Eating Ethically in the Monsoon Rains of January

If we are heading toward apocalypse, then obviously we must undertake an ordeal of preparation. We must cleanse ourselves of slovenliness, laziness, and waste. We must learn to discipline ourselves, to restrain ourselves, to need less, to care more for the needs of others. We must understand what the health of the earth requires and put that before all other needs. If catastrophic famine is possible, then let us undertake the labors of wisdom and make the necessary sacrifices of luxury and comfort. — Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America

What is ecological grace if not the sum of daily, hourly decisions to take less than one’s hands can hold, to eat other than what our stomachs most want, to create limits for ourselves so that we all might be able to share in what’s left? – Jonathan Safran Foer, We are the Weather

The creek in the woods at Common Home Farm

There are rivers in the driveway that run down the back ravine and into the creek. If the rain ever lets up, I’ll put on my boots and walk down the wooded hills to see how much water is flowing in the ephemeral creek.

Indiana is having a monsoon season – humid air and heavy rain. Our January is confused and we are all scrambling to prepare for a climate that has already changed. It’s a strange time to be alive, a strange time to be settling onto land with the idea that we will grow food here. It’s like entering a relationship with someone in the midst of a psychotic episode who is living a reality you can’t comprehend.

We, like you, have been trying to live ethically in response to climate change. I’ve been reading The Unsettling of America (Wendell Berry) and We Are the Weather (Jonathan Safran Foer). I’ve been watching my friend Amy live out a food ethic that exhausted me at first but now inspires and motivates me. We can all very easily tell ourselves that we are doing enough, but as Berry wrote in 1986, “We must understand what the health of the earth requires and put that before all other needs.” For Jonathan Safran Foer, that comes down to the concrete choice to not eat animal products at breakfast and lunch. Large-scale animal agriculture accounts for between 18-51%* of greenhouse gas emissions. Safran Foer uses this research to argue that the most pragmatic and efficient way to affect climate change is to replace animal products with alternatives, thus cutting emissions and freeing up land to be planted with carbon-absorbing trees. Eating fewer animal products is something everyone can do every day. But it’s hard and most people will continue on with their same habits of consumption because, as Safran Foer notes, “choosing death is more convenient than choosing life….Because short-term pleasure is more seductive than long-term survival.”

So here we are, as the rain continues to fall, the puddles to deepen, our minds to scramble for how to live in these unpredictable times. And here is something we can do that makes a difference.

Our family is making a renewed commitment to the following food choices:

  1. Dumpster Diving
  2. Buying from local farmers
  3. Buying from the local food co-op

The first place we’ll go for food will be the dumpster. This keeps food out of the landfill and saves us money which we can then invest in the local food economy. Dumpster diving also provides us with an abundance of food that we can share with neighbors and use to stock the freezer. An abundance of dumpstered bananas and whole wheat flour** and sugar has been the impetus for a dozen loaves of banana bread already this week. What we can’t consume from the dumpster, we can offer to our compost heap.

If we can’t find what we need (want) in the dumpster, we’ll try to source from local farmers. We recently bought half-a-cow from the Gonso family in Owen County. We split the cost and the meat with two other families. So now we aren’t tempted to buy crappy meat at the grocery store, and we get meat that tastes delicious and is not harmful to the environment. Our hope is to raise animals of our own in the next year and perhaps some of you will enjoy buying meat from us!

Our goal is to stay away from Kroger and Aldi, where we habitually go for cheap food. We’ll go to Bloomingfoods for the rest of our food needs. We can buy in bulk with our own jars and bags. Perhaps the price of local cheese will limit the amount of cheese we have in our diet – as it should. We will find ourselves eating differently.

You’ll notice that we’re not becoming vegetarian or vegan. But we are refusing to buy factory-farmed meat, dairy and eggs. Instead we will eat the surplus from our wasteful capitalist system and support the farmers in our local economy. Not all animal food production is bad for the environment, and some, like rotational grazing, actually helps to sequester carbon in the ground (check out @anathothcatholicworker on Facebook)

This all takes energy, awareness, and effort. Building new habits is challenging. But me and my comfort are not my primary concern anymore. My primary concern is the sustenance of the earth and building my character in such a way that the next generation has the grit to heal our planet, and on and on, each generation with a more finely tuned way of living that protects the sources of all life.

P.S. If you’ve never been dumpster diving, and you’d like to go, shoot me an email and we’ll go out together.

* Safran Foer cites two main research papers, Livestock’s Long Shadow, published by the FOA of the UN and “Livestock and Climate Change: What If the Key Actors in Climate Change are … Cows, Pigs, and Chickens?” published by the Worldwatch Institute and authored by Jeff Anhang and Robert Goodland. The animal agriculture industry is particularly bad for the environment because it compels the majority of the deforestation which eliminates our earth’s capacity to absorb additional carbon. So not only does it emit the worst kinds of greenhouse gases (methane and nitrous oxide) but it prevents those gases from being absorbed. Safran Foer’s book is full of great stories and metaphors along with the hard-hitting facts. He examines why we aren’t acting on the knowledge we have of climate change, taking a close look at how his own beliefs and feelings lead him to resist ethical action.

** Thanks to a sweet friend for the 50lb bag of flour, Ross Dybvig for the 25lb bag of organic sugar, and both of you for your inspirational enthusiasm for dumpster diving.

Creating Space for Radical Hospitality

A view of the new bathroom addition. This photo was taken while standing on the site of the new septic leach field, which was constructed in early September.

Poverty is a strange and elusive thing. … I condemn poverty and I advocate it; poverty is simple and complex at once; it is a social phenomenon and a personal matter. Poverty is an elusive thing, and a paradoxical one. We need always to be thinking and writing about it, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it. – Dorothy Day

I was filling in as the shelter monitor this morning at the Shalom Community Center, the day shelter in Bloomington where I’ve worked on-and-off for the last nine years. As the shelter monitor, I am called upon to break up fights, retrieve forgotten backpacks, clean up literal sh** in the bathroom, call the ambulance for medical emergencies. It’s a hard job, but it has its delights.

I stand by the front door and greet each person who walks in, often they are people I’ve known since I first started at Shalom. This morning I got to catch up with a friend, a former client who was the subject of The Job, a short story I wrote in 2016. I was happy to hear that life had stabilized for her in some ways: she had an apartment and steady employment at Bob Evans, but she was still living on the edge. Her job only pays $9/hour and during the summer, when the students were gone, her hours were cut.

She asked about our farm project, and I shared our progress. “You’ll have to come out and visit,” I said. “I bet you don’t get out in the woods very  often.”

“I don’t,” she said. “And you know I miss it.”

Later that day I went to the hospital to visit a former guest at the Bloomington Catholic Worker. He too asked about how the farm was going, and expressed his desire to help. “We’ll get you out to visit when you’re feeling better,” I said.

These are the kinds of connections we want to make. After many years living and working with people in poverty, David and I know a lot of people who would benefit from a day’s rest in a beautiful place. And with each passing week, we are getting a little closer to making space for this kind of radical hospitality.

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Farewell to our year in the cabin at Solsberry Hill! Thank you, Bridget and Conor!
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Our stellar moving crew!

* David Watters and his son, Huck, have been living on the land since July. We are renting a friend’s tiny house and they are champions at “making do” with the space they have. When the garden house (“shed”) renovation is complete, our family will move into that home and David and Huck will move into the cabin. The tiny house will be available for respite retreats and visitors.

*We’ve started some of our community routines: Evening prayer by candle light, using the liturgy in Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim by Edward Hays and Praying the Psalms, a translation by Nan Merill. We have dinner together at least once a week, and finding time for working together: splitting wood, hauling manure, and fixing up the garden house.

The Renovation Update

We have been hard at work getting the garden house (what we usually call “the shed”) ready to live in. We thought it would be fairly simple to renovate the shed 🙂 Not so, not so. But it has been made easier by calling on the expertise of friends. We have such gratitude for the way this project has required us to ask for help, and thus create community. It’s been a wild, joyful (sometimes stressful) ride!

We’ve completed a lot of projects over the last three months, from pouring the foundation for the bathroom addition to insulating the attic to replacing windows. You’ll get a sense for the work we’ve been doing through the pictures below. (Captions pop up for each picture when you move your pointer over them.) Our goal is to move into the garden house by the end of October. Send some prayers our way and let us know if you want to come help out with the final stages of the renovation!