28 August, 2017

The Distributist's Garden

It’s pretty standard (and rightly so) to link Distributism with things like farmer’s markets and small scale organic farming.  If you’re a Distributist, you ought to opt out, as much as you can, from industrial agriculture.  As much as you can, you ought to support small local family farmers. 

But beyond that, it’s also pretty standard to link Distributism with gardening: this is another way to opt out of industrial agriculture, after all.  Instead of buying imported tomatoes in February, grow your own tomatoes and eat them in July, when God intended them to be eaten. 

Suppose you think: sure, I ought to try to plant a garden.  What then? 

There’s the question of how: to grow a garden, you need to learn how to garden.  I’m not going to go into that here.  I’m interested in the “why” and the “what.”  They actually go together, as we’ll see in a bit. 

To the “why”: there are dozens of good reasons to plant a garden, obviously.  For example, gardening is a great way to learn some important moral lessons.  Chesterton tells us that the true soldier doesn’t fight because he hates what’s in front of him but because he loves what’s behind him.  A deep point.  But what gardening can show us, in a way that’s not so morally fraught, is that it’s incredibly difficult even for the true soldier to keep those two things apart.  You may be fighting a just war—a truly defensive war, intended solely to save your beloved home—but that doesn’t necessarily save you from coming to hate your enemies.  This is part of the grave risk of warfare: you can lose your life or health in war, but you can also lose your soul, even if you’re on the right side. 

How do you learn that from gardening?
If you don’t know, you’ve never gardened.

Just think of going out and planting a lovely garden patch, faithfully weeding and watering as needed, mulching, tending, watching, anticipating—and then finding one morning that your plants have all been mowed down by a renegade white tail deer.  Or slugs.  Or imagine that just as your lovely rows of corn seedlings emerge, crows descend upon the field to feast upon your lovely little plants.  Etc. etc. etc.  The gardener faces dozens of battles like this every year.  And when I’m fixed in a struggle with the crow for the life of my corn, I don’t just want to save my beloved sweet corn.  I want to kill the crow.  I hear that caw and I look for my shotgun.  I hate the crow.  I hate the raccoon.  I hate the deer.  I hate the slug.  I hate…..

And there you see it.  I’ve never served in combat, but it’s hard to believe that when you see your friends die around you, you wouldn’t start to hate the people who do that to them.  War presents moral risks, and not just to the bad guys. 

This is a lesson you can learn from gardening.  But note that this isn’t a peculiarly Distributist reason for gardening.

There are, however, peculiarly Distributist reasons for gardening: by which I mean reasons that flow directly from the core of Distributist thought.  And the central such peculiarly Distributist reason for gardening is: to increase your economic freedom.  As Belloc puts it:

It is obvious that whoever controls the means of production controls the supply of wealth.  If, therefore, the means for the production of that wealth which a family needs are in the control of others than the family, the family will be dependent upon those others; it will not be economically free.  The family is ideally free when it fully controls all the means necessary for the production of such wealth as it should consume for normal living.  But such an ideal is inhuman and, therefore, not to be fixedly attained, because man is a social animal.  (Essay on the Restoration of Property, 2)

Distributism seeks economic freedom for the family (not an ideal—or total—economic freedom, but just such an amount as is properly attainable to families as members of real communities).  One’s economic freedom is keyed to—I suppose you could say it just is—one’s independence from others.  When you buy food from the grocery store, or from the farmer’s market, you are clearly dependent upon those others.  Hence, at least ideally (if not actually!) the family would control the means to produce its all own wealth, by which Belloc explicitly means to include one’s own food.  The conclusion, then, is that Distributism provides a motive for gardening: gardening is a way to produce one’s own food, and hence to become more economically free. 

So if that’s right, then the Distributist garden, as such, is a garden that contributes to the gardener’s economic freedom.  

“Absurd,” you might say.  “My little patch of tomatoes, tasty as the fruit is, remains symbolic at best.” 

I won’t turn up my nose at symbolic gestures, especially tasty ones.  If all you can manage to grow, given your current situation, is a potted tomato plant on your apartment balcony, then God bless you.  I’m not picking on you.  That’s great.  Do what you realistically can, and ignore the rest.

But many of us, I’m sure, have much larger spaces available to us than a little patio with some pots.  How many square feet is your back yard?  How about your front yard?  How much could you bring into cultivation?  100 square feet?  500?  1000?  If your house sits on a little suburban lot of .2 acres (roughly the national average)—about 8700 square feet—then taking out 3700 feet for house and driveway, you’d still have 5000 square feet for swingset, landscaping features, and garden. 

I’m not saying “you must, as a good Distributist, dig it all up and get to work planting!”  But I am saying this: if you have the space, and the will, and a little time, then you can make your garden a real contributor to economic freedom.  And here we come to where the “why” and the “what” come together, as I mentioned earlier they do.

Your best bet to making your garden really count, nutritionally, is to avoid the salsa garden phenomenon.  So many people plant a few tomato plants and a few pepper plants, and eagerly anticipate making salsa.  I’ve got no problem with salsa, but you will note that it’s not exactly a staple.  When you dip those store bought chips into your delicious, fresh salsa, you ought to enjoy it, and take pride in your work.  But that salsa isn’t making much of a contribution to your economic freedom.  True, you didn’t need to buy that can of salsa from the grocery store.  But, then…you don’t ever need to eat salsa.  What you do need to eat is calorie dense food like potatoes, beans, winter squash, and grains like corn. 

Your average suburban garden—say you come up with 1000 square feet—can’t grow enough of any of that stuff to actually feed a family for very long.  But it can grow enough of that stuff to actually feed a family for awhile.  And I mean, actually feed a family.  OK, you may need to buy some add-ons, but you can make some pretty darn good meals mostly just from those ingredients.  One particular favorite of mine is creamed potatoes and green beans. The recipes all seem to think of it as a side dish, but we’ve made it as the main dish—just serve some fresh bread with it, or a salad, or some fresh carrot sticks—and it’s a great meal.  And I say this as the sort of person who generally feels no meal has been served unless I’ve eaten a fair amount of meat.  The average gardener will have to buy in the milk, but as I say, the main part of the dish you can dig out of your own yard in the afternoon, and eat at dinnertime.  (Though I should note that the beans I mention as staples aren’t actually green beans, they’re dried beans.)

If you like silly attempts at quantification, try this out.  A family of 5 needs to eat about 12,500 calories per day.  (That’s probably too high, but I told you already this is a silly attempt at quantification, so trying to be more fine-grained here seems, well, silly.)  If you have a 1000 square foot garden in full production—which you won’t, because you’ll have paths and other non-planted spaces within the garden, but again, ignore that—you could fairly easily get about 25,000 calories per 100 square feet by planting corn and potatoes, or 250,000 calories: enough, theoretically, to provide all the food your family needs for 20 days.  That’s real progress towards economic freedom. 

The list of crops I mentioned above—corn, beans, potatoes and winter squash—isn’t my own list.  It comes from Carol Deppe’s excellent book The Resilient Gardener.  (Chelsea Green, 2010.  http://www.chelseagreen.com/the-resilient-gardener) She also argues you should keep a backyard flock of ducks (or, if you like, chickens).  That seems right to me.  Do so.  

Given our cultural situation, it would be easy to misunderstand what I’m talking about—or what Deppe is talking about—since a lot of “preppers” have written about growing a survival garden, and it may seem I’m urging the same thing.  I have no objection to preppers, but I’m not arguing that you need to be preparing for a long-term, grid down, survival situation.  The point here isn’t the pursuit of self-sufficiency as such, or the desire to be able to make it once the country collapses into anarchy.  The point is to orient your Distributist garden in a Distributist way.  Think of the food you grow as real food, not as a side dish, not as a garnish.  You can easily plan a garden that produces meals for your family.  No doubt the gesture will remain largely—almost wholly—symbolic, but symbolic of economic freedom, and not merely of some generalized ecological feel-goodism, or localism, or what have you.

OK, sure, grow the fun stuff, too: grow herbs and tomatoes and lettuce.  But not as your main crops.  This is not a game.  Distributism isn’t a plaything for wealthy white collar workers to amuse themselves with.  As long as we treat it as though it were, it will remain easy to write us off as dreamers.

We should never drain the pleasure out of gardening, for it is a truly lovely thing.  Yesterday, I picked green beans near one of the herb beds, and smelled the delicious smell of our basil as I picked.  Some of my sensations at the time—the strain on my injured back, the heat of the August North Carolinian sun and humidity—were rather unpleasant.  But the basil more than balanced them out. 

But we should never ignore the gravity of gardening, either.  We should approach it as though it mattered.  For it does.

Title photograph by David W. Cooney. All rights reserved.

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