The foreshortening of the days becomes apparent. The quality of the afternoon light changes, somehow, a subtle shift toward golden as our half of the planet gradually shifts away from the sun. Fall is coming. It’s still hot as Hades most days and some nights, and it will be for some time. But tonight, our windows are open to the crickets and tree frogs (and the traffic and sirens, of course). Soon it will be cool enough that I will be able to run outside again, and in time, I will be staring, one more year, in amazement at the gorgeous variety of colors this Earth grants us in its annual waning season.
Fall used to mean the thrill of going back to school–the possibility of seeing many friends I had missed all summer long; the football games on Friday nights; the new adventures and activities that the school year would bring. I was able to cling on to all of that longer than many, because my first job out of college was working on parent involvement in Title I elementary schools. I saw fall leaf collages and glitter-painted jack-o-lanterns long after most of my friends had entered the corporate world.
My time in the schools passed, eventually. For a while, each year, fall only made me falter. Fall and I have a bittersweet relationship, you see. As the light wanes and the leaves change, my heart reminisces, recalls a variety of events and people long past. I have a season of recalled loss as the winter approaches. It’s not entirely bad; it’s cleansing, in a way, to have a distinct period of remembrance where my emotional tides run a bit higher than usual before my equilibrium returns. During this time, I am able to reflect on some issues more deeply than I can the rest of the year. My life is tinged with depression during that time, though, and if I am not careful, I can become consumed with the darker side of my fall experience.
So it’s also good to have unabashed joy in the midst of sorrow, and boy, do I have that again these days as in the days of school. Eating what is in season means that each season in turn brings its joys, and fall may be the greatest. (Then again, I may think each season brings the greatest joy as I anticipate its bounty; I was absolutely ecstatic this spring and summer at the first blackberry, the first tomato, the first corn.) I have reached the stage of summer where I am still enjoying the tomatoes, zucchinis, and peppers that are so prevalent, but where my mind’s eye is also turning toward what is coming. Butternut squash, frost-sweetened turnip greens, sweet potatoes, turnips: the rich foods of fall’s hearty stews, pies, casseroles, and puddings tickle my fancy. The idea of putting on a sweater to go to a pumpkin patch makes me want to hug myself in excitement.
Of course, I could go to the store now and buy the butternut squash, greens, pumpkin, and sage to make my autumn-themed lasagna. I could do that. But I would miss out on much of what makes the experience so grand if I did that. When I was younger, I had no sense of how reasonably imposed self-restrictions could bring joy; I wanted everything my way as soon as possible, as much as possible. But eating seasonally means I have to, and get to, wait for the best possible produce for my health and for the planet’s health: produce that has been picked within, at most, 48 hours before I eat it, and often as little as six hours before I eat it. It means that I get to go to the farmer’s market held in the park near my apartment, talk with the farmers, and experience the whole scene of fall as I prepare to eat fall’s bounty. Whole, fresh, organic fruits and vegetables are free of allergens and gluten, so it means I get to go have a beautiful food culture experience without fear of harming my body. It means that instead of my food traveling 1500 miles to reach me, as is the average for US’s inhabitants’ food, I get food that has traveled at most 120 miles to find its way to me. I reduce the gas and pollution created by my food needs, and I get the food I purchase when it’s still at its peak of the vitamins it can offer me. And it means I get the sweet anticipation of what’s coming, the thrill of wondering when I will go to the farmer’s market and find the first fall pear waiting for me to rush it home, slice it thinly, and feed slices to myself and my husband as we stand over the kitchen sink. It takes the transactions of the food system out of the hands of corporations and marketers and makes those transactions take place between farmers, good people who are striving to make an honest wage, and me, a good person striving to do right by herself and others. Simple, and beautiful.
There’s another issue, as well. I’m a Christian. Recently, it has become increasingly important to me that my husband and I remember to give thanks for the meals that we eat—for the labor that went into our food by the people who produced it, for the people who have struggled and pushed for allergen-free and gluten-free foods to be available wide-spread, for an animal that may have had its life sacrificed for the nourishment of our bodies (in the meals when we do eat meat), and for the mystery and wonder that we live in a time, place, and age when our society have the ability to produce such a bounty of organically grown food for us to enjoy. (Especially working with many refugee families in my job, I try not to take for granted that we have running, clean water, a variety of foods, money for that food, etc.)
I’m sick right now, and I wasn’t very hungry this morning, so I only ate a bit of dried fruit for a late breakfast. At the grocery store later, my blood sugar unfortunately crashed, and I went from feeling bad to feeling awful. In my haste to feed myself something (and in an environment where not too many ready-made foods were safe), I got a bit of pre-made pork barbecue to eat in the car before I went home. I closed my eyes and started to give thanks for the food, and I felt odd. My eyes opened with the realization that my discomfort was because I had bought pork without any consideration or knowledge of the conditions in which the pig lived before it gave up its life for me. When there are no distinctions for how an animal has been kept, unfortunately, in the United States that usually means that the animal was kept in squalid, horrible conditions which would horrify anyone who visited the site—conditions that are terrible for the pig but also terrible for the people who live in a 20-mile radius of the factory farm. Because I knew that, and because I had bought pork with no consideration of the pig’s provenance, I felt that I was giving thanks for something that came through ill-gotten means, and that troubled me. Ethics are, for me, tied up in how God expects me to respect what I–what we all–have been given, and part of my expectation for myself is that I consider the impact on the silent or invisible partners who are part of the processes that make my life come together: for food, that means the farmers, the possible migrant workers, the other people who might be affected by pollution or disease downstream of what I consume, and of course the animals themselves.
Of course, my decisions will not and cannot be perfect, and that is where grace comes in. Because I will undoubtedly fall short in my efforts, it is imperative that grace cover me where I cannot or did not do what I should have done. And it’s imperative that I accept that I will fall short, and not spend all of my time in self-flagellation over where I err or where I am ignorant. But it’s also extremely important that I try—that I not let the fact that I cannot be perfect mean that I will not move toward doing what I can to live a just life. Eating locally—eating from a shorter and clearer food chain than is possible with industrial agriculture, where I can get a better sense of whom I am affecting and how—is important to me from that vantage point, as well. Beyond the joy it provides me, eating locally provides me one way to treat others, both known and unknown, with greater consideration.