Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

The year in review

Why soil is more important than anything

September 18, 2008

I suppose, in review, that the year and my efforts in the garden offered much by way of substance. I do not know if I will ever get the chickens or goats I think about, even though they would round out the homestead. Evidently there is a limit to my time and space.

If I were a younger woman, I might move to a larger spread. But this experiment, this living off while on the grid, is the thing I am most interested in. And even though it is still unclear to me what it means to be an urban homesteader, slowly I move closer to a life that feels sane.

Every year I harness more of the labor I have outsourced to others — the growers and processors, the designers and manufacturers. Every year I make the loop between my life as a producer and consumer a little bit smaller by moving the marketplace from the streets to the backyard, by changing the merchandise I bring home from factory-made to handmade — by my hands.

By the simplest of logic, these efforts create frugality and invention. If I wear, eat, and enjoy that which I produce, all things will be considered by a new set of standards, since there are only so many hours in the day. I am quite sure that the sweat of one’s brow is a self-limiting reality. Not that I want to take away jobs, dismantle industry, deny the arts, or go back to eating hardtack, but most jobs and efforts are increasingly far-flung and unruly and how, in my mind, can I give to others what I will not do myself?

Or, perhaps more accurately, how can I value what I buy or support if I have not attempted the work myself?

It is easy to dismiss the effort and/or increasing missteps of industry when we are sheltered from the process. Perhaps when we understand that soil is our greatest asset and responsibility, we will review everything that comes from it with a more discerning eye. And to be clear, it all comes from the soil. It is hard to remember this or, more accurately, hard to take it seriously, having been removed from the truth for so long. We city kids know pavement and design, not crops and soil.

Preserves for the winter; produce from good soil.

I do not grow food because I do not have the money to buy it. Rather, I want to see if it is possible. I want to see if a city slicker like me (55 years old and born and raised in the Bronx) can do it and what I will learn. I do it to find solutions to the craziness of the world around us and to maybe share those solutions with others.

It is my belief that when we take the time to personally grow, harvest, and preserve our food for the year, we are less likely (and more importantly, our kids will be less likely) to indulge the petty preferences of fussy and “discriminating” palates. We will better know the hard work it took to put that food on our table. We will no longer indulge the manipulated space between the good earth and the table, the soil, and the grocery shelf, nor the spiraling insanity of marketing that assumes, no requires, our amnesia. Only then will we see the thing for what it is, born of the soil no matter how many steps removed.

And when we ask of ourselves, “Who grew it, how, and where?” it will not be an ethic fed and sold to us by industry. Rather, it will be something we ask ourselves as true defenders of the soil. Only then will the words “organic” and “sustainable” stop functioning as branding.

It is also my belief that growing food leads to understanding the real health of the economy. I tread lightly here because, in truth, I don’t like the word or notion of economic systems since they are a fairly recent equation in the history of the world. They are, and were, designed to measure the health of industry, not nature, people, or the planet. That any of those other things were factored in at all was simply a by-product of a much larger agenda.

It is important to keep that in mind. Despite this legacy of obscurity, the only true sign of our economic health is our soil, for it is from the soil that civilizations sprang. It is from the rich deltas and river basins of the world that food to nourish communities and culture began. It is our soil, air, and water, and not some odd replacement currency, that should guide us.

Whether in our nation, globe, or home, the health of any economic system lies in its ability (and commitment) to protect these limited resources. A more classic definition of economic systems does not suggest this and certainly does not suggest a value of stewardship. Academia and experts have befuddled us, have turned the simple truth into an abstract science. They speak in a language and logic that sounds important and relevant, but I tell you they are as confused as we are. They are scrambling to hold on to a system that is unhinged because they, too, have forgotten the basic truth: that the health of people, the planet, and our economy starts and stops with the soil.

Take away clean water, air, and healthy soil, and see how long things last, money in the bank or not. But that is what I mean when I say growing food helps you understand the true heart and health of any economic system. Once you come to grips with the fundamental truth and need for healthy soil, you begin to see all other things as secondary or, at least, relational to it. You begin to see all the things as part of a replacement economy.

And you wonder how you have allowed yourself to value the replacements more, particularly when the source is so sick. And you make corrections; you pick up the shovel and you go back to protecting the only thing worth leaving our children. And once we take the time to renew the effort in the microcosm of our daily lives, we will better understand, and read, the meltdown and betrayal of the “American Dream” for what it is: a stolen future.

I will say, and say it strongly, that none of the good old days will ever return if we do not take the time to recognize that most of the truth attached to the good old days were very rarely good. Every step away from the soil and our stewardship of it has been a misguided step. Or, at least, taken with the assumption that the soil was dirt and would endlessly sustain us. But that has been our folly, and the natural world is informing us of it.

It will not be the economists, technology, government, politicians, or the stock market that will solve the problem or afford us some measure of health, sanity, peace, and equity in the years ahead. Rather, it will be from the fruits of our own labor and the sweat of our own brows, each of us individually taking back the effort of closing the loop, renewing the soil, and tending to our own backyards in a way that will open the world to possibilities.

I know all this sounds preachy, but what do you do when you feel something is important? I just offer what has given me some semblance of sanity.

It is my ultimate hope that once we return to the requirements of the soil and blessings of the table, we will challenge the type of otherworldly hyperbole that arises when we imagine ourselves masters of the universe. That once the the ethic, privilege, and ridiculous claims of our chosen-ness is finally silenced, we will get down to the business of loving our brothers, sisters, and planet in a way that might keep the greed and guns at bay.

Will growing and preserving your own food do all this? Maybe not. But I’ll keep on keeping on, if only with a few less peaches.

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by amber on Sep 18, 2008 at 5:12 PM PDT

This made me feel better about my bank account, 401k and stocks, thanks!

2. by Fasenfest on Sep 19, 2008 at 7:35 AM PDT

Yeah, I feel you. Even though I preach on pretty high ground I have my fingers and money in the markets as well. And I have been thinking about how much I have taken the wisdom of the market for granted. I’m thinking of taking it out of the brokerage account, paying off the mortgage and finally fully weatherizing the house. Then, maybe, get a wood stove so I can watch the flames flicker all winter.

3. by cathy on Sep 21, 2008 at 9:11 PM PDT

I really like your idea of healthy soil being key to a truly healthy economy -- healthy for everyone and healthy for generations to come.

It’s inspiring to hear of your gardening triumphs. As you are doing, D and I are rethinking what we might plant next year to maximize the real return for us. Some things surprised us. Other things disappointed. Other things need new places and better care.

What was the sugar pie pumpkin that did so well for you this year?

My greatest return on investment was a single package of Russo-Siberian kale from Wild Garden Seed (associated with Gathering Together Farm). We planted in February, and had tremendous germination. Those kale plants delivered healthy greens from early April through late June. Then the pests found them. I finally pulled out the plants last week.

4. by cathy on Sep 21, 2008 at 10:06 PM PDT

Also, and this may seem too oovy-groovy...

For intelligent humans left numb by current political/environmental/social/economic realities, the very dirt in the garden can provide a plumb line. The dirt is real. We can make it better. We can make the very dirt we walk upon better. This is tremendously empowering. It’s something concrete to do when the world runs amok.

Then, slowly, we venture out and see what real good comes from our generosity and forward-thinking. We get great food when the dirt is good.

I’m very interested in hearing more of your ideas about economics.

5. by Fasenfest on Sep 22, 2008 at 8:44 AM PDT

Hey Cathy,

Thanks for responding. I was late in putting in my pumpkins from seed so I got an organic start from Garden Fever. I will look for the sticker but I’m generally bad about that. I will definitely save the seeds from it though. And I’ll make a note about the kale.

I went to hear Wes Jackson speak at the Muddy Boots Festival. He is a contemporary and friend of Wendell Berry. One of his comments was that we had to stop treating the soil like dirt. That seemed appropriate. Your comments are not really oovy-groovy. At least not to me. We are only beginning to see how contrived and mired our financial systems are in their current form but I think we have to go back much, much further to understand the real roots of our dilemma. If you really do want to know what I think you can read my “book” available in pdf format from my site . It is called In Search of the Seamless and is more the result of a personal need for clarity then anything else. I’m going to be revising it this winter and adding the final section called “Living in the Seamless” which hopes to explain my own personal choices out of the mess.

But that is more then you wanted to know. Or maybe not. Still, thanks.

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