agree that each human being’s right to their own body should be inviolate, and the violation of bodily autonomy is at the root of some of the most serious crimes and human rights crises. That means that you get to choose what you eat (finances and availability allowing, of course), no matter what anyone else says.
It also means you have the right to look out for what’s best for your body. Some of us simply don’t thrive well on even a well-balanced veg*n diet, and if that’s the case for you you don’t have to run around sick and malnourished because someone else yelled at you for not eating the way they think you should. That being said, it’s also a good idea to be aware of what you’re eating and the effects it may be having on your body. My partner and I have both been eating less meat (especially not-fish meat) because we both have familial health risks that could be aggravated by too much meat consumption, and we both love good salads anyway. It’s still your prerogative if you want to live on Denny’s ham and cheese omelets and soda (even when other things are readily available to you and within your means), and part of respecting bodily autonomy means accepting that people are going to eat what they will no matter what anyone else thinks.
Spirituality and Subjective Projection
From a more particularly pagan angle, I’ve seen numerous claims that a veg*n diet is better for spiritual practices. The reasons include everything from the claim meat is harder to digest, requiring more bloodflow to the stomach and therefore less to the brain, to the concept that meat clutters up your energy/aura/etc. The part about digestion is true–cooking meat, marinating it (particularly in an acidic marinade) and even pureeing it can make it easier to digest, but it still take more effort than, say, cherries or lettuce. If you’re an omnivore and want to amp up the bloodflow to your brain for the purposes of a particular meditation or retreat, then a temporary veg*n diet can help.
What about the other assertion, that meat makes your aura more icky because you ate dead animal flesh (just this side of cannibalism, according to some)? Well, quite honestly, there’s no way to prove this. A veg*n who claims they felt better and more spiritually active and clean once they kicked their meat habit may be telling the truth about their experience, but it doesn’t mean that meat was necessarily the direct cause. Instead, it may have been the relief they felt in their conscience, which is also a valid feeling. But there are plenty of us who feel just fine spiritually after eating meat. And for those of us who really are obligate omnivores, few things ruin a good spiritual experience like not having given our bodies what they need to function properly.
Given the choice between spirit and science, I’m choosing science every time; spirituality is not meant to be a replacement for professional medical care. That means that since my doctor, who has seen me for years and has been tracking my health with her years of experience and her knowledge of the most up to date research, suggests I stick to omnivorism, that’s going to trump someone without credentials telling me that they think my aura looks muddy because I had bacon this morning.
Just Because We Don’t Have Catchy Slogans Doesn’t Mean We’re Wrong
One of the most frustrating things for me is when slogans like “MEAT IS MURDER!” and “EAT BEANS, NOT BEINGS” are bandied about as though having a catch phrase is all it takes to make you right. Like a sports team’s traditional cheer, these sound bites serve to bind together activists in a common cause with a quick, easy to remember distillation of their message. Unfortunately, just like sports fanatics who stalwartly stick by their team no matter what, the people chanting these things sometimes don’t consider the possibility someone else could have a perfectly valid disagreement. Moreover, these slogans also provide activists with a way to shut down any possible conversation. An omnivore could say “Hey, I choose to eat free-range meat because…” and all the other person has to do is scream “IT’S STILL MURDER, YOU MURDERER! MURDER!”
Here on the omnivore end of the spectrum, we don’t really have slogans, beyond those created by marketing boards. I mean, “PORK! THE OTHER WHITE MEAT!” isn’t really an inspiring rallying cry. And sometimes we don’t really know what to say when someone comes at us, ready to beat us into the ground with a guilt trip. It takes a lot longer to explain why The Compassionate Hunter’s Guidebook spoke to you than it does for someone else to say “YOU KILLED BAMBI!” There’s very little room there for critical thinking.
Why is critical thinking important? Because there’s bad information on both sides of the debate, and critical thinking is a good opportunity to question and double-check this information. One of the discussions I mentioned in the very first paragraph stated that over half of greenhouse gas production is specifically from agriculture; however, the EPA reports that only 10% are from all combined agriculture, livestock and otherwise. Conversely, there are people who honestly think non-human mammals aren’t able to feel pain–yes, there are still those who subscribe to Descartes’ concept of mechanistic physiology in which animals only respond to stimuli because they’re meaty machines, never mind all the modern research to the contrary. And when someone questions either of these assertions, the people who hold to them are likely to just latch on more tightly.
Critical thinking is scary because it can show the flaws and cracks in one’s own beliefs and posits the idea that maybe the other person does have a point. Slogans, on the other hand, often present something as universally desirable for everyone, a much safer but more inaccurate proposition. Even I can see the severe limitations of “Milk: It Does a Body Good”, starting with the significant number of lactose-intolerant and dairy-allergic people out there. This brings me to my final talking point…
We Face Very Complex Problems With More Than One Potential Solution
I am an omnivore in part because I care about the environment. I study (from a layperson’s view, anyway) the entirety of our food system, which is a complicated thing. I am aware of the horrific conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses and the overfishing of the ocean. I also know how the pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals that are sprayed on conventional crops kill countless animals through poisoning all the way through the food web. They also wash into the ocean to harm animals there and create anoxic dead zones. That goes for crops fed both to livestock and to humans, omnivores and veg*ns alike. And I’m aware that a lot of the food in the stores, regardless of what it is, got from its source to the shelf (often by way of lots of processing and packaging) with an immense amount of fossil fuels, water, and other resources. I’ve watched wild lands around my hometown and elsewhere being chewed up for agricultural fields all planted with one single crop, unable to support the diversity of life they once did, and I know that habitat loss is the number one cause of species endangerment and extinction.
For some people, the answer to this is veg*nism–fewer animals die, less grain is required for animal feed, and so forth. It’s a good answer for many. But it’s not the answer that works for me, not just because of my body’s need for animal proteins, but also because I choose to focus my efforts at a greener life a little differently. I buy most of my meat from a free-range ranch a few hours outside of Portland; they have a booth at nearby farmer’s market every weekend. I’ve toured their ranch, too; the animals are entirely pasture-fed, with no grain finish. Those pastures also support a diversity of wildlife and plants, and the soil is nourished by the manure of buffalo, heritage turkeys, and other livestock. I have my plot at the community garden and my collection of pots on my tiny balcony; it’s not enough to feed both me and my partner, but it’s a very good supplement, and we can make up the difference with organic produce (especially during the summer when the farmer’s markets are full to overflowing with choices). And there are fishmongers at the same markets who drove just a couple of hours from the coast–or, in the case of salmon, nearby rivers–with small-scale, sustainable seafood. All these things came locally, cutting down on carbon pollution compared to conventional alternatives that were flown in from out of the country. And the meat I buy is a damned sight better in my mind than a Morningstar Farms veggie burger, produced by Kellogg’s from non-organic soy and other ingredients.
But this is my solution, as someone who is an obligate omnivore, who happens to live in a very food-friendly city, and who has the financial means to pay a little more for organic at the store and the time to tend to a small garden. I would never dream of presenting it as the One True Solution to carbon pollution, factory farming, and dead zones in the ocean. When I write about my adventures in gardening, or share recipes on Tumblr, I’m not doing it to tell people that they should do things my way. Instead, I’m leaving my experiences out there as examples for others to consider along with other information, and to encourage those who have been thinking about trying out the things I’m doing. That’s as far as it goes.
And you know what? I’m fine with being an omnivore. I don’t run around wearing an “OMNIVORE PRIDE!” shirt, because I don’t think diet is something to particularly be proud of or ashamed of either way. But I have carefully considered my options with research and critical thinking and found a solution that both works for my needs, and sits well within my eco-conscious conscience. I’ll always question it, too, as new information comes out and as new options arise, because fundamentalism of any sort sucks. (You can insert your own end comment here about omnivory and sacred cows.)
(Honey bee on mullein flower, community garden, Portland, OR. Image by Lupa, 2014.)
Ever since I moved to Portland in 2007, I’ve spent every summer solstice at Sunfest, a local pagan festival west of Portland. I’ve collected many fond memories of the event, and last year I led the opening, closing, and main rituals, an incredible experience with an incredible group of people on beautiful land. This year, though, I opted to stay home, not because I don’t look forward to Sunfest, but because every so often it’s good to take a break, and I intend to go back next year refreshed and rejuvenated. (I heard people had a great time, there, too!)
So what did I do instead? Well, I’d been out of town the previous week, and while I was away it rained much of the time. This meant that upon my arrival back home, my community garden spot had a healthy crop of weeds popping up amid the more intentional plants. So a good bit of my weekend was spent with my hands in the dirt, digging up crabgrass and Russian thistles and a host of other unwanted invaders. I ended up with scraped fingers and sore shoulders, but by the time I was done things were looking a lot better (if not perfect).
I also took the time to plant out my little balcony container garden, which I admit I’ve been neglecting some as I’ve wrangled with the weeds down the street at the larger plot. But my herbs were all doing just fine, and the volunteer marigolds and petunias that sprouted from last year’s dropped seeds all ended up gathered together in one long planter box. Soil was freshened up, fluffed, and fertilized, and I planted out beans and arugula and other seeds. I also made my yearly pilgrimage to Fred Meyer’s clearance aisles in the garden section, where I brought home eight tomatoes and two unlabeled squash in sad condition which I’ll be attempting to resurrect with some TLC. Along with these I bought a very marked-down hanging pot of petunias; I thought the hummingbirds might like it.
Still little. Still lovely. My balcony garden <3[/caption]Wait. Hummingbirds?
Okay. For those of you familiar with my work, you may have noticed that I've historically been against feeding wildlife, birds included. Putting out food where raccoons and possums can get it, for example, encourages them to be less afraid of humans and causes them to be more of a nuisance (we see this writ large in the black bears at Yellowstone). However, I was researching something on the Audubon Society website, and discovered that some of the things I had learned about feeding birds, to include the risk of interrupting migration and causing them to neglect natural food sources, were actually incorrect. I figure if the Audubon Society says it’s okay to feed birds, then there’s probably something to it. So I’ve had a bird feeder on the porch for the past couple of weeks and have entertained several scrub jays, crows, and house sparrows at it. (I figure two native species out of three isn’t bad, especially in this urban a setting.) It’s located where I can look right out at it while I’m working at my computer, and it’s been beneficial for both me and the birds. They get food with minimal effort and no threat of predation, and I get to watch their daily tiny-dinosaur dramas play out at the feeders (will the sparrows get a full meal before the scrub jays chase them off? Can the crows cope with the fierce competition for sunflower seeds?)
This, then, was my ritual. I haven’t formally celebrated the Sabbats in years, but if I were to call this summer solstice anything, it would be a harvest festival. I’d been picking beet greens all month for salads and pulled up and stored my spinach, which was threatening to bolt, just before I left town. But this weekend’s haul was even better–a nice big handful of bush peas, ten nice-sized (but not too big) red beets, and a bright bouquet of calendula for both eating and prettying up the apartment a bit. This is my first year really getting to use my garden, and I don’t think I could have envisioned how lovely the harvest would be back in February when I first sowed the seeds. (The beet roots roasted beautifully, by the way, and the leaves and the rest went into a glorious salad.)
All in all, it was a good time to renew my bond with the land through this direct contact. I try to spend at least a little time with my garden almost every day, but the timing worked out that a lot of effort needed to be put into it right now, and instead of being a chore all the weeding and harvesting and replanting was a celebration of gratitude. I’m grateful for my little gardens and the life they support, including my own. I’m grateful that I have the time and schedule flexibility to be able to devote to them. I’m grateful I can invest a bit of money in seeds, starts and other short-term needs in order to get a long-term payout. I’m grateful the weather has cooperated (mostly), and that my plants have survived spring hailstorms and hot days to thrive. Most importantly, I’m grateful for the lessons my gardens have taught me, not just about necessary care and potentials for change and growth, but about what draws me so near to the land here. We give to each other, and I vow once again to be a good caretaker of my tiny corner of the world.
See, as I’ve gotten older I’ve become something of an aspiring amateur foodie, with a particular emphasis on sustainability. I’m much too cash-strapped to afford any restaurant that has a constellation of Michelin stars, and my partner and I are more likely to shop at CostCo and the farmer’s market than Whole Foods. But we have our community garden plot and a few pots on our tiny apartment balcony, and these help me feel a little more connected to the terrifyingly complex systems that bring food to most Americans’ plates.
Truth be told, I’m probably more aware of these systems and their impacts than the majority of people in this country, which is why The Third Plate has been added to my short list of books I think everyone ought to read. There’s a severe lack of food literacy in the U.S., and in recent years several authors ranging from Michael Pollan to Jane Goodall have offered up their written reasonings on why we need to be paying more attention. We can be a tough audience, though; five decades of being told the environment’s going to hell, life-giving soil included, has served to overstimulate and then numb us to the problems we face. Apathy may very well be our downfall, if we aren’t careful.
But this is why I absolutely loved The Third Plate. It’s a delightfully inviting read, where Barber brings us all along on his journey from his own farm on the skirts of New York City, to an inventive seed facility in the Skagit Valley in Washington, and even far across the Atlantic to coastal Spain where pigs and geese alike root through acorn-studded fields. Each stop brings us face to face with some creative individual working to stop the corporate-harnessed juggernaut that is the American food system, whether through resurrecting old resources, or mindfully inventing new ones (or, quite often, some combination thereof).
This is no dry agriculture textbook, though; instead, the true-life stories of farmers, chefs and other innovators illustrate each chapter as Barber discusses how soil, land, sea and seed all come together to feed us. Right off the bat, we enter into the world of Klaas Martens, a wheat farmer who started with being poisoned by his own chemicals, and embarks on a journey that leads him to perennial wheat with roots as long as Rapunzel’s hair. There’s Veta la Palma, an aquaculture facility (read: fish farm) that defies the stereotype of environmental degradation and instead has become a prime spot for migrating birds (even if they do pick off fish with some frequency). Fans of Southern cooking may be surprised to find that what’s being offered to them is a lie, and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills is determined to shine light on the truth. And far in the Northwest farmlands, Steve Jones works to bolster the available variety of seeds with something old and something new (but nothing GMO), further insuring us against the collapse of a mainstream agriculture that is all too reliant on monocultures and a tiny seed catalog.
These and other key movers and shakers in the grassroots “let’s eat better, more sustainable food” movement share their stories and their motivations through Barber’s words. Not everything goes smoothly; a key critic of overfishing is served a piece of bluefin tuna, and not even the ancient manner in which it was fished can mollify him. And Barber’s own attempts to recreate the “field gras”, a more humane way to grow tasty goose liver, takes some serious trial and error to even get out of the gate (spoiler: opening the gate solves the problem).
But in the end, we’re left with a glowing sense of optimism, even with its realistic tempering. The real beauty of The Third Plate is in its ability to inspire and motivate the reader. Barber (like Pollan, Goodall, and their ilk) presents both the problems inherent to our current food system, and a variety of real-world solutions. Where he really shines, though, is in showing how people more deeply involved in the relevant industries than the average consumer are making real changes. We here on the eating end of things all too often feel like our ability to create change is limited to our buying power (such as it is). Barber shines light on a handful of the growing number of people who are doing extraordinary things in restaurant kitchens, in fields and estuaries, on farms and in research facilities, all aimed at a more sustainable–and flavorful–future of food. By showing where each of these innovators started, what their root problems were, and then sharing the sometimes long and winding paths they took to their current and ongoing solutions, he breaks down the process of changing the world into more accessible portions. And in doing so he reveals that every one of them is just an ordinary person doing their best right along with the rest of us.
I find that to be incredibly inspiring, particularly as a person of rather limited means and resources. Even before I was finished with the first section of the book on soil, I was already researching options for getting the soil in my little 10′ x 20′ community garden plot tested, and wondering if I should try to plant a winter crop of emmer wheat next to my red clover cover to help the soil this autumn. This is a book for creating dreams, even if they’re a little over the top. Because it’s that willingness to break out of established parameters and be a little crazy that has given the people in this book–and Barber himself–the power and impetus to make change happen. I’ll be doing more reading and research into organic farming beyond “no chemicals”, but I’ll also return to The Third Plate whenever I feel my enthusiasm flagging.
As to who should read this book? Like I said in the beginning: everyone. Even if you don’t garden, even if you’ve never even been on a farm, no matter what your dietary choices and restrictions may be–if you eat food, this is a must-read. And don’t be scared by the almost 500 pages contained between the covers; it’s a fast, compelling read that has the power to keep you up well past bedtime.
Somehow Pagan Values Month crept up on me this year. Luckily, it caught me at a time when a good topic was percolating in my head: food.
Food may not seem much like a value, so much as a necessity. Unable to photosynthesize sunlight into energy, we animals must consume other living beings to get our nutrients, whether in the form of other animals or the photosynthesizers (plants) themselves. And despite efforts to create a one-size-fits-all convenience substitute for food (like this dreadful looking stuff here), we’re still largely reliant on the direct products of the Earth for our daily sustenance.
But we are human, and one of the things that (as far as we know) makes us unique is the control we have over our environments through our intelligence, resourcefulness, and nifty opposable thumbs. One of the many ways in which we exercise this is through our conscious choice of food. Particularly as we developed agriculture and gained more independence on our food supply, we’ve been able to decide whether or not to eat a particular thing, rather than eating whatever happened to be available at the time. And cooking is even older than agriculture, with the earliest evidence arising 250,000 or so years ago.
With cooking came even more diversity in flavors, and with that a greater appreciation for the aesthetics, rather than just the functionality, of food. We can enjoy food, not just because a particular taste lets us know it has good things in it, but because we are conscious of our enjoyment. We are capable of choosing the flavors we like best, combining them in unusual and surprising manners. And in that act of creation, we appreciate and celebrate the food and its goodness.
But we don’t celebrate the land itself. Outside of a dedicated cadre of foodies and some wine enthusiasts, most people couldn’t tell you where the thing they’re consuming came from, never mind how the soil it was grown or fed on affects its taste. We may know vaguely that our loaf of bagged white bread was probably made from wheat somewhere in the Midwest–maybe–but that’s about it. For the most part, unless we grew or raised it ourselves, or bought it directly from the farmer, we just can’t say where our food came from. Food is an expression of the place it came from, and our bodies are made of that soil. We carry bits of countless fields and farms within our very flesh, yet few of us could identify every single one that’s provided us with our food.
This goes for most pagans, too. When we have our “harvest” celebrations in late summer and fall, Lammas and Mabon and Samhain, most of us aren’t offering up food that we ourselves grew or raised. Instead, everyone brings things we bought from the store, the farmers and farms themselves left anonymous and forgotten. We come together because someone’s ancestors way back when celebrated the harvest around this time–or because some book explained the eight Sabbats and that’s what we figure we’re supposed to do. There’s an almost complete disconnect between the empty words we speak out of some book of shadows, and the people who actually raised and harvested the food we consume once the circle’s closed.
It is not enough to celebrate “Yay, food!” with bland words of “Thank you to the Earth, blah, blah, blah”. What does that really mean? Thank you, entire planet? Thank you, unidentified spot where this apple was grown? Thank you, soil where a migrant worker stepped as they picked this handful of peas?
For those pagans whose spirituality centers on nature, this is a potential area for a deeper connection to the land. We need to go beyond rote harvest celebrations. Just like a Christian doesn’t stop being Christian after the hour-long Sunday service is done, we don’t stop being nature pagans after everyone goes home from the Sabbat (or whatever your chosen celebration is). To really honor the land we get our food from, we have to know it. We have to remove the anonymity as best as we can. And we have to acknowledge the sources and systems that bring us our food every day, to include the harm they can bring to the environment and ourselves, and mitigate the damage as best as we can. If we’re going to claim to honor nature, it’s imperative that we go beyond the generic “thank you”.
This isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Gardening seems like the easiest and most immediate solution to the anonymous food and land problem; I’ve been growing vegetables since I moved to the Northwest in 2006. But it takes money and resources; there are times when all I had was a few pots on the porch, and some people don’t even have access to that. Few of us have enough land to grow enough food for the household year-round; my community garden plot is 10′ x 20′, and it’s a good week if I can pull a few salads for two from it.
We could look to other food growers, of course. I’m spoiled here in Portland because there’s a strong emphasis on local agriculture, from farmer’s markets most days of the week to restaurants and shops specializing in locally grown and raised food. So it’s really easy to get to know the farmer here. It’s tougher to know the land that grew your food when all you have access to is a chain grocery store with plastic-wrapped meat from one of Tyson’s many factory farms and spinach shipped in from somewhere in Mexico. You may have to do some research to find more local resources–and “local” may be relative, if you don’t have viable farmland within a hundred miles, or if all the farmland is owned by huge agribusinesses.
Cost becomes a factor, too, when trying to buy more personal food. Big agriculture gets a ton of government subsidies which allow their products to be sold more cheaply; often the independent farmers can’t compete because they have to sell their food at real cost. This, unfortunately, can price it out of the reach of some people, especially those on lower incomes. This isn’t always universal; in the middle of summer I can go to the farmer’s market down the road and get a giant bundle of carrots for two bucks, but then pay $20/pound for grass-fed buffalo sirloin. (In which case, we just eat more carrots and only a little meat.)
The good news is that there’s no single right way to treat food as a pagan value. Just having more awareness of your food and where it comes from is a great starting point for breaking out of the generic “thank you, Earth!” form of food and land appreciation. As one example, even if all you know about the chickens your eggs came from is that they lived in tiny battery cages somewhere and existed only to lay as many eggs as possible, then at least you know who to really thank for your food at harvest time! And your awareness can lead to more conscious choices in the future, too. You might have access to free range eggs, whether through the grocery store or a farmer’s market. Even if you can’t buy the free range eggs every single shopping trip because they cost a few more dollars a dozen or because you’d have to travel farther for them, you might consider buying them once a month if you’re able, and that’s better than not buying them at all.
I’ll be talking more about issues surrounding food, sustainability, and their connection to spirituality in future posts–in fact, stay tuned for my next post where I’ll be reviewing a really good book that I’ve found incredibly inspirational in my quest to be a more responsible consumer of comestibles.