My lovely daugther just graduated from St. Andrews Sewanee School (SAS), valedictorian of her senior class. Her experience at this outstanding school was transformational, but that’s not what this is about. She just shared with me her final paper for her Environmental Studies Class. Submitted May 20, 2010, it is still pretty fresh. To me, it is timeless. . . . and wonderful!
Here is the introduction and part one of two parts. I’ll post the other part later. Enjoy!
One last orange streak is still visible in the lightening sky, and the chilly air feels clean as it enters my lungs. The only sounds that break the morning stillness are the calls of birds and the gentle rhythm of my flip-flops along the trail. I swing open the large wooden doors of the greenhouse and set down the baskets I’m carrying. I walk slowly down each aisle of raised beds, trailing my hand through the lush potato leaves, plucking out a weed here and there. We should be eating tomatoes within the next week. I hope I didn’t trim the leaves too far back. I’m definitely going to have to find some other way to use all these cucumbers. The spinach is going to seed – sad, I’ve really enjoyed that this year. Mmmm, cilantro. I’m so glad Mom decided we should try out more fresh herbs. That strawberry looks especially juicy. I pop it in my mouth. Yep. Delicious. I come to the end of the first row – a bed full of green beans – and I have to stop and smile. This is my favorite part of the garden. More briskly now, I retrieve my baskets from where I set them down and begin to rustle through the rough velvet of the leaves to find each hidden pod.
I’m not part of any unbroken family chain of gardening wisdom. My ancestors left the farm for the suburbs in my grandparents’ generation or before. My own connection with the land is relatively recent. As I walk here in my garden, I’m often unsure what to do for it. I don’t hear the soil and the sun and the plants speaking to me. Not yet, anyway. But I feel their importance, their peace, their simple joy. And I’m learning to listen.
Part I: Return
I was born into a family of America’s corporate elite. For most of my life my dad was a top executive whose salary supported our living in large houses in affluent areas with excellent schools. Though I grew up in many different regions of the country – including Dallas, Texas; Los Angeles, California; Atlanta, Georgia; and Louisville, Kentucky – the areas where my family lived were fairly similar, as were the thought processes of the people who lived there. It’s no great wonder that I grew up ignorant of anything beyond culs-de-sac, strip malls, traffic, and processed food. I was taught at a young age, not by my family, but by the whisperings of “Mother Culture” that the only respectable jobs required business suits and graduate degrees.
I was shocked, therefore, and more than a little upset, when my dad informed me that after my freshman year of high school we would be moving to a large plot of land in Middle-of-Nowheresville, Tennessee. I’ve never been spoiled enough to object loudly, but internally I was dreading this move more than most. After the packing was done my mom and I joined my dad, who had come in advance to start work on the new project: sustainable land development. At that time our house was only a foundation, and the three of us lived in a tiny camper next to the construction site. I spent that summer hiding out in the trailer with a book or on the computer. My dad was in love with our new land, and he often tried to get me interested with hikes to the waterfalls, the bluff views, and the beautiful greenery. My attitude was always the same: “Yeah. It’s beautiful. Can I go home now?”
A year passed. I was hardly ever home because of all my school activities and commitments. I spent a few months in Costa Rica, which planted the seeds of simplicity in my head and in my heart. Though my neighborhood in Costa Rica wasn’t very close to any open land, I became accustomed to walking to every destination, enjoying beautiful rainforest views as I crested each hill, and smelling in my clothes the sunshine we used to dry them. Those seeds were just the beginning of my return to the land.
Most people would guess that the deep change in me came mostly because of my time in another country. Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I can trace the transformation in my thoughts and dreams to one summer spent in our family garden. One week, really. I had just come back from a fun but stressful month at Tennessee Governor’s School for the Humanities. I was feeling hurt and frustrated by school friends and looking for a place of cleansing and healing isolation. I began to work with my mom every day in our family garden. It took me only a few days to recognize the peace and significance that I felt in the mornings I spent working there. The way I talked began to change. I started to dream out loud of a small house where I could live simply with my family and a large garden. I gave thanks openly for the simple things, and I expressed frustration that I couldn’t express adequately to my friends just how I had changed and how much this new connection meant to me. I often lamented to others and in my journal, “How do I explain the feeling of waking up, putting on shorts and a t-shirt, walking out to the garden, picking green beans that I grew myself, snapping them, throwing them in a pot with a little sugar and salt and pepper, eating them, and not needing anything else in the world?”
A trip to my old neighborhood in Atlanta reconfirmed that I had changed deeply and dramatically. The suburban life that once seemed to me the only way to live now repulsed me. I felt like I was drowning in a huge sea of pavement. Traffic seemed unreasonable – where was everyone going? Parking lots made me squirm. Strip malls appalled me – why in the world should a town need an entire store devoted solely to makeup? I regularly ranted to my mom about the stupidity of such a lifestyle. She reminded me that this was the way the majority of Americans live, that most didn’t know any different, and that not too long ago I was one of them. As I walk through my garden, through the trees between the garden and my house, and through any open space, I often reflect on that trip and on Gerard Bentryn’s statement, “If you cannot see where your food comes from, you are doomed to live in ugliness.” As I do, I am overcome with gratitude to God for guiding me and my family to this place and giving me the opportunity to learn to see.