Although farming might seem a strange and distant occupation, most people in the United States are only a few short generations removed from the land. While debt and foreclosure forced many of our grandparents and great-grandparents to migrate into cities decades ago, the memory of how to grow our own food has survived in the traditions of urban gardening.
Some 80 percent of the U.S. population now lives in metropolitan areas, making our nation among the most urbanized in human history. One of the more alarming consequences of this trend toward urbanization has been the development of a sharp disconnect between a majority of U.S. citizens and their food sources. Despite vague inklings that farmers actually exist somewhere in the world, I suspect that more than a few of my peers probably have believed at some point in their lives that vegetables are produced in the back room of supermarkets. I know I did.
After all, when my family needed food, we went to the grocery store and bought it. I was not accustomed to seeing seeds sown into the ground. I never had an opportunity to listen to the nervous chat of relatives as they contemplated the effect that seasonal vagaries would have on crop yields, nor was my body physically involved in bringing the harvest in from the field. I did not have a care in the world for the face behind the meal on my plate, much less the practices that were used in its production.
This all changed for me a few summers ago when I decided to ask my landlord if I could grow a small garden in the backyard of my duplex rental. Except for the advice of my parents, I really didn’t have a clue as to how to get started or what I would do once I did. Eventually I took the path that seemed most practical and bought a shovel, fenced off a plot of land, turned the soil a few times and spread some seeds over the ground according to package directions. I watered once in a while and plucked weeds occasionally, and by early summer I had an abundance of the most delicious green beans and radishes I ever tasted. (I’ve since discovered that food always tastes better when you grow it yourself.)
By choosing to plant herbs and vegetables, I became part of a rich living tradition that dates back thousands of years. The ability to recognize useful plants and nurture their growth has been among the cornerstones of human culture for a large part of our history. Since well before the earliest human settlements in Mesopotamia more than 10,000 years ago, people have gardened and produced food for themselves, their family, friends and neighbors.
This dignified inheritance can be seen today in myriad forms. Efforts to revitalize inner cities have led volunteers in impoverished neighborhoods around the country to begin turning vacant lots into bountiful gardens that provide community residents with employment and quality, affordable food. Our ancestors are present every time a lawn is converted into garden space or an herb is planted in a window box.
The enormous popularity of gardening in the contemporary United States stems from the wide range of benefits it offers people from all walks of life. Wherever gardens are planted they beautify ugly city streets, provide fresh and nutritious veggies through the summer months, improve diets and bring neighbors together. There are more subtle advantages, as well, including the tendency of gardening to undermine violent cultural currents by instilling in the practitioner a more gentle nature and deeper respect for life.
Beyond the obvious aesthetic, community and nutritional value of gardening, tens of millions of Americans growing organic food in their homes and communities would be a powerful step on our nation’s tortured quest for energy independence.
Massive quantities of petroleum are used in the manufacture of pesticides and agricultural equipment, the daily operation of farm machinery, food processing plants and the transportation of produce from the field to our tables. The hidden inefficiency of this system is evidenced in the startling fact that the food we eat normally travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles before it reaches our plates. A growing chorus of scholars and concerned citizens are voicing grave public concerns about the vulnerability of this system to large-scale disruptions when petroleum prices rise sharply and as demand for oil outpaces production within the next couple of decades.
Urban gardening is certainly not a panacea for all the woes of industrial civilization. Nonetheless, finding a neighborhood community garden to grow your favorite vegetables, or throwing a few seeds in a pot of soil and making sure it gets plenty of sun and water, are simple tasks that go a remarkably long way toward restoring the health of urban environments. By drawing on our agricultural heritage, each of us has at our disposal the means to transform our barren, concrete surroundings into green landscapes that yield fresh and nutritious food.
Nathan Paulsen welcomes comments at [email protected]