A couple of years ago, I was asleep in the old farmhouse where I live when it started to roll like a ship, sending me flying out of bed. It was 4:31 a.m., and we had been hit by an earthquake. I plucked my son out of bed and headed out the back door, just in time to see all of the electricity in Southern California go off in a wave, revealing the full array of brilliant stars.
When the sun rose that morning, it was one of those perfectly still, crystal-clear days that often come after an earthquake. I thought I should see if the world around me still existed. What better way to feel the pulse of our suburban neighborhood than to visit the local supermarket? So I walked the few blocks from the farm to our local Vons.
When I reached the door of the supermarket on this brilliantly sunny day and walked inside, it was completely dark. The ice cream was melting in the freezers, the meats were spoiling on the shelves, and hoards of people were frantically filling their shopping carts, using flashlights to navigate the aisles. When they reached the checkout counters, they saw signs reading "Sorry, No Change."
I looked around at the frenzy, and it struck me how incredibly precarious our current food system really is. My neighbors who shop in that supermarket are well paid, highly educated individuals; many work at the high-tech defense-research companies that are the economic background of this area. Yet if that supermarket had stayed closed, they would have been hard-pressed to feed themselves. They were powerless when faced with taking care of this most basic human need.
In contrast, I think of Alta Felton, an 80-year-old woman who founded the bountiful Garden of Eatin' in her South Philadelphia neighborhood, where the average household income is $8,000 a year, and where infant mortality and violent crime rates are among the highest in the country. In that most vulnerable of places, she and her neighbors banded together to clear a vacant lot of trash and rubble and plant the foods of their Southern heritage: black-eyed peas, Jerusalem artichokes, collards, corn, and okra. Though Alta starts her early seedlings indoors and worries that they are vulnerable to the draft through her broken window, she proudly points out that she and her neighbors always "grow extra to feed the poor." Her sense of abundance is well founded and genuine.
Throughout the world, I have seen that in places where opportunities and choices are few, real community spirit comes forth. There is probably no greater basis for community than working with the earth. I saw this at 15,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, where hundreds of people gathered to prepare a field for potatoes to feed single mothers and orphaned children. I've seen it in the heart of the Bronx, where neighborhood youths transformed a vacant lot bordering a crack house into a garden, complete with fruit trees, bees, a fish pond, and a performance stage.
Many people believe that the responsibility for feeding the world belongs wholly to farmers. But when the food system no longer meets people's needs, whether for economic, distribution, or food-safety reasons, or because people want corn that tastes like corn, they take that responsibility back into their own hands. So while many look to a new agriculture as the source of salvation, the truth is that the real revolution is taking place in neighborhoods, backyards, and towns. Growing food is becoming a catalyst for a whole range of positive changes.
A sense of self-reliance can come from the simple act of planting a seed. Success on one's own little plot can lead to success in other areas of life, and working together to do something fundamental like growing food can teach neighbors how to work together to solve other problems. In this way, gardening becomes a pathway to community by creating spaces where people can gather together, and by helping to preserve and integrate cultures through seeds that are passed down from generation to generation. Most of all, it provides a tangible experience of renewal and abundance that many of us find so elusive in modern life.
The last time I visited Alta Fenton's garden, it was summer. Yams, black-eyed peas, okra, and melons were flourishing; not one square inch was left uncultivated. In the center of the garden, a collection of old mismatched chairs, wooden benches, and rusting metal tables clustered together in the shade. As I said good-bye, the gardeners were seated together, shucking lima beans and worrying aloud about my safety outside the fence that encircles their Garden of Eatin'. This place is a little slice of paradise, I thought as I left, momentarily forgetting where I was.
Author and photographer Michael Ableman founded and directs Fairview Farms, Goleta, California.