The Economy of the Garden -- Part One

My wife and I planted a garden this year. This tiny patch of dirt has become a space where small miracles occur daily. The slow and steady growth of the garden contradicts almost everything about our fast-paced world. The constant rush of the freeway traffic nearby seems to grumble in disagreement with the slow and almost imperceptible growth of the garden. The trucks roll through, the beamers and minivans fly past, and all the while the green fingers quietly reach for the sun. Slower than a speeding bullet, slower than the Internet, slower than a snail; the progress that these plants achieve has no advertisement, no PR. In fact, if I put my cell phone down long enough to examine the growth, it appears that nothing is happening. But gradually, a transformation has taken place; over the course of a few months, the ground has become thick with plants.

Lately, I've been thinking that maybe the human soul grows best at the pace of a tomato and not a combustion engine. Maybe the human condition has much more in common with this speechless greenery than I had thought. These silent life-forms really have a lot to say. These days, I've been trying to listen to the slow growth policies of the garden, this incredible place of new beginnings. The genesis stories of many religious tales and mythologies begin in a garden. According to the Judeo/Christian account of things, humanity's first occupation was gardening. I'm pretty sure that things were all organic back then, no GMO's or steroids. And as far as I can tell gardening was pretty much Mr. and Mrs. Adam and Eve's only real job description: be fruitful and multiply. I have no idea what Eden looked like, but when I walk back and look at our little freeway garden I can feel a connection with the earth even in California's stucco suburbia.

It's been a truly liberating experience for me to eat a strawberry in the same place that it was born, only seconds after it was plucked. The fruit has no bar code, no USFDA information; it is not shrink-wrapped with thousands of others. No, it is a very specific strawberry from a very specific plant. Yes, it may look and taste like thousands of others, but it has a history and a location unlike all the rest. For me, this berry is a distinct piece of fruit. I have watched her for days, waiting till she's perfectly ripe, trying to get to her before the caterpillars do. And when I pick the strawberry up from her earthy beginnings, it feels like a holy moment: where earth, wind, sun, and water have come together to give me a piece of themselves. The tiny, misshapen berry becomes a celebration of life and new beginnings. Consumption becomes tied to the specifics of time and place. And this little suburban, freeway garden of mine begins to feel like holy ground. Yes, even against the backdrop of a land where nothing is sacred.

You see, I live in a world with very shallow roots. California has only been a state for about 150 years. Our nation has only been around for a few hundred more. We live in the land of new opportunities, with a very short-term memory for what has gone on before us. The American dream is one of growth, progress and change -- even at the expense of the stability of community from time to time. And this is not unique to our own country. All around the world, humanity has seen more changes in the past couple hundred years than any other period of time. Every subsequent generation watches the human experience evolve dramatically. Electricity, air travel, cell phones, computers, cars -- these represent comprehensive changes to our lifestyle that are radically new. And yet, these amazing developments are now unremarkable. Their availability and convenience is expected in our society. If you've got the cash, you can demand almost anything you want when you want it. Fast food, fast cars, fast Internet -- even fast money from fast ATMs. And yet, this nearly universal availability is a relatively new reality.

Year round, thousands of strawberries are down the street from most of us at a relatively affordable price. This is amazing! The average American consumes groceries that kings and queens of the past could only dream of: a veritable cornucopia of fresh vegetables and fruits always at our fingertips. Any cut of meat, any beverage, any dairy product -- food from China, France, Australia, South Africa -- all within the reach of the average American salary. How incredible! Everything is available. Everything is for sale. And yet, we have been divorced from the creation of these provisions. Without the garden, I eat my strawberries out of a plastic container at the sink -- devoid of any connection with the earth. My consumption has no personal dedication. There is no individual connection with this unique offering that the earth has given to me. Yes, my money spent at the grocery store represents hours of labor. But my work has no connection with the fields where the berries are grown. I know nothing of the berries' origins, the hands that picked them, or how they arrived in my hometown. There is no sacrifice, no gift. No acknowledgment of sun or rain. Instead there is a simple, unceremonious exchange: a few anonymous bills for a few impersonal berries. Yes, our stomach and our throats receive these berries the same as if we had grown them ourselves. But are we not more than just stomachs? Are we not more than empty throats?

No, everything matters. The specifics are crucial. Ask your wife if any man will do. Ask a music fan why the Beatles are different than the Stones. Did our gas come from a BP source in the Gulf of Mexico? It matters. Are we buying our electricity or paper products from Enron? It matters. Is your bank using bailout money to pay executives their bonuses? It matters. These are important details. The children's fingers that make our shoes, the migrant hands that pick our strawberries, the repressed souls that mine the diamonds of Sierra Leone: these are not footnotes! No, these are the stories of our brothers and sisters on the planet. This is the fabric of the garden that binds all of us together in this universal ecosystem. We are all connected here on this earth, increasingly so in our global market. Our individual plot lines correspond and cross. Yes, capitalism has brought the world within our reach; but when these products are stripped of context, we begin lose a piece of our own individuality as well.

The fast-food pace of our daily lives cannot replace the slow growth of the garden. When a product is stripped of our narrative, we lose a portion of our own story. We are reduced to an appetite and nothing more. Yes, every anonymous bar code has an intricate connection with the ongoing human story. I'm not trying to swim against the tides of capitalism. And I'm not against grocery stores. I'm simply stating that we lose a piece of our identity when we are reduced to an anonymous pocketbook with a mouth at the other end. The unique identity that every one of us possesses is directly tied to the way we spend our time and our money. Faceless consumerism is hard to call progress. My backyard garden reminds me that my plot is a part of the broader narrative, opening my eyes to the stories that don't fit into a sales tag. The garden reminds me that faceless capitalism alone might not be the best model for our human existence. Maybe the accelerating digital network is not the best soil for the human soul. I want to live with deeper roots even if it means a slower means of travel. Maybe I could spend a little more time in the garden and a little less time in the fast lane. I'm pretty sure that we could all use a little more dirt underneath our fingernails.