Act: Inspiration

Food from the Radical Center: Excerpt

March 6, 2019

Food from the Radical Center coverFrom Food from the Radical Center Gary Paul Nabhan. Copyright © 2018 Island Press.

Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.

You can find out more about the book on the Island Press website here.

Food from the Radical Center
by Gary Nabhan
© Island Press


Conservation You Can Taste

Have you ever gone out to work with others—friends, family members, neighbors, even rank strangers—to transplant a bunch of saplings of fruit trees, ones that ultimately might outlive you all? Have you done the same for berry bushes, nut-bearing palms, fruit-bearing cacti, or tufts of perennial grasses? Have you ever helped restock a stream with fish or frogs?

For me, at least, these have been moments not only when I get my hands dirty but also when my hope gets renewed.

Have you also felt blessed by such moments? By working to restore the earth’s bounty, you surely get some grit under your fingernails and so become inoculated with the earth itself.

Did you get down on your hands and knees during that ritual of hope, that expression of faith in other life-forms? Did you do so in a place that had been damaged or even destroyed? Did you participate in this pragmatic or perhaps prayerful ritual as a way to heal wounds that have scarred the landscape?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you have a place in this story.

Intentionally or accidentally, you have chosen to join the ranks of an ever-broadening social movement to restore what my friend Gretel Ehrlich once called “the remaining riches of the living world.” Those riches include the enduring seeds, the rare breeds, the forgotten fruits, the elusive fish, the still-surviving game, the dutiful pollinators, the hidden microbes and worms working in our most fertile soils, and the clean waters hidden in springs and aquifers beneath our feet.

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By enhancing the food-producing capacity of landscapes and waters near where you live, you may ultimately have the chance to enjoy the sensory pleasures derived from such work, what I call a conservation you can taste.

It is no mere abstraction. You simply feel more connected to a habitat you know personally than to a piece of rainforest halfway around the world in a place you will never see, smell, touch, or taste.

Such “up-close-and-personal” activities, whether on the ground or hip-deep in running waters, are the hallmarks of one of the largest grass-roots movements ever engaged in restoring the food-producing capacity of our planet. And if communally shared food itself is considered a sacrament by most cultures, then it should not be surprising that they believe food-producing habitats also deserve our care and our prayers.

This is a movement of people from all cultures, races, classes, and walks of life who are restoring the health of American farms and ranches, streams and lakes, and forests and orchards. As ecological-restoration visionary James Aronson has written,

“It is the people who carry a vision, combined with a firm determination to accomplish it, that shape tomorrow’s world, and change is imminent . . . The good news is that a very wide range and surprisingly great number of activities related to the restoration of natural capital are already happening.”

Because of these efforts, the diversity of foods and beverages on American tables is greater than at any time in the last century. The number of cultivated food plant varieties in the US has more than doubled in the last thirty years, growing from 9,720 in the mid-1980s to 21,640 in the mid-2010s. We also have many more nonprofits and small companies distributing heirloom plants, up from 375 nursery and seed outlets three decades ago to more than 500 today.

Many wild species formerly used as food are also being recovered, and more sustainable harvests are already allowing some of them to move back into the marketplace. While diets are narrowing and biodiversity is declining in much of the world, a powerful countertrend is moving the US toward healthier eating and diversified farmlands.

Curiously, most of these successes were not directly accomplished by our land management agencies, although particular staff members generously supported them. Nor were they achieved by big national conservation organizations based in America’s cities.

Instead, they were accomplished by individuals like you and your neighbors: teachers, cider makers, home cooks, farmworkers, backyard orchardists, small-scale ranchers, chefs of independently owned restaurants, master gardeners, naturalists, and food historians.

Their efforts were helped along by grassroots alliances fostered by the likes of the American Livestock Conservancy, the National Association of Conservation Districts, Seed Savers Exchange, the Wild Farm Alliance, Chefs Collaborative, and the North American Fruit Explorers. Such groups do play critical roles in convening and backstopping the people who do the “real work” on the ground.

The diversity of people involved has everything to do with assuring that a diversity of our foods contributes to our food security. We need a broad cross-section of America’s talent to revitalize our continent’s food-producing capacity.

Fortunately, this talent is being rewarded. A growing number of both rural and urban “green” jobs have been generated by the groundswell of interest in nutritious, diverse foods and in the healthy landscapes and waters that produce them.

Remarkably, landscape restoration now directly employs more than 125,000 Americans and generates more than $9.5 billion in economic output yearly. These restorative activities generate a “multiplier effect” of at least 95,000 other jobs, amounting to another $15 billion of value in indirect business-to-business contracts and sales.

Steve Zwick of Ecosystem Marketplace believes that the “restoration economy” in North America may now be supporting more livelihoods than logging, mining, or other extractive industries such as iron and steel production.

Ironically, this global movement of “blessed unrest and blissful restoration” has emerged at the very moment when our communities and democratic traditions are facing unprecedented stresses.

Open the pages of nearly any national newspaper, listen to any radio or television newscast, or Google one of the thousands of podcasts and blogs about current events, and you will be exposed to a plethora of reports that illustrate the acrimony emerging at nearly every level of our society. And yet, the movement for biocultural restoration is one that unites rather than divides, that sews together frayed fragments and brings forward the best of what it means to be human.

While the subject of this story is what we may call biocultural, eco-culinary, or reciprocal restoration, it is quite often enabled through a social process that has been called either community-based restoration, collaborative conservation, or cooperative collaboration.

Have you ever worked hand in hand on the land with others and discovered that you shared common values, beliefs, or goals? Did your collaboration incidentally contribute to healing old wounds in your own community? Then you yourself have reaped the benefits of collaborative conservation.

Despite social pressures to do otherwise, many of you have found common ground with others different from yourselves. Together, you have performed courageous acts of co-creation, collaborating not only with other humans but also with other species, like soil microbes, earthworms, deep-rooted plants, insect pollinators, and avian seed dispersers.

You are not only reaffirming the sanctity of life on this planet; you are actively participating in both ecological and social processes that allow it to thrive.

You are also asserting your membership in the geopolitical party that represents all species, races, cultures, genders, and faiths, caring for and communing with the many lives that matter to our collective survival.

Recently, I had a chance to amuse myself by performing the rather presumptuous if not preposterous act of planting something that will surely outlive me and perhaps not even flower until long after I am gone. I did so while working with a group of visitors on a little piece of land I tend on the outskirts of Patagonia, Arizona, not far from the US-Mexico border. These visitors had come to my hometown to spend a few days trying to understand what the term border justice means in one of the poorest, driest, and most historically degraded landscapes in the entire US.

To give my visitors an initial taste of the land itself, I invited them to eat with me and other locals and then to work with us for an hour or so on the task of transplanting several dozen agaves to hold the soil on the lips of some cobblestone terraces.

If you have not heard of them, agaves are long-lived, desert-adapted perennials with rosettes of succulent but leathery leaves. Some call them century plants, or mezcal. I had constructed those terraces a few years before in a rather vain attempt to capture rainfall and control soil loss on an eroding slope of red clay and gray limestone below my straw-bale home.

My guests had come from all over—Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and many parts of the US. They were individuals of all ages, colors, faiths, and cultures; some were of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, European, or Native American descent. I am sure that more than a few of them had never touched or seen an agave up close before. Its thorn-tipped, sword-shaped leaves have sharp spines running down their edges in a manner that still continues to intimidate me a half century after my first bloody initiation rite among them.

As I distributed these little thorny devils among my acquaintances, I suddenly realized that agaves are called century plants for a rather anthropocentric reason—most of us who transplant these succulents will never live long enough to see our own plantings flower, fruit, and die.

The plants themselves may not actually live for an entire century, but many of them will indeed outlive their propagators. Having turned sixty-five that very month, I conceded that it was unlikely that I would survive to see some of these agaves bloom or bear fruit.

I will have survived to be a very lucky elder if I am ever to taste their sweet, roasted flesh and fiber or to imbibe their fermented and distilled juices in a shot glass of mezcal.

And yet my visitors—many of whom would never return to this place over the rest of their lifetimes—were just as engaged as I was in this time-honored practice of agave propagation. It was a practice that had a two- to three-thousand-year-old legacy in this landscape, and we were simply playing a small role in collectively keeping that legacy alive.

One of my fellow propagators—an African-American minister from North Carolina—later remarked to me that he was surprised how much he had been moved by the experience. There was something magical that came from getting down on his hands and knees and planting such a strange growth form into the parched earth. It refreshed his sense of hope and that of others around him. It was the kind of thing that his ancestors—and mine—had done since time immemorial, expressing our deep-seated human inclination to be curious and engaged with species much different from our own.

A month or so later, after taking my ninety-year-old mother to urgent care clinics and an emergency room to deal with a nagging problem with her heart, I came home exhausted, still a bit fearful that I might lose her that very week. And yet just before the sun went down, I decided to take some time out to transplant four more century plants that I had forgotten to put out for my visitors the month before.

That trivial act of caring for a species altogether dissimilar from my own occurred on a time scale different from that of the “urgent care” and “emergency” facilities I had just visited. It somehow restored my own determination to help my mother through her daunting crisis.

Just why do such measly gestures on behalf of other species continue to matter to us? In his 2017 book, Two Paths: America Divided or United, Republican statesman John Kasich recalled an epiphany he himself had during a time of crisis: “It came to me that most of us find satisfaction when we try to live a life bigger than ourselves . . . We need to look for ways to make a difference in the lives of others, in the world around us.” That may be why participating in biocultural restoration nearly always provides us with fresh insights and connections that are worth savoring. Working with people unlike ourselves tends to get us out of our bubble. Still, why make a big deal about planting a couple of agaves? What’s so special about working outdoors with someone else from another culture, race, profession, or faith?

It is true that over much of the course of human history, such endeavors were undoubtedly commonplace in many landscapes. But at this moment in time, these crosscutting gestures have become far too rare.

At the risk of belaboring a point that may already seem all too obvious to you, let me offer you a brief history of the discord that is putting many hard-won conservation advances of the last century at risk. I wish to do so for a very particular reason. I don’t think we will see the urgency of embracing community-based restoration unless we are willing to concede that “mainstream” environmentalism has been under attack—if not “broken”—for some time.

What began as a nonpartisan effort to protect our planet has become one of the most perniciously divisive issues in public life. This division is not only undermining the robustness of our communities; it is also undermining the health of our landscapes, the survival of rare species, the diversity of our foodstuffs, and the food security of our communities. It’s time we face up to the fact that we need a radical change in our modus operandi. And so let us consider the risks of living in a land divided.

Gary Paul Nabhan

Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally celebrated nature writer, food and farming activist, and proponent of conserving the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity. He holds the W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Arizona Southwest Center, where he works with students, faculty, and non-profits to build a more just, nutritious, sustainable, and climate-resilient foodshed spanning the US/Mexico border. He is the author of numerous books, including Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, Renewing America’s Food Traditions, and Chasing Chiles. His latest book Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair is now available in paperback (Chelsea Green, June 2020). He lives in southern Arizona.

Tags: building community resilience, Building resilient food and farming systems, ecological restoration