Last weekend we were privileged to be able to attend a conference at the Duke Divinity School titled “Making Peace With the Land.” The conference title is taken from a book by the same name, recently published and authored by Norman Wirzba and Fred Bahnson (highly recommended, by the way).
Dr. Wirzba is a theologian who explores the space where theology intersects with agriculture, food, agrarianism and rural life. He shared an antecdote about his first attempt to grow a garden. He learned a lesson that more people need to learn.
He planted strawberries, nurtured them and waited anxiously for that first delicious bite. Just as the berries were beginning to ripen he noticed that they were being eaten by slugs. So he went to Walmart’s gardening section to get something to spray on the plants to kill the slugs. He picked up a can of something that adverstised its effectiveness at that, and then he read the warnings on the label. Don’t let children come into the sprayed area for three days, it read. Discard or burn any clothing that comes into contact with the spray, was another. Reflecting a moment, he decided that he ought not eat anything sprayed with such stuff.
So, still having fresh strawberries on his mind, next he walked over to the produce department to buy some. The berries there were plump and beautiful. Not a blemish on them. They looked perfect.
But why, he wondered, did nothing else want to eat these berries? Why was he, apparently, the only thing on earth that would eat them?
He decided against the spray and against the perfect strawberries. Now, of course, he’s a well-known advocate of natural, sustainable farming.
Far too few people these days understand what garden produce is supposed to look like. They’ve been conditioned to expect seemingly perfect vegetables. Most don’t even know they’re sacrificing taste to have them. They don’t think about the environmental cost of making them look that way. And of course they don’t consider the amount of poison they have to ingest to eat such things.
A few days ago I went into a grocery store with Cherie. While she shopped for a few things, I wandered over to the produce section. They had bell peppers shrink-wrapped in plastic. The peppers were all perfectly shaped and brightly colored. They didn’t even look real to me. I wondered how they get the peppers to grow to be exactly the same size and shape. How do they make them so shiny? Intellectually I knew that the commerical pepper varieties are hybrids that are designed for uniformity in shape. I know that they polish them to make them more appealing in a store. Intellectually I knew that the peppers are inferior in every way to those we raise naturally. But I admit to feeling a few pangs of jealousy as I looked at the perfect peppers. The food marketeers may not be any good at making food taste good, but they’re masters at making it look good.
But the winds are changing. More and more folks are coming to understand what Norman Wirzba figured out about strawberries that day. This year we’ve gotten lots of compliments on our vegetables and they rarely have the grocery store perfect look.
As I tell folks, if a bug wouldn’t eat it, neither should you.
May the day soon arrive when we all know what a genuinely perfect strawberry looks like.