Issue 10 Feature Article

Eating Mindfully: Embracing the Hunger of the Universe.
Pat Long

That gnawing hunger which emerges from our depths is an expression of one of the fundamental powers of the universe process.  Structured into the creative adventure of life is the drive to draw energy into ourselves, to experience nourishment such that the 13.7 billion year story of astounding emergence might continue in its elegance and precision.  It is this drive that is at the heart of our existence, operating at all levels of our being. Earth’s learning to capture energy from the sun in the form of a chlorophyll molecule some 3.8 billion years ago set the pattern for all life: “all complex life forms depend for their food, ultimately, on this original transaction and relationship between Earth’s agents of photosynthesis and the Sun”

We are, in this sense, so similar to everything else.  Yet the practices we are engaging in to acquire nourishment destroy the very processes within which they flourish.  Acting as if we are disconnected from Earth accentuates our hunger rather than relieves it, despite our eating more, having more, using more, demanding more, expecting more, experimenting more, endlessly pursuing the satisfaction of individual needs.

The perception of disconnection has its roots in western society’s foundational stories about the nature of the human-earth relationship. The prevailing belief is that Earth exists for the human, that the planet is simply backdrop for the human adventure which will end in a paradise beyond this world.  During the western industrial period, the dualistic, mechanistic structuring of the world moved humans further and further away from direct contact with Earth and her natural processes, making us incapable of deep and sustained connection.

At this critical moment of the largest extinction phase on the planet in the past 65 million years, human consciousness is shifting.  Current scientific insights are leading us to acknowledge the wisdom of indigenous groups around the planet and the intuition of artists and mystics who have embraced our interconnectedness. We are beginning to experience again the desirability and necessity of understanding that we are earth, that we have no other home, that we have a shared destiny.  We are beginning to perceive the reality of Earth as a single, living being and ourselves as one species among many held within her atmosphere, waterways and land.    At the same time we are beginning to experience the impact of human activity on Earth’s resources and the unprecedented influence of our power on the major life systems of the planet. The advent of climate change and peak oil are bringing these realities to mainstream awareness.

Grassroots responses to these realities have been emerging for some time, and the momentum is growing.  This is strikingly evident in the food system.  Writers are tracing food back to its source to raise awareness about the safety of food, the true cost of food, the processing of food for human consumption and a range of ethical considerations which are inherent in what seems to be the simple act of eating. Organisations are bringing to public attention  practices which threaten the future of food: the patenting of seeds, the genetic engineering of food, the globalization of monoculture crops and the lack of labeling of food products, to name but a few. Driven by consumer awareness and demand, there has been a strong increase in alternative agricultural practices: organic farming, biodynamic farming, permaculture design for edible forest gardens and community supported agriculture. These practices hint at the beginnings of a food revolution and call us to reconnect with the source of our nourishment.
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It’s 6 a.m. as I complete my walk through the fields and turn into the driveway of Genesis Farm on this October Friday morning. Cloud lingers in the valley below, the whiteness contrasting with the vibrant red, orange, yellow and rust of the trees.  This pre-sunrise experience takes my breath away.  The sharpness and clarity of the air fills me with expectancy, a readiness to immerse myself in the beauty which surrounds me. Joining the gardeners and apprentices for a few hours’ harvesting has become a weekly ritual, lifting my spirit as I engage directly with Earth.  The count for the day is 97 – 97 of 300 family shareholders will come to collect this food later today, safe in the knowledge of the methods by which it is grown.  Arriving at the distribution center they will weigh and bag their produce for the week:  kale, chard, bok choy, onions, carrots, potatoes, leeks eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, arugula, beets and more.  Some will venture out to the beds to pick flowers for their homes and the golden raspberries and kiwis which are a specialty at this time of the year. By becoming shareholders, members have pledged to support the farm operation such that it becomes the community farm, financially and spiritually.  In this model, growers and members mutually support and share risks of food production.  Shareholders pledge in advance to cover all costs of the garden operation, including the salary of the gardeners.  In return they are offered the opportunity to reconnect with the land, to share both the bounty of the growing season as well as the risks of a possible poor harvest.

My first assignment is cutting the rainbow chard – red, yellow, orange stems giving form to the deep green leaves.  Each plant is checked individually.  Only the outer, well grown leaves are harvested, each inspected for freedom from disease.  The focus required by this level of attention stills the mind and I am momentarily drawn into the miracle of Earth’s urge to grow and reproduce: Earth is self-nourishing.  I ponder the love and care which has gone into this garden over the past 20 years – a garden which takes account of Earth’s movements and seasons and regions within a larger planetary system, which acts in the awareness that the health and fertility of the soil are critical to the vitality of its fruit. This is a garden which honours the universal pattern of diversity, and recognizes itself as a living system within the larger living organism, our home planet, Earth.  The grace before meals shared each day by these bio-dynamic gardeners gives voice to the recognition that their job is to work with Earth’s self-nourishing processes.  It is a sacred work when carried out mindfully, leading to an ever deepening awareness of the mystery at the heart of growing food: For the deep earth which cradles the seed, for the rain which brings forth the leaves, for the stars which give form to the flowers, for the sun which ripens the fruit, for all this goodness and beauty we give thanks.

I sample a cherry tomato from the adjacent bed and am immediately filled with a visual and taste sensation permeating my whole body.  Vibrant colour and rich flavour combine in this fruit, so abundant on these plants.   Arising from a common source of nourishment, each one is its own unique expression, unrepeatable.  Knowing where and how this food is grown, knowing the farmers who foster and nurture its growth evokes a deep sense gratitude and deeper appreciation of what it means to take the fruit and eat.

Into ourselves we take these changing forms of light…  Light emerging out of the great flaring forth of energy at the beginning of space and time, light transforming into hydrogen and helium, creating primal stars and galaxies, sacrificing themselves in supernova explosions, creating the conditions for the emergence of chemical elements, drawn into planetary systems bound into relationship with the mother star and each other. Our own planet Earth, just the right size and distance from Sun, receiving just one billionth of her light energy, learning how to capture that light,  how to eat sunlight and be fed, becoming nourishment for others, that all may be fed.  The act of eating brings me into direct contact with this unbroken chain of transformations from the beginning of space and time.  The iron in my blood, the calcium in my bones, the oxygen in my brain, is the same iron and calcium and oxygen formed in the supernova explosions.  The light energy captured in the vegetables I eat is a transformation of the original light. The act of eating makes explicit the communion I share with all that is.  I take and eat Earth’s body. I am the Earth, the Earth is my body. The relationship is more intimate than I dare imagine.

The work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme provide insight into this intimacy:
To be is to be related.  The Sun and the Earth awaken in a profound embrace of a bonded relationship … With each passing instant this bond deepens so that in time Earth shapes herself into a form that can sing of the Sun’s energy.  The chlorophyll molecules have the essence of the Sun in their very architecture… the human come alive immediately celebrates this relationship with the Sun… Much of our existence finds ultimate fulfillment in relatedness.
Little wonder that I keep hungering, yearning for the nourishment that will truly satisfy so that the urge to give in return finds its place within the whole.  How do these transformations impact on my own?  How will my nourishment feed others? Wendell Berry’s poem helps me focus on the reciprocity that is integral to the communion experience.
I have taken in the light that quickened eye and leaf.
May my brain be bright with praise of what I eat,
in the brief blaze of motion and of thought.
May I be worthy of my meat.

Hannah, my gardener companion for the morning, interrupts my reverie with a request that I transfer to the basil.  The incredible aroma of this “happy plant” permeates my body.  Before me are hundreds of plants, vibrant and strong, responding to the slightest touch with the emission of such pleasurable sensation.  I glance out over the garden beds and see Earth’s abundance, Earth’s urge to nourish.  I see the mutuality of this nourishment: the green manure crops planted immediately after the human food crop has finished producing, the huge compost piles waiting to replenish the soil which has given up its nutrients into the food, the diversity of food grown here and the rotation of crops from season to season.  I remember the results of the soil testing carried out in these beds just last year which revealed an increase in nutrient level and soil balance over the past ten years.  Being mindful of how Earth naturally works and mimicking her practices  enriches all.

As frequently happens while immersed in this particular land my mind flies back home, halfway round the world to our tiny backyard garden in Flemington.  Working with Earth to produce food in Australia presents such different questions from those which arise in north-west New Jersey: How can nourishing food be grown with diminished rainfall and restricted water allocations?  What agricultural practices are appropriate on a continent characterized by drought and floods, experiencing the extreme weather events associated with advent of climate change? My homeland, the driest continent on Earth with ancient, impoverished soils, has a dying river system which until recently supported 41% of the nation’s food production.   I recall the irrigation rights given to rice growers and cotton farmers feeding off the Murray Darling system, and remember we have exported food grown in this region.  We have squandered our water through its unsustainable use and we have exported our water in the form of food.  A Native American proverb comes to mind:   The frog does not drink up the water of the pond in which he lives.

Hannah breaks the intensity of my musings once more. It’s time for me to leave the garden and walk down the driveway to the ecological learning center where I spend the major part of my working week.  Food has been one of the focus areas for the center’s programs this year.  Today we are making final preparations for a workshop on food preservation.  There are ten on the waiting list for this course, and registrations were similar for workshops on wild foods and medicines, wild mushrooms, edible forest gardens and cooking with locally grown foods. Twenty-four local people are participating in the six-week discussion series “Menu for the Future”.  Ecology classes from local universities request programs focusing on food.

This groundswell of interest and participation in the local food economy is evident around the globe.  More and more people are deciding they do not want their food sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, or grown in soils depleted of nutrients and supplemented by artificial fertilizers.  Similarly, the meat eaters do not want their animals raised in factory farms, plied with anti-biotic to prevent the spread of disease in such crowded conditions and hormones to speed up their natural growth. One way to discover what is happening to the food supply is to focus locally. The growth of the permaculture movement, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture and tailgate markets is a strong indication of a growing awareness of the connection between our food and our health, and the health of the planet.  In contrast to large scale organic and conventional farming, these movements enjoy the benefits of a local food economy: less transport, less packaging, less processing, more opportunity to know the farmer and the farming practices, an opportunity to be nourished by food that truly is fresh and vital and a real opportunity to eat with awareness.

Decisions about our sustenance have never been more complex for those pursuing a path which acknowledges Earth as primary and the human derivative, which sees agriculture as a sacred activity and eating as a communion event.  Eating with integrity is integral to the deep nourishment I yearn for.  Some questions I ask myself in pursuing this integrity:

Where is this food grown?
What system of agriculture is used to assist its growth?
Who are the farmers/gardeners?
What is the seed source?
What inputs have been added?
How is it distributed?
How far has it travelled?
To what extent am I directly supporting the farmer?

Currently, being a member of a CSA (community-supported agriculture) which supplies about 80% of my total food requirements year round means I have ready access to the information I need to make an informed choice about much of my food.  Membership in the community supported garden also ensures that I am participating in a system which places responsibility for the food in the hands of the community.

It’s the 20% of my food which is not supplied at the CSA which takes much more careful consideration.  Dilemmas appear at every turn.  I have chosen to be a vegetarian.  One reason for this decision is that by eating lower on the food chain I am impacting less on Earth’s diminishing resources.  My protein sources in addition to locally produced eggs and cheese are beans and rice. Breads, pasta, oats and other grains supply carbohydrate needs. I opt for food which has not been processed in preference to canned or frozen pre-packaged goods.

The local health food store stocks a wide range of foods.  Where possible all products are organic but many of them have travelled long distances, and it is impossible for me to know much about the conditions of their growth. I’m recalling that the average distance food travels in the U.S. is 1500 miles.  As I collect dried fruits and nuts, I lament the fact that, although this store purchases in bulk, there is no option for me to bring my own jars and bags to collect individual purchases.  I understand it is an issue of adequate space in the store, but I long to return to a local store back home which offers this service.  In the overall scheme of things this is minor compared to the transportation issue.  I know of people who have tested their ability to source all their food within a 100 to 250-mile radius.  These experiments have provided opportunities for creative ways to satisfy our food needs and establish new local connections to food. They are an invaluable barometer as we face a future of escalating transport costs and diminishing oil supplies.

Returning home to Melbourne in a few weeks’ time will make pertinent a number of questions about my food choices.  How much of my food can be locally sourced and grown organically?  In addition to my own backyard what opportunities are there for growing food in the neighbourhood?  Where are the local permaculture designed farms and gardens? What can I learn from them and how might I become involved in this system?
……..
It’s lunchtime at Genesis Farm and 20 of us are gathered around the kitchen benchtop, fashioned from recycled wood.  Participants in the Earth Literacy program join with staff for this daily ritual.  There’s an opportunity for expressing gratitude and the circle calms, moving into a deep silence interspersed with a few words here and there.  Bill decides to recite a poem which he uses in his daily grace before meals:

Meal Gatha

With gratitude and joy
we receive this gift of food.
Into ourselves we take
these changing forms of light
through which we will be changed:
other bodies becoming
our body,
other life becoming our life;
that there is
one body
one life
shared by all
we vow to remember

Alexis, the Farm’s young cook, introduces the meal to us.  She speaks of the love with which she has prepared the food, the priorities which guide food choices, the source of the ingredients and the nutritional value of the meal. Over time, this simple daily ritual has shifted my consciousness. It is the nature of the life force to continually draw in the energy which nourishes and leads toward wholeness. The transformative nature of energy exchange, repeated again and again within the creative process, affects this movement toward wholeness at the heart of the Universe.  The vitality in the energy I am ingesting in the form of food bears directly on the energy I expend within the life of the larger body.  Eating mindfully can produce a revolution in our relationship with food and by extension, our relationship to Earth.  Eating mindfully has opened my mind and my senses to the truth of this act, and I celebrate the meaning of my hunger and the opportunity to be deeply nourished.

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Eating Mindfully: Embracing the Hunger of the Universe, Pat Long

Brian Swimme explores these universe processes in his video series The Earth’s Imagination and The Powers of the Universe.
Webb, Caroline, “Weaving a World with Light: Photosynthesis and Our Daily Bread”, in Earthlight Magazine, Vol. 14, No.1 Spring 2004
Bio-dynamic agriculture has its basis in a spiritual world-view propounded by Rudolf Steiner. It treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the the soil, plants, animals as a closed, self-nourishing system. (wikipedia)
Gunderson, David, “Meal Gatha”, Earthlight Magazine, Vol. 14, No.1 Spring 2004, Oakland, CA.
Berry, Thomas & Swimme, Brian, The Universe Story, unpublished Manuscript, ch. 4, p.28.
Berry, Wendell, “The Country of Marriage”, 1973.
Permaculture may be described as consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. Holmgren, David, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn Springs, 2002, p.xix
Gunderson, David, “Meal Gatha”, Earthlight Magazine, Vol. 14, No.1 Spring 2004, Oakland, CA.

Pat Long is an educator by profession. She trained in Earth Literacy at Genesis Farm and worked at the Centre as an intern for two years. Upon her return  to Australia she was an original member of the EarthSong Core Group but went again to Genesis Farm in 2007-8 as a staff member. She has now returned to Melbourne and we are delighted to welcome her as a member of EarthSong’s Co-ordinating Team.

Pat’s vast knowledge of things ecological, her lived experience and deep commitment to mutually
enhancing human/Earth relationships will be a wonderful asset to EarthSong. Her particular focus
will be to develop the Earth Ethics aspect of our Vision and Goals and she is available for workshops and seminars. Pat can be contacted at the EarthSong office tel: 03 8359 0107
or email: pat@earthsong.org.au