I’d never heard of ramps before I moved to Ithaca. They are a kind of wild leek that often grows by the side of the road, or under a tree in the woods in our part of the world. But over these past 10 years Ramps have become so popular, you see recipes for them in Huffpost[i] and the New York Times. I imagine this is part of our “field to table” ethic that has become increasingly popular; we love the idea of foraged food, vegetables that grow wild in the forest. The problem is that ramps are becoming extinct. We are literally loving them out of existence. The wild plants grow very slowly, taking up to four years to flower and reproduce. Americans are used to being able to buy pretty much any fruit or vegetable we want any day of the year. We are shocked when we find an empty place in the grocery store where strawberries or apples or grapefruits usually are - even if the produce person assures us they are expecting a shipment tomorrow. It is trendy, now, to crave locally sourced seasonal foods, and this has its roots in our desire for a new, more sustainable food ethic, but unfortunately we are taking our supermarket habits out into our local ecosystems which follow other rules.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, who wrote today’s readings, is a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation. She writes:
“Collectively the indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationships with the natural world and rein in our tendency to consume—that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own. [p. 180]Regardless of how you voted in the presidential election, I think everyone agrees that we are living in an important crossroads. The choices we make in the present always impact the future, but things are changing so quickly in our world that this appears to be a particularly critical time. I believe that each of us is called to work to steer this change in a positive direction, and I believe that there are at least as many ways to lend a hand as there are people. I was lucky to have the chance to study with Buddhist teacher and activist Joanna Macy. She is one of the folks thinking about how to create a cultural shift that would take us in a sustainable direction. She describes 3 different approaches to guiding this change.[ii]
The first is “Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings.” This includes the things we usually think of as activism – calling your senator, picking up a sign and heading to a protest. This is the kind of work our state wide UU legislative advocacy groups do. UUPlan, here in Pennsylvania, Interfaith Impact up in NY state. [hold up brochures] Macy calls these “holding actions” actions that say “this far and no farther.” If we wanted to make sure ramps would be here in the twin tiers each spring for our children and grandchildren, this kind of approach might involve working with county officials to create some kind of law against picking ramps on public land until the population could return to normal. Or creating limits like we have for hunting and fishing.
To make such activism truly meaningful, and not just a gesture of political showmanship, we would have to understand something about ramps. We would have to learn how they grow, how quickly they can recover when harvested, and what conditions they need to thrive. Therefore the second path of the Great Turning is “Analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives.” Sometimes we are so busy arguing about our legal territory, we don’t really know which actions are going to lead to substantive change. I bet we can all think of an example of a piece of legislation that helped politicians with their poll numbers, but didn’t really fix the problem it was designed to solve. To make our actions truly effective, we need to study, and observe, and listen. We need to experiment with new ways of doing things, and see what works.
Project Grow is one of the ways we do that here in this church. While there is a strong history of family farms in the Valley, the younger generations have lost the knowledge and wisdom their parents and grandparents learned through years of experience about how to grow food here. Project Grow is trying to find ways to help all of us understand that food doesn’t come from a store, it comes from the earth, from seeds planted and tended. To this end we have built community gardens where anyone can come and plant and tend and then take home part of the harvest of fresh food. Project Grow is also a teaching program, helping kids learn how to cook their own fresh foods, through the Mad Kitchen, and helping teens get job skills by tending our gardens in the Summer YTI program, and an exciting new hydroponic program coming to the Waverly High School Green House.
One of the core values of Project Grow is[iii]:
“Responsible land use includes agricultural practices that protect and nourish nutrient-rich soil, beneficial insects, local wildlife, and local flora and fauna within our valley watershed.”So we use Permaculture techniques like Berm and Swale and the 3 sisters to embody our values in our gardens. And after a season of harvesting the abundant fruits from our gardens, at this time of year we take time to put the “beds to bed” making sure we give back to the soil so that it can have something to give us when the earth wakes up in the spring.
Our values shape the work we do, so beneath our work on holding actions, and our analysis, must be a clarifying of our own values, and making sure those values will save humanity and the whole biosphere for 7 generations. So the third and final path is working toward a Shift in Consciousness. We must make sure that the way we think about the world is a way that will lead us in a positive direction.
Kimmerer notes that in indigenous cultures, what the earth offers us, whether that be wild strawberries, ramps or sweet grass, are considered gifts. And a gift implies gratitude and reciprocity. When we buy leeks at the grocery story, we feel the transaction has ended once we have exchanged our money for our consumer product but a gift “establishes a feeling bond between 2 people”[ p. 26]. When we forage ramps from a woodland park , or from the side of the road, do we understand this as a gift that establishes a bond between us and the ramps? Between us and the land? As we harvest those delicious ramps and begin to imagine the meal we will make with them, do we also imagine what we will give back in return?
Kimmerer asks “How, in our modern world, can we find our way to understand the earth as a gift again, to make our relations with the world sacred again? I know we cannot all become hunter-gatherers- the living world could not bear our weight- but even in a market economy, can we behave ‘as if’ the living world were a gift?” [p. 31] If we were truly able to make this shift of consciousness- to see ramps as a gift instead of a product, it would have ripples that would affect our actions every day. This is where we come in as a people of faith. Could we UUs help one another and the larger community shift our consciousness so that we see every ramp, every apple, even the oil we pump into our cars as a gift? What would it mean to receive both fruits and fuel oil in gratitude and reciprocity to the earth?
I would argue that every action we take grows from our vision and values; every action has its roots in the consciousness we cultivate. If we spend time deepening our consciousness to really understand our place in the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part, we increase the odds that our research actions and our holding actions will bear the fruits we really need, rather than a reflexive protection of the way things are now.
This Summer, at General Assembly, the UU world will have its first chance to vote on whether to change our first principle from “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”, to “the worth and dignity of every being”. This proposed change of wording represents an evolving of our shared consciousness.
Says Macy: “The realizations we make in the third dimension of the Great Turning save us from succumbing to either panic or paralysis. They help us resist the temptation to stick our heads in the sand, or to turn on each other, for scapegoats on whom to vent our fear and rage.” The panic and fear we have watched sweep over our country during this last presidential election cycle shows us that there is much work to be done here. It feels to me like we are a culture whose values have come loose of their moorings. As people of faith, we must be take the time to know deeply our values, and to reflect them and show them in all the circles in which we move, whether on Facebook or in the garden.
Macy is clear that all 3 ways of working for positive change, which she calls “the great turning” are important. There are an infinite number of “battles” we could fight right now. Or, to use less militaristic language, there are many seeds we could plant. Some will feel called to those holding actions- whether you feel called to protest the LPG storage facility that jeopardizes our fresh water and farmland around lake Seneca, or to visit your state legislators to ask them to pass laws that will protect the human rights of LGBT neighbors and Friends. Some of us will be called to Analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives. Whether you feel called to teach a young person build a burm and swale garden for the community, or to analyze the flow of rivers and creeks to manage floods in the coming decades. Or perhaps you want to start with that important conscious-shifting work of re-visioning our human place in the great web of being, imagining a way for our children and the children of all the beings who share life with us take the time to weave a shared vision of our path into the future.
This year as we sit down to a Thanksgiving meal, let us wonder together what we can do to make sure that even 7 generations in the future our people will also know the gift of a full pantry, and a full plate. I challenge us to do something more than just wish that this will be so. This year, as we put our gardens to bed, our root cellars and grocery stores heaped with winter squash and apples and leeks, let us receive all that abundance as a gift- a gift that implies reciprocity and gratitude, and let us begin to imagine how we can give back in return.
[iii] Project grow is based on 4 values:
Growing a family garden instills familiarity and respect for healthy diets and local food sources.
Working together in a garden bonds both family and neighbors through mutual labor and reward.
Quality local food sources should be available to community members at reasonable cost regardless of income or social status.
Responsible land use includes agricultural practices that protect and nourish nutrient-rich soil, beneficial insects, local wildlife, and local flora and fauna within our valley watershed.