Commissioner Henri Brook and Rev. Dr. Chris Bounds are standing in a garden on nine acres of former cotton fields about a half mile from my house. I’d ridden within a hundred feet of it on my bike dozens of times and never noticed. I have no idea what kind of corn grows that high, but it is probably laughing at me along with Henri and Chris as they remind me how dumb I thought community gardens were only a few months ago. The Commissioner knew that Shelby County has more than 3,000 vacant lots; why not turn them into gardens? This one had already taken root in the the swarm of hopeful things happening in Binghamton. This garden was started by Peter Schutt (publisher of the Memphis Daily News) and Jim Townsend (former heating and air-conditioning executive) which is how they tend to happen. Each one is highly particular and even unlikely, but that is the pattern: unlikely people doing what seems (in retrospect) obvious: turn vacant land into a garden. And the pattern is that it never quite stops with the tomatoes: Peter and Jim started a farmers’ market, too.
This is happening all over the place. I was speaking at Wake Forest friday and there it was again. Fred Bahnson (foodandcommunityfellows.org) writes like a well-tended garden and argues that food and gardens matter so much that the salvation of the planet may depend on them. Go back and find his rich piece in the July 2007 issue of Orion magazine. You’ll come into the world of Jeremiah’s Anathoth gardens reborn 2,600 years later just down the road from a killing outside Raleigh, North Carolina. Five acres given by a black mother to a white church provoked an outpouring of saving grace (and okra, potatoes, squash and, curiously, garlic scapes). Something like this is probably happening near you. Look around.
Are gardens a symbol of hope, or the first fruits of a renewed food system? The same question pertains to the many small scale faith-health initiatives such as parish nursing or volunteer caregiving. The Congregational Health Network is, as far as I know, the largest scale connectional strategy in the world, with 376 covenanted congregations (so far). But this year we will only see 3,000 of the the 65,000 inpatients at our hospitals. That is like a hundred community gardens compared to Kroger. So are we sending a message to the System or actually changing it? As for me, I find even the most clever symbols bitter fruit unless they give me hope for scale. To talk of change, we must have ideas that can function at the scale of the current system and a logic for getting from now to then. Mennonites have chosen radical integrity for centuries, refusing to take part in the war industry even though they know they will probably always be a minority voice. Is that what gardens–and health ministries–are?
The language of the Wake Forest event is like most other similar events, that assumes that building the new system to scale requires force of will, borrowed money and enormous efforts. Even the scale achieved in Memphis seems unlikely given that logic. When pushed to explain what efforts it took to align our hundreds of congregations I explained, “it wanted to happen; we aren’t driving, but accommodating to the new system emerging through and around us.” Shalom wants to happen; but it needs humans to work with it.
Forests find their way to scale when people stop chopping. They want to happen, so they once covered the continent and probably will again. I understand that the percentage of New England under forest is about what it was when the Pilgrims landed. Thousands of small farms turned into forests when everyone was busy doing something else. I’m sure we’d have 3,000 micro-forests in Shelby County if we stopped mowing, too.
Gardens are different than forests because of their complex organic dance between humans, soil, water and seeds. But that dance wants to happen, too. It is hard to hear the music and get everything out of the way, but things that want to happen tend to happen eventually. Scale in human systems–food or health–happen when the desire for life flows into and through systems that are built for life. People are born to plant, tend, harvest and savor. And people are born to care and be cared for. Make it possible and it will scale.
The picture looks like one of John Shorb’s silhouettes he is becoming famous for. This particular willow had dropped all its leaves but the one down in the far left hand corner. Is it hanging there as the last leaf of the season or maybe the first to get a jump on Spring? I do know it is not sending a symbol; it is busy turning sun and water into life as long as it can.
I’m never sure which season I am working in either. How do we know such a thing? We are on the side of what is still growing, still wanting to happen. That is quite enough for me.
– Posted on the journey