Breaking Bad, Wendell Berry-Style
By Gretchen Mead
Ten years ago, I stood in the middle of my old potato field in central Wisconsin, picking large, round stones from my rototiller path and moving them into a centralized pile in the middle of my one acre vegetable garden. Large swaths of land, surrounded by stone fence-rows made by farmers before me, mark the landscape of the central Wisconsin potato fields. What kind of fortitude they must have had to till and work that field until it was ready for planting. I sometimes imagined their strong bodies, clear minds, and determined spirits. I would stand up on this pile of rocks to get a height advantage and better see the lay of the land. I would stand there urged to become solid, with two feet planted, my chest out and my hands on my hips, imagining the fortitude of my ancestral farmers. If I was lucky, the wind would blow my hair back so I could see clearly.
I love thinking about this - the tenacity of those revolutionary farmers before us, waking in the middle of the night to shoot a fox in the chicken coop. Pouring water in freezing weather, plant by plant, over a crop of tomatoes to prevent them from freezing. Training horses, day in and day out, to become perfect teammates that pull huge ploughs that turn over the earth. Losing an entire year’s crop and starving all winter, barely pulling through March. Those farmers were badasses.
Fast forward to the softer, gentler times that we have now. Food is nearly always available for the great percentage of our population. Most of us interested in urban farming are not going to starve to death if there is an early frost. Though urban farming is hard work, there are safety nets in place if we fail. We have so much handed to us as compared to days gone by. Why are we not yet more successful, you ask?
Though we face a skills deficit as we work to train a new generation of farmers, our struggle, I might suggest, is not with the raw hardship of the work that needs to be done. Rather, our struggle is one of the spirit. It is one of passion, or perhaps a battle with our own apathy. We toggle between watching the next episode of “Breaking Bad” and spending an hour of devoted time composting our lawn waste. We spend our hard-earned, taxed dollars on long-deserved island vacations, but can’t find the money we need to develop a farm. We read the new 300-page Vandana Shiva book and worry late into the night, waking up to find a way to forget about it. Our comfort food, not our religion, is the opiate of the masses.
Wendell Berry at once captures the source of our noncommittal attitude while simultaneously asking us for more, in his famous Mad Farmer Liberation Front.
“Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay.
Want more of everything made.
Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery any more.
Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something they will call you.
When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.”
Wendell Berry is too progressive to let us off the hook by poking fun at our apathy alone. He goes on with a series of revolutionary acts, that in my opinion, make Walter White appear to be a conformist.
“So, friends, every day do something that won't compute.
Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace the flag.
Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot understand.
for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.”
Read this rant weekly, while ditching the next “Breaking Bad” viewing party and you will begin to envision a new way to think about who is and is not a ‘bad ass’ in this day and age. I suspect Walter White will seem less like a demigod anti-hero, and more like a sellout if you let the writings of Wendell Berry seep into your soul. (OMGoddess, I bet I’ll get emails about this statement :/ )
We have some rebellious opportunities for you. Right now. In Milwaukee.
Recently, because of your support, because you believe in what we are doing, because we are getting work done that you believe in, we were able to purchase Concordia Gardens from the City of Milwaukee. This 1.5-acre property is a true hidden gem in the Harambee neighborhood. This year, we are teaching programs there, growing half an acre of
vegetables, and expanding Milwaukee’s first public food forest. We are close to winning $12,000 for the expansion of this project from Troy-Bilt and Keeping America Beautifu
l–provided that you all vote. You can even vote every day!
A few days ago, I met a young artist at Concordia Gardens. She contacted me about taking portraits for her senior project that demonstrated using urban agriculture to create a sense of place in Milwaukee and Detroit. We walked around the garden, and decided to start the shoot on top of the pile of urban rubble that we have collected from this land over the past four years. I stood on this pile in the center of the garden and felt myself put my two feet solidly on the ground. I held my chest out, put my hands on my hips and hoped for the wind.