Monday, March 17, 2014

In Honor of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, Let's Plant Tomatoes

Homegrown tomatoes homegrown tomatoes
What'd life be without homegrown tomatoes
Only two things that money can't buy
That's true love & homegrown tomatoes

                                Guy Clark

We meet Christ in three ways, Dorothy Day wrote: in the Eucharist, when two or three or gathered together, and in the poor. Dorothy was speaking about all the poor, but the urban poor had a special place in her heart.

Peter Maurin working in the soil

On the other hand, Peter Maurin, Dorothy's lifelong collaborator, was an advocate for communitarian farms. On farms, Peter believed, people could live in Christian fellowship and raise their own food--insulated from all the evils of urban life.

Dorothy was skeptical.  "I loved the life of the city," she wrote. "Especially I loved the life of the Lower East Side, where, in my neighborhood, every Italian backyard had its own fig tree and grape arbor."  Moreover, she reminded Peter, "Heaven is portrayed as a heavenly Jerusalem."

As we all know, the Catholic Worker movement started a few farms, and some Catholic Worker farms may still exist.  Nevertheless, I think most would agree that the Catholic Worker movement is primarily an urban phenomenon. Dorothy, at least, will always be associated with the cities and with the urban poor.

Personally, I share Dorothy's reservations about communitarian farm life. I am not an expert about rural utopian experiments, but I know most have floundered.  Farm life is romantic from a distance, but speaking as one who grew up with farm animals, I say with authority that there is nothing romantic about the rear end of a cow.

But as a person who has gardened for many years, I strongly recommend it for everyone--particularly urban dwellers. I am proud that my son and his wife, who live in Washington DC, maintain a community garden plot in Columbia Heights; and my daughter and her husband keep a small garden on the rooftop of their Brooklyn loft apartment.

What are the benefits of urban gardening?

First of all, there is something self-affirming about growing one's own food--even if it is just a few herbs to season a jar of store-bought spaghetti sauce. To plant vegetables, see them grow until the harvest, and then  eat them in one's own kitchen connects us with our  ancestors.  We may make our living doing one high-tech thing or another, but we all have to eat; and it is good to be able to produce our own food--even in a small way.

Second, gardening reminds us of the healing power of nature. Last winter, South Louisiana endured several hard freezes, and tropical plants died all over the city.  Surely our ancient philodendron, with stalks so big it looked like a coiled python in our garden, was a goner. Surely our new grapefruit trees were headed for the dumpster. Surely our palmettos and our bougainvilleas were dead.

But no. It is now late March, and new leaves have sprouted from our philodendron. Our grapefruit trees are still alive and show promise of producing fruit. The palm leaves of our palmettos are yellow at their tips, but all the palmettos survived.  Only the bougainvilleas succumbed.

Nevertheless, last winter reminds us to be cautious when planting a spring garden. Don't plant your garden until St. Joseph's Feast Day, the old timers caution, and this year's spring weather proved them right.

Now is the time to plant our gardens--at least in the deep South. And I urge everyone to begin gardening, at least in a small way. At the very least, let's plant tomatoes--if only the patio variety that  can be grown on the balcony of a city apartment.

Here are some things I've learned from gardening that have carried over into the rest of my life.

First, you must visit your garden every day and see how it is doing.  You never know when a leaf-eating insect might arrive, or a cat who wants your garden for a napping place.  And doesn't that hold true for all we hold dear--we have to connect with what we care about on a daily basis--and that goes especially for people.

Second, the way to begin gardening is to begin. If you are a back-to-the-earth environmentalist, you may want to grow your own seeds and raise only heirloom vegetables. But for most of us, the place to start is Home Depot, where we can buy plants that have already pushed through the earth.

And isn't that true of everything we do? If we wait until conditions are ideal or until we can construct something perfect, we will never begin.

Third, let's think of gardening as participating in the divine. Even the wine we drink at communion--the blood of Christ--is "the work of human hands."  Our gardening may be as important to our physical and spiritual health as anything we do on a given day.

If we plant a garden and don't neglect it, we have a good chance of getting at least some of our vegetables to hang on until the harvest; and we can eat something we grew ourselves.

And when we do, let's think of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. Peter had a vision of a a rural Catholic utopia, while Dorothy would probably have been content with a fig tree growing in a back yard on the Lower East Side.  Together, however, they constructed a model for being Catholic in the modern world.  Urban dwellers though we are and living in a postmodern environment that is hostile to faith, we can follow their example. And when we Catholics plant our small gardens, let's do so as a tribute to Dorothy and Peter.

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