Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Many people spend their whole life in search of meaning and substance. They want answers to the big questions like, “Is this all there is?” and “What’s it all about?” and “Is this what I’m destined to do?” Some people try and achieve it through meditation. Some use religion. Some hope people like Oprah will shed some light and others try and make their own reality.
When I was living in suburbia I belonged to a badminton club. One of the other players, Brian, was quite a bit younger than me and was always a formidable opponent. One day his secretary found him with his head down on his desk at work and a few days later he succumbed to a brain aneurism. Another friend of ours died of cancer and then one of Michelle’s cousins was killed instantly in a car crash. We had been thinking about moving to the woods for some time, but these events really put life into perspective and gave us a huge kick in the butt to get out of dodge and start living where and how we wanted. They also impacted my quest to find meaning and relevance in my life.
Then in the last few years Michelle had her brush with cancer and my childhood friend Teddy King died. This really ramped up my quest. There was a new urgency.
Part of the result of my search for meaning was our decision this summer to run a CSA. We knew we could not make much money selling our vegetables, but that wasn’t what the decision was based on. It was based on doing something of relevance. Something that mattered. Something that was in keeping with our personal belief in the need for radical relocalization. From my perspective it was a great opportunity to figure out just how much food I could produce from the acre of land that is currently under cultivation.
So began Sunflower Farm CSA. And now each week we prepare 12 boxes of healthy organic food for our members. A humble beginning, but pretty great none-the-less.
The work involved is mind-boggling. You know those people you hear about, the ones who run a marathon every day for months. Well, it turns out that running a CSA is just like that. Every day there is an infinite amount of work and a finite number of hours. So I go from dawn to dusk and that makes for a long day. I always account for part of my elevated mental state to exhaustion. But it’s a good exhaustion. It’s not like the stress from that catalog that was printed with the wrong part number; it’s just good old-fashioned “worked too hard” exhaustion.
Our local organic strawberry farmer, John Wise, had a great season this year. His strawberries were ready quite early and I was able to go and pick strawberries for our CSA members for 4 weeks in a row. On the fourth week he wasn’t really promoting his U-Pick but he agreed to let me come and pick. So on the last Wednesday of picking, I spent a couple of hours alone in his patch. No one else was there. This was good for me because I find people yelling at their kids and talking loudly on their cell phones really detracts from the whole U-Pick experience.
I went back to the area of his field that I knew would be best and I couldn’t believe how many berries were still there. He seemed to have good crowds when I had been there in previous weeks, but I think by the end the numbers taper off as people have picked for the their freezers, etc. Some of the plants were still laden. It was heartbreaking. The volume of wonderful organic berries going to waste was disturbing. Yes, it was the end of the season and yes they wouldn’t have lasted long, but it was tough to think about.
Eventually I got over the anguish of the reality of how much food gets wasted in our society and got into the rhythm of picking. I was more careful because many were over-ripe and I wanted the best berries for our CSA members. And since I was the only one picking, well, there was no limit to how much territory I could cover in search of the perfect berry.
As I picked, surprisingly, my brain never shut off. That voice in my head just kept yammering. But it wasn’t the same voice I heard when I used to drive to see customers in the city and spent the day immersed in the urban chaos that is the Greater Toronto Area. Nope, this was just the “So what are you doing here in a strawberry patch picking strawberries for a living?” voice.
And it’s a valid question. I will be lucky if I am able to net less than minimum wage for my work on the CSA this year. I’d be way ahead to drive to our nearest big city and work in a fast food restaurant. I’d make way more money for my effort.
The question is, would the world be a better place if I did? Does the world need more fast food, or catalogs of ‘stuff’ (like I used to work on in my days as a desktop publisher), or websites that sell ‘stuff?’ Or, does the world need more people to eat healthy, local food, grown organically? Should I be supporting multi-national corporations, or should my time be spent supporting John Wise who has grown food organically on his farm since the 1970s?
I thought about people who work in offices. And how much money they make. And what they do. They shuffle papers around. And they can be extremely well compensated for it. So does the world need more people in offices, or more strawberry pickers? I could still go back to school and become a lawyer. I’m confident of that. Sure I’d be the oldest guy in the class, but that just means I’d bring wisdom.
And it was there, alone, in that strawberry patch, that I realized I was on the right track. The world didn’t need Cam Mather to become a lawyer; the world needs me to be sitting in that strawberry patch, in the blistering heat, picking the final crop of strawberries on John Wise’s organic farm for our CSA members. In the words of Darth Vader… “Luke, this is your destiny.”
It isn’t glamorous. I won’t make much money doing it. It won’t help to find a cure for cancer. But it’s the humblest way I can think of to live my life and do what’s important. Picking these amazingly tasty, sweet, healthy strawberries is what’s important. Every human needs food. Only some of us need the services of lawyer. When you need a lawyer they’re great to have around, don’t get me wrong, but given the choice, which I believe I still have, between being at law school or in a strawberry patch, I’m happy with the strawberry patch.
And really, I believe, this is what life is all about. Growing food has meaning. It’s one of the best ways to lower your impact on the plant that I can think of; especially on the scale I do it. It is relevant. It is important. And I’m really comfortable with the choice I’ve made.
If the sky had darkened while I sat in that strawberry patch, and an undetected asteroid hurtled toward the earth ready to obliterate life as we know it, I must say, there was absolutely nothing I think I’d rather have been doing than picking strawberries.
In fact, knowing that I wasn’t going to have to pay for them, I would have suddenly switched my focus from filling up my containers to filling up my stomach. Luckily John Wise only weighs your containers when you’re done picking, he doesn’t insist on weighing you.
I’m also lucky that he doesn’t realize how conducive his strawberry patch is to the contemplation of the big questions. If he did he could advertise it and promote it as the “Awesome Strawberry Patch of Cosmic Enlightenment” and people would come from all over the world to sit and find meaning in that place. As it was, I was all alone, finally getting answers to some of the big questions. All that, and U-Pick strawberries for $1.20/pound. Pretty awesome!
POSTSCRIPT: If you also want to discover the meaning of life in the strawberry patch, contact us today for a fabulous visit and tour of the “Amazing Strawberry Patch of Cosmic Enlightment.” Tour includes guidebook, souvenir key chain and cloth bag to carry all the great stuff you get! Cost is $199 for a 4-hour visit! Don’t wait! Book today! Tours are filling up fast! We offer an unconditionally money-back guarantee that you too can discover the meaning of life! If not, we’ll give you our 12 Point Cheat Sheet to ensure you’ve “got it” before you leave!
And yes of course, I’m just kidding.
Photo by Michelle Mather.
For more information about Cam Mather or his books, please visit www.cammather.com