July 13, 2007: I grew up deep in the heart
of central Pennsylvania, in rural Penns Valley, and to my
child’s mind it was the portrait of idyllic harmony.
After graduating from high school I traveled to Ithaca, in
the Finger Lakes of New York, to attend Cornell University.
I majored in English, but you could hardly say I spent most
of my time between two covers of any book other than the one
I’ve been busily writing to this day. It was in the
chapter on Ithaca that I had my first experience living in
a town, as well as my first true experience of how “country”
I really was, but despite all that I felt quite at home. I
found the people of Ithaca were very environmentally conscious
and this made perfect sense to me, since I had grown up learning
to be a participant in the balance of nature.
My father (a very country guy who married a city gal) was
in every way the conservationist, who after seven minutes
of my morning shower would come pound on the bathroom door
and shout “You’re wasting water!” So I grew
up turning off the lights when I left a room, shutting off
the water while I brushed my teeth and turning the shower
off while I got soaped up and shampooed my hair.
When I was 12, I learned to hunt and began harvesting the
meat we ate from the woods: free-range and grass-fed (with
a bit of the farmer’s corn, as well). We bought our
milk at a local dairy where they didn’t use BST, and
in season we bought our produce at the nearest farmers’
market, 20 miles away. Suffice it to say that, for me, the
conservation of natural resources toward the goal of living
a sustainable lifestyle has always been a matter of personal
philosophy, engrained in me from a very young age. So it should
come as no surprise that my exposure in Ithaca to peoples’
activism for organic and sustainable practices was very positive;
I’d just never really experienced it, myself, as a social
Coming from a rather small place where each person tended
to his or her own business, I’ve always been a little
wary of social movements. The momentum of such things surely
is reassuring to their champions, and the attention these
movements bring to their causes is sorely needed, but I’ve
always been one to put my stock in the individual. As a wordsmith
it strikes me that while movements can become split and their
participants turned against—or apart from—one
another, an individual is precisely that, unable to be divided.
This is not to say that an individual may not embody conflicting
ideals, but rather that his role is the work of assimilating
those disparate things, by which is produced a single multiplex
result unique to each individual—the fruits of his labor.
In this way he is never divided and always himself, working
toward what he believes.
But with regard to movements and institutions and the like,
any system that grows too large is in danger of collapsing
under its own weight, be it a political system or an agricultural
one—even organic. I’m reassured by the (fairly)
recent show of enthusiasm for investing in small local systems,
such as CSAs. I think we’ve begun to realize, en masse,
the degree to which our global sustainability is a personal
commitment for each individual.
As people come to understand their own health and vitality
in terms of the health and vitality of their ecosystem, they
are searching for small ways to incorporate that understanding
into their present lifestyles. Maybe I can grow my own produce
right here in my little backyard, and if I can’t, maybe
I can pay a neighbor and a friend to do it for me in his or
her big backyard. Either way, the goal is small enough that
we can each experience it immediately, in our own little sphere.
It’s hard sometimes to bring things back down to a
scale we can identify with, but I believe it’s necessary
for anything we truly wish to understand. And understanding
is paramount if our goal is to participate responsibly in
a system—like sustainable organic agriculture—where
our example is everything. In the end our words really mean
nothing to anyone but ourselves; they’re merely a road
sign showing us where we’ve been and where we’d
like to go, a token of what we believe in.
Now, in this chapter of my life, I find myself working for
NewFarm.org at The Rodale Institute, where our motto is "Healthy
Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy People." The evidence is
here to see even in these words that the earth comes first
and its people follow, and between us there exists this beautiful
cycle of care and nourishment.
If we care for the earth it will nourish us, and if we keep
it strong and healthy then our own strength and good health