By RICHARD HAGUE
Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence. —Wendell Berry, “A Poem of Difficult Hope”
Decades ago, Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass collaborated in a film the likes of which had not been seen before. For 85 minutes, with the exception of a Hopi chant of the word “koyaanisqatsi,” whose meanings are translated variously as “crazy life,” “life in turmoil,” “life disintegrating,” “life out of balance,” and “a way of life that calls for another way of living,” not a word of dialogue is spoken (overheard, generally incoherent snippets of radio and TV broadcasts excepted). Instead, the screen is filled with startling images of the natural beauties of America, followed by terrifying images of technological power, environmental destruction, and urban American madness. Most startling to my high school students, I think, were the sequences showing the production of what we now call industrial food—meat-jams of mass-produced hot dogs, tumbling chicks destined for battery-cage poultry farms having their beaks burned off on a factory line, an insane avalanche of Twinkies whisked by the thousands on conveyor belts.
The food situation in America is improving with startling quickness—craft beer, artisanal bread and cheese, farmer’s markets stocked with local produce— but still patronized by only a minority of citizens. By far, the majority remain oblivious to where their food and drink comes from, how it is grown, the condition of the soil it grows in, the nature and quality of the cultivation it receives, and ultimately, how closely or distantly its growth, cultivation, harvest, and transportation are to being at the human scale, rather than the industrial.
In protest of the corporate agribusiness under which most are willing to put themselves in thrall, I have for three decades now, and in fits and starts before that, raised and eaten a portion of my own food. The size of the portion has increased over the past few years as my skill has increased with practice and self-education, and since I built Erie Gardens, a neighborhood family and commercial enterprise on my block in Madisonville.
What I am doing in this enterprise is fourfold.
First, I am using the production of my own food as a form of physical exercise; I lose weight during the gardening season, and in general am more fit for all the lifting, bending, stretching, hauling, digging, and walking I do in the course of each day. In doing this kind of exercise rather than going to a gym, I am protesting what I think is a great waste of human effort on basketball and handball courts, in swimming pools, in saunas, and on stationary bikes and other mechanical equipment—effort perhaps better turned to something that is not only enjoyable but possibly productive in a modest commercial way, good for the self and the environment, and, most importantly, free. To the extent that I engage in heavy gardening—or small farming, depending on your point of view—I can withdraw by that many more hours and dollars from capitalism and the commercialization of everything. It pays me at least triply—in what I save by not needing a gym, in what I save by not needing to drive to “work,” and in what I eat without having to go to the store.
Second, I eat healthier during the growing season than I do at any other time of the year. That season for me extends from February, when I gather the increasing number of eggs from the chickens as they come out of their winter torpor, to late March, when I pick the first spring greens and dig the last of the winter carrots and parsnips, to December, when I finish off the late autumn greens that have grown under cover, dig the hardy root crops, and gather the dwindling—but never completely ceasing— number of eggs as the amount of daylight decreases. Even after that, sometimes clear into April again, I am still eating frozen or dried food from the summer and still consuming white and sweet potatoes and squashes stored in the coolest corner of my basement.
Third, I am advertising to all and any who stop and look at Erie Gardens that such an activity is possible right here in the city. If this inspires even one passerby to take up growing some food, it has succeeded as a protest. It counters, by one household economy, the monopoly of agribusiness. It helps the environment, if done properly. It raises the level of health and of culture by just so much as it does. It diverts energy away from the distant, monstrous, and giant and applies it to the close, healthy, and humanly scaled.
Fourth, it connects me to my past; it preserves in me what I have come to believe is an ancestral urge toward husbandry and gardening that I have felt ever since I was a boy. Years ago, looking at a late 19th century photograph of Irish people working their potato rows, I fell into the picture as Keats plunged into the Grecian Urn. I forgot myself and returned to a former world of earth, damp cold, strong men, and strong women in long heavy dresses, tending plants. And I felt at home there.
It might be easier to abandon the hundreds if not nearly a thousand hours that I work in the garden every year for an “easier” life of watching commercial TV and playing games and engaging in diversions that will, almost all of them, cost me health, money, or both. I have enough money. I have had enough money most of my life. Money is not the point. In the gifts that count for me—words, eyesight, interesting things to look at, education, healthy children, a patient, inspiring, and enduring wife, a household that extends outwards—I am as wealthy a man as any I have known. What I have is a thing to do that gives health in all directions, when I do it right. It keeps me whole, integral, myself, while at the same time providing fruits and vegetables to share with my family and neighbors, and even enough extra to sell. I do not wish to be unable to share. I do not wish to be dependent on outlandish and heedless strangers for food. I do not wish to be ignorant of agriculture as it has been practiced for millenia by hand. I do not wish to be ripped from my ties to the earth by ease, or “convenience,” or by the effete snobbery that scoffs at getting honestly dirty almost every day of my life.
This is my koyaanisqatsi escape plan.
Richard Hague is writer-in-residence at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky. His During The Recent Extinctions: New & Selected Poems l984-2012 (Dos Madres Press, 2012) won the 2012 Weatherford Award in Poetry in 2012. Milltown Natural: Stories And Essays from A Life (Bottom Dog Press, l997) was a National Book Award nominee. He is winner of the 2016 Spring Travel Writing Contest of Nowhere Magazine, and a Judge’s Selection in the 2016 Still: The Journal Creative Nonfiction award. His poetry collection Beasts, River, Drunk Men, Garden, Burst, & Light: Sequences and Long Poems is forthcoming in 2016.