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September 3, 2009

This Wonderful Life: A harvest that’s good for the soul

Signs of harvest are all around. The afternoon sun glows amber over the fields and the farm stands are filled to overflowing with vegetables and fruit. We’re lucky to live in a place where we can have such an immediate connection to the food we eat.

If you live outside of one of the local villages, you might even live on a bit of land that fed (or feeds) your neighbors.

Our house here in Fly Creek was never a proper farm. For more than 100 years it was a one-room country schoolhouse. Where the coal room once stood, now we have a den. Where students once sat in their rigid little desks, now we sit around a kitchen table and take in the view of the rolling hills outside.

That view includes our own little foray into agriculture. Next to the house, we have a small plot of potatoes, squash, corn and beans. The corn and potatoes seem to be doing alright, but the beans and squash seem to be a nonstarter. Thank goodness we don’t have to rely on our growing skills to feed the family all winter long here at Schoolhouse Farm.

We have been thinking a lot about food, though. And — judging by the books people have been reading, I’m not the only one.

Julia Child’s ``My Life in France,’’ tops The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list this week, and ``Julie and Julia’’ is close on its heels at No. 3. At Nos. 13 and 15 are Michael Pollan’s books ``The Omnivore’s Dilemma’’ and ``In Defense of Food,’’ respectively. Barbara Kingsolver’s ``Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,’’ clocks in at No. 23, and if you count Elizabeth Gilbert’s ``East, Pray, Love’’ as a partial meditation on good, food, well you can add a No. 10 bestseller to the list.

The common ingredient simmering through all of these books (plus Mark Bittman’s ``Food Matters,’’ Marion Nestle’s ``What to Eat,’’ Carlo Petrini’s ``Slow Food Nation’’ and many others) is the notion that we have ventured too far away from the source of our food and that factory-produced food is bad for our bodies, bad for the environment and bad for the local economies. It may also be bad for our souls.

In his book ``Anger,’’ Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh asserts that the first step toward cooling the rampant flames of anger in our lives and our society is to consume food that was created without violence.

He asks, in essence, if you think it’s physically and emotionally healthy to nourish ourselves with the suffering of others. No thanks.

That doesn’t mean being a vegetarian. But it does mean eating meat that was produced with humane, compassionate practices. But how can you know if the factory farm 2,000 miles away treats its livestock humanely?

You can’t. But you can know whether the farmer down the street treats his cows decently.

And vegetarians aren’t off the hook when it comes to consuming food created compassionately.

Who picked that juicy apple in your fruit bowl?

Was it a woman or man who earned a living wage?

Or was it a 10-year-old child who needs to skip school in harvest season because Mom and Dad’s paychecks won’t cover even the most basic living expenses?

And was the apple grown in a way that nourished the soil from which it came, or is it all red and shiny at the expense of the surrounding environment (and the health of whomever sprayed the pesticide)?

I’m glad I don’t have to rely on my own farming skills to survive the approaching winter months.

But I would much rather live in a world where communities sustained themselves, where people knew exactly where their food came from and where every dollar I spent on food supported a farmer rather than a corporate executive’s monthly bonus.

Elizabeth Trever Buchinger is what she eats. You can connect with her at www.moremindfulfamily.