Mad-Farming with Fred Bahnson (and the ecological perks of public urination)
I met Fred Bahnson back in grad school. We’d spend our lunches sitting on the steps of Duke Chapel playing chess. We were fairly even-matched. That is, we were both pretty bad at it. Nevertheless, it got us out of the classroom long enough to talk about Duke basketball–which is a lovely thing when you’ve made the mistake of taking a seminar on Immanuel Kant.
One person who was often a topic of our conversation was Wendell Berry. I had read Berry in one of my courses and shared the ‘good news’ with Fred. Fred started reading Berry, developed something of a Berry-obsession, and the next thing I know, Fred is a farmer. And by farmer, I mean, a for real farmer. He grows (and kills) his own food. All of it. He was the first director of the Anatoth Community Garden in NC, he is the director of the Food, Faith, & Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, he recently published the stellar book, Making Peace with the Land, and he offers a clear explaination as to why peeing outdoors is wonderful for the environment.
Why must everyone be so much more interesting than me?
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH FRED BAHNSON
1) I often tell my students that planting tomatoes is a more politically effective practice than voting. Tell me I’m right and then explain why.
You’re right because when you plant a tomato plant (or, if you’re greedy like me, 62 tomato plants), you get to actually see the results of your action. But if you vote for either major political party in the U.S., there’s not anything tangible that comes out of it. I don’t see much difference between the two parties, given as they both are to maintaining the illusion of endless economic growth on a planet with finite ecosystems from which you can only extract so much before things begin to go dreadfully awry. One thinks corporations should do the extracting, the other thinks that role should go to government. But the mindset is the same. Much better to put all that pent up political energy into something useful like planting tomatoes, which, unlike voting, will at least feed your family and your neighbors.
2) Christianity claims a theology of abundance, while our socio-economic politic claims that we live in a world of scarcity. It seems that some theological accounts of abundance are often sorely naïve, yet buying into current accounts of scarcity seems borderline nihilistic. How do you negotiate the tension between the two?
I’m not sure that our socio-economic politic does claim that we live in a world of scarcity, in fact, in the book I say just the opposite:
“The thought of running out of food never crosses most of our minds. With such apparent abundance, how could it? The temptation with which we’re faced is not between trusting in God’s abundance or being fearful of scarcity; rather, it is between competing narratives of plenty. We don’t know what it means to feast at God’s abundant table, because we have our faces buried in a feed trough. We’re so accustomed to a cheap, continuous supply of food that we’ve come to mistake this for reality when really it is just a dream that we’ve manufactured for awhile. We might call this dream the abundant mirage.” (p.86)
As I go on to say, the work before us is to abandon the abundant mirage and begin to dwell in God’s abundant kingdom. And in this kingdom, sometimes there are 12 baskets left over; sometimes 7, and sometimes none. But there is always enough for our needs. It’s about trusting in the created order, the ecosystems in which we find ourselves, and trusting that reality instead of trusting in the mirage of our industrial food system.
3) Which farmer/writer’s names are you most inclined to pass on to your children: Wendell Berry, Laura Ingalls Wilder or Beatrix Potter?
I’ve been influenced by the first and last, as an adult and a child respectively, and my children are already eating out of Beatrix Potter bowls. But more so than Berry, I want to pass on some of the classic stories and poems that gave me a sense of the enchantment of the world, the sense of the mystery in which we constantly dwell of only we have eyes to see it. I’ve been reading Tolkien to my eldest son (who is about to turn 8), and I’m reminded of the hospitable, how welcoming is the landscape of Middle Earth, at least the parts where hobbits and elves dwell. That’s one thing my boyhood in Montana gave me, is the sense that, though there are things that can kill you, this world in which we live was created to be, and still is, “very good.” It’s a world in which God wants us to be at home.
4) In your book, you discuss ecological amnesia. Is that anything like when I have too much whiskey and, much to the chagrin of my fiancée, I pee in the bushes?
That’s it, exactly. Actually, by peeing in the bushes you are not engaged in ecological amnesia, rather you are remembering your God-given task of “serve and preserve” the fertile soil. Pee contains nitrogen. When you hose down the privet hedge you’ve just given it a nice little shot of energy. If only more of us would stop flushing nitrogen down the loo and start giving it back to our fields.
5) I’ve found that many environmentalists often neglect animals in their conversations. It’s as if the very beings that exist within and on the land are not part of the environment they find worthy of conserving. And when they do mention animals, it’s often heavily romanticized and only focuses on those they find difficult to commodify for their own purposes. I guess what I’m asking is, given that the subtitle of your book is God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation, do you include cows, pigs and chickens in that reconciliation? Are those creatures a part of God’s Holy Mountain in Isaiah? Are they a part of a redeemed order groaning for completion? And, if so, how are they reconciled with us other than, ‘humanely killing them for food’, or are they just, ultimately, shit out of luck?
Hmm, I detect a vegetarian argument masquerading as a question. Yes, animals are included within God’s reconciling work. As Colossians 1 tells us, through Christ God has reconciled all things, and that includes animals. But I’m not convinced that we can take metaphorical language in scripture about the New Heaven and New Earth (in Isaiah, for instance) and build an argument about why we should never eat them. The lion may lie down with the lamb then, but that doesn’t mean the lion can’t eat the lamb now. At the resurrection, Jesus tells us, “people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Matt.22:30). But we do marry now, and the church blesses that act as a sacrament. I think eating animals can be a sacrament, a sharing of another’s life to sustain our own.
My co-author Norman Wirzba has some good things to say about this, but I’ll give it a go here. Too much vegetarianism is ecologically naïve. People think they can avoid the deaths of other creatures. But you can be the strictest vegan and you will still be drawing your nourishment through the deaths of creatures. The farmland that feeds you almost certainly destroyed some creature’s habitat. The farmer who grew your pac choi and broccoli most likely had to deal with groundhogs, and here “deal with” doesn’t mean giving him a cuddly head scratch. The truck that rumbled down I-40 from California to bring you the freshest orange at the lowest price ran over countless squirrels, rabbits, deer, and bugs in order to get it to you. And even if you live in a cave and eat bread crusts like St. Anthony, the wheat that made your bread crust grew in soil, and soil thrives on death. If you are a person and you eat food, you are living by the deaths of creatures, whether by your own hand or by proxy. So the responsible thing is, instead of discussing “whether or not to kill animals,” because we most certainly are killing them, and unavoidably so, to instead talk about what would make for a good death, and what kinds of death are unacceptable. CAFO meat is, by any Christian standard, an unacceptable form of death. But to give chickens a pasture to scratch in and eat grass and roll in the dust and frolic in the sun before you eat them? I think you can make a good case that you gave that chicken a good life and a good death. When you end its life to sustain your own life, and you offer up thanks to God for this creature’s life, this is not only permissible, it is a sacrament. When you think about it this way, I will say from experience, it becomes very difficult to eat meat often. You don’t want that animal’s death to be flippantly used or taken for granted. We eat meat once or twice a week, and it’s always from animals we either raised or were raised by people we know. Given how little we know about modern meat production, I think the Christian practice of ascetic denial should become the norm.