This evening I am a panelist at one of the Spirit & Place Festival events in Indianapolis. The event is called, Imagining Creation: Exploring the Spiritual Mandate for Creation Care. My fellow panelists and I were asked to address the question, "Is there a moral obligation to care for the environment?" Each of us was also asked to prepare a five minute Personal Statement. The following is mine. After the event, an online discussion will continue here.
Next month my wife Lisa and will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. When I think back to the early weeks of our relationship, I remember the countless hours of conversation, sharing with one another the details of our lives up to that point. Like many new couples, no matter how much time we spent together, it was never enough. Even after dropping her off at her dorm and returning to my own, after a whole day together, we would get on the phone and talk until the wee hours of the morning. After our first few years together, I figured I had told her all my stories.
On a recent trip to see my parents, we found ourselves all alone in the living room at 8:30 at night – the bedtime for our two young sons as well as my aging parents. I decided an evening snack was in order so I headed to the pantry. My quest got sidetracked by another discovery – my mom’s recipe collection.
I brought it back to the living room where my wife and I went through them. The memories came flooding back as vividly as if we were thumbing through old snapshots. I started telling stories. The beef stew that that would simmer on the stove until all of my siblings and I got home from our after-school activities, the Texas sheet cake that mom made for get-togethers because it would feed a crowd. Some of the recipes were from friends and relatives and their names were noted on the cards. Many are no longer living.
We stayed up until way past midnight and I was amazed that after nearly 20 years of marriage, after I thought I had told all my stories, there was more to say. A significant part of my life’s narrative was documented in a collection of recipes stashed away in my mother’s pantry.
Food has this amazing power to connect us to other places, other times, and other people. For most of us, most of the time, that connection is so impersonal and so far removed that we give it little thought - an apple from the grocery store or a burger handed to us through a drive-through window.
But connectedness is something we long for and it is the main theme of my writing. When I tell people I write about food, they automatically think of stuffy restaurant reviews critiquing everything from the meal to the service. Those are usually not the kinds of gigs I take. I think of myself as a story teller. I tell stories about family and community and food just so happens to be a literary device that helps organize my narrative.
During much of 2007 I traveled all over Indiana talking with farmers, chefs, and consumers as my co-author, Christine Barbour and I did the research for our book Home Grown Indiana: a Food Lover’s Guide to Good Eating in the Hoosier State. In the book we profile 270 people about not just what they do with food, but why they do it. This idea of connectedness kept coming up over and over. We heard from consumers who shop at farmers’ markets not just because of the great food they find there but because of the sense of community that results. Author Brian Halweil estimates that on a typical visit to the farmers’ market you’ll have ten times the number of conversations as you will have at the local supermarket. Talk about connectedness.
We met farmers who decided to farm a different way because of the sense of connection they have to the land and to the animals they raise. Rebekah Fiedler from down in Southern Indiana told us “my animals have a great life. They live in the open air, they eat what nature designed them to eat. They can run and play to their hearts’ content. At the end, they have just one really bad day!” We met chefs and shopkeepers committed to minimizing their ecological footprint by purchasing locally whenever possible and even when procuring fish and seafood, researching the most environmentally sustainable choices.
The question of the day is whether or not we have a moral obligation to care for the environment. I’m sure that most of us here this evening would answer in the affirmative or we wouldn’t be here. What is interesting to me is how this notion plays out in the lives of the wide variety of people who share this commitment regardless of their political leanings, or anything else that governs their behaviors.
Virginia farmer Joel Salatin is one of the pioneers of modern-day methods of raising pastured-poultry. In a recent interview with the New York Times he said that 40 years ago his typical customer was a tree-hugging liberal. Today just as many of his customers are Christian fundamentalist home-schooling moms.
It seems that a wide range of people, in increasing numbers, are recognizing these aspects of connectedness when making their choices about food, consumer goods, housing, transportation, and the other things we’re talking about tonight. We’re living right in the middle of the development of new constructs and new codes of behavior. Conversations like this help shape them and I’m grateful to be a part of it.