One of my favorite “contrary farmers” (in the phrase coined by another of my favorite contrary farmers, Gene Logsdon) is a little-known man named Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. He and others like him have been doing important research and preservation work relating to sustainable agriculture, one of my passions. He wrote a little book I love called Becoming Native to this Place, in which he argues that a large part of sustainability is feeling rooted somewhere, feeling native in a place, a landscape that you know and love, and that you mold your life to, rather than molding the landscape to a life that has nothing to do with that place.
It’s hard for me to say what the “place” is that I’m from. There’s much about the landscape of Indiana, where I grew up, that feels familiar in a way no other place does: the flatness, the endless fields, the smell of corn is all beautiful to me in a way that may be elusive to anyone but an expatriate Hoosier. But even so, I never really felt like I was “from” Indiana. When I was twelve, my hippie-intellectual parents moved to a small town where pretty much no one was a hippie-intellectual, and where you were still considered “new to town” unless your grandmother went to high school there. It was never exactly home.
It still freaks me out sometimes that I’m raising city kids, East Coast kids, kids who are decidedly not Midwesterners (though I’m proud to say they know how to can tomatoes). But they are from somewhere, and it’s Philadelphia. Even more, a little corner of Germantown, where Julie and I have lived in the same house, on the same block, for 20 years now. And I guess, this is as close as anywhere now to being where I’m from. It’s the place I’m most native to.
In the midst of the devastating images from the Jersey Coast (which is a beloved get-away for my family), and the harrowing stories from New York City (which is a beloved get-away for me), perhaps the most sobering sense I am left with in the wake of Sandy is that this is the new normal. Climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen, if we don’t do something about it; we didn’t do enough about it, and it’s here.
It feels a little like becoming a new parent. Of course, becoming a new parent is much, much nicer than facing the reality of climate change (don’t worry, I adore my kids!). But if you’re a parent, you know how while you were waiting for your first kid, you knew deep down that everything was going to change, that it would all be different? You knew it, and yet, when it happened, the reality of it was way way bigger than anything you could have imagined. You knew your life was going to change, but then it did, every bit as much as if a hurricane had blown through it. And so you went about changing your life to accommodate this new reality, to fit this child into it, to become a whole new version of yourself in the world. And it was hard, painful at times, but the rewards were enormous.
I’d like to think that facing the reality of climate change could be a bit like that: it’s here now, not nearly as cute and cuddly as a new baby, but here nonetheless, and we need to change our lives accordingly. We should have done it decades ago. Many of us have been working on that, and it’s not a contest. That feels really important to me: it’s not a contest. But I do think it’s time to get even more serious about it.
And it doesn’t have to be an onerous project. It seems to me, in fact, that if part of living sustainable lives is becoming native to a place, then most of us could begin right in our own neighborhoods. Walk more, grow food in your yard, talk to your neighbors.
For me, one of my commitments in the coming months and years is to try to grow even deeper bonds with all the people I share walls and porches and roofs with in my little rowhouse block, and with the neighbors in nearby blocks as well. I never felt at home in the small town I grew up in, but I’d love to feel even more at home in the urban village I now live in.
And I think one of the best way to build bonds with neighbors is to eat together, and since I love to cook, that works well!
How about you? How are you dealing with the reality of climate change? What sorts of commitments are you making to living more sustainably? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.