Back in January I wrote about my (waning!) food anxieties and how they led me down the path of a terrible lunch, and some self-analysis about the nature of starvation fears. As part of that post, I mentioned a story about how my father, Dan Hemenway, really did starve during his college years at UMass Amherst. I leapt to some conclusions about how I suspected that event had formed my father’s lifelong work with food, from homesteading, extreme gardening, wild-food foraging and farmer-marketing, to becoming an international Permaculture Design teacher starting in the early 1980s when the Permaculture movement was in its infancy.
Dad finally got around to reading that post a couple of weeks ago, and wrote me a long email explaining how I’d got the story wrong, and the real reason behind his work. It was a fascinating insight into my father, my own family history, and the ongoing story of food on our planet. Dad is an excellent writer – one of my earliest writing and gardening mentors – and also (I’m not biased on this, really), pretty dang witty, irreverent, and smart. So, I’ve decided to post his email in its entirety. I urge you to read the whole thing, because it’s good, relevant stuff. And it’s interesting.
I clicked on the link to your blog on your email. Your writing has gotten even better!
However, I do not think that I have this fear of hunger that you describe in one of your past contributions. It is always risky to interpret other people, and more so to accept the interpretations of third parties.
My interest in food production comes from several sources.
It is my background. Everyone in my family did it. They had been through the Great Depression, but they also had fed themselves before then, and back to the beginning of time. The anomaly, historically, is people not feeding themselves. In the nation that Thomas Jefferson envisioned, most people were to be farmers. After all, the city people who settled in Jamestown were so inept at caring for themselves that they ended up eating their own dead. The invaders of Massachusetts were only slightly better off, largely because European diseases had emptied the area around Cape Cod of the vast majority of its inhabitants. So the Wampanoags could afford to help them out–there was plenty. But the city people who came here couldn’t figure it out and a large proportion of them died over the winter. (They were so inept that they were aiming for Virginia and hit Massachusetts.)
Cities are relatively new inventions, enabled by the cultivation of grains such as wheat or other edible seeds, e.g., amaranth and quinoa (a close relative of lambs’ quarters). Brutal men were able to force a relatively small proportion of the population to grow these seed foods, ‘freeing’ a larger proportion to live in cities and be forced to fight in armies (and eventually navies). War is an artifact of urban civilization which is an artifact of the ability to grow a very small variety of food which could, sort of, keep people alive long enough to be useful to despots.
(Anarchistic societies such as those who lived in the US northeast had gardens, sometimes, but no farms. These societies placed a high value on human freedom and independence, though of course there was also a strong sense of responsibility to the community. There was not a lot of obligation.)
When you were quite young you told me that you felt that you ought to be able to grow your own food, build your own shelter, and make your own clothes. It was not an issue of fear, but of independence. You did not necessarily intend to do all those things as a permanent approach to life, as I understood your statement, but you wanted to be able to if that is what circumstances required at some given time.
From a bit younger than 6 years old, and onward, I grew up in a garden. I ate what I wanted from it. I liked seeing our food there growing. By age 8 I wanted to be a farmer. My immediate forebears (parents and grandparents) were aghast. They had been through the Depression and seen farmers in bread lines, their families broken up, with no work. Farming equaled poverty to them. They deflected my impulse, but were unable to quench it. (Sorry about the mixed metaphor. It works if you think of the impulse as a flame and the flame’s deflection caused by the breath of their arguments.) Since I was curious about everything, I liked science, which is the activity of learning about everything in a systematic way. I liked math and was good at it. I had a world-class math teacher, and that was 90 percent of liking it.
However, I was not so deflected from growing things and food issues as these details suggest. I had a herd of 70 meat rabbits by age 12. I went fishing whenever possible and the fish I caught was a significant part of the family diet. Moreover, my mother and grandmother were avid fisherpersons, so I got to go on expeditions where we rented a boat or drove to a special spot near a waterfalls and we hauled out fish by the bucketsfull (which were my job to clean). We had a garden and ate out of it. My contributions were hauling out rocks, digging drainage ditches and such. And contributing rabbit manure, of course. When we went of vacation, the vast majority of animal protein that we ate came from fish that we hooked, crabs that we netted, or quahogs that we raked. Most of the vegetables we ate came from our garden. This was not fearful activity, it was normal and reasonable. We also ate salt-water taffy, ice cream, purchased lobster, etc.
My mother encouraged me to get jobs, and I took whatever work I could find, delivering newspapers, helping an old lady care for her yard, working in a day camp as a counselor, etc. I got work at 17 as a landscape gardener, and took to it like a fish to water. In less than a year I had my own business and had maybe a dozen part time employees, classmates. I liked growing things. I always liked it. Farmers grow things so I wanted to be a farmer. At age six I’d had a moss collection under my mother’s arching forsythia bushes beside the house. I ranged through the forest with my dog collection different specimens and set them out in little patches.
So I went to college, my savings vanished, and I went hungry. If I really feared hunger I would have left and found food. I would have stolen apples from the experimental orchard. I would have gone fishing instead of going to classes. I didn’t like hunger but I endured it voluntarily as the cost to learn things that I wanted to know. I also became very impatient with courses that were not about what I wanted to know.
I had lots of jobs in college including two writing jobs. One was for the University News Bureau. The other was for the Cooperative Extension Service, where I was their features writer. It was against university policy for one student to hold both of these jobs, so Bill Deminoff, who was the school’s News Director took me aside and said that I had to choose one job or the other. I laughed at him. I do not have to choose, I said. If one of you wants to fire me, go ahead. He got together with Raddie Bunn, the extension boss, and they decided to make an exception. Meanwhile, I was writing about research in food technology, agriculture, etc., all feature articles released to the state’s newspapers, and all picked up very widely. I liked this sort of information, I liked knowing about growing things and processing food and so forth. I didn’t do it because I was fearful of starving. I was starving anyway, voluntarily, until the girls on one of the dorms set up a system for me to use their meal tickets for meals they would skip anyway (so they said). Raddie thought highly of my work, and nominated me for an internship with the US Department of Agriculture, where 10 (more or less) college kids from around the USA were hired for the summer to work as information specialists. (I’d just fallen into writing, by the way, a different, if related, story.) I knew about agriculture, I was good at science and math, and I got a sweet position in the Agricultural Research Service. I was a champion writer, churning out more copy than anyone except Henry Smith, a former newspaper hand, and clearance of my work through the scientific guys was fast. I didn’t screw up the facts like the former news writers did.
I forgot to mention that my interest in producing food was strongly reinforced by reading Malthus at UMass. He pointed out that a day of reckoning was (is) inevitable, that population would (will) outstrip food production, and there would (will) be starvation. He got the timing wrong for a number of reasons, but the validity of his thinking is incontrovertible. My concern regarding the possibility of food shortages began with Malthus. It had nothing to do with the fact that I was hungry; for at the time I was surrounded by food. Ethics prevented me from appropriating it, but there was no shortage. This turned out to be a useful experience, though it may turn out to have shortened my life (we’ll see), since I have since been involved with helping people who were subject to involuntary hunger, which can indeed be frightening.
So I was a whiz at the USDA/ARS (Agricultural Research Service) job. I had decided not to continue with UMass because they required ROTC, which I did for one year and came to see that being prepared to be a killer was not really consistent as a requirement for a liberal arts degree. (I was majoring in a double degree English/Journalism, it being the only track at the University that did not require me to take a second year of a foreign language.) So I wrote a letter to the dean at UMass stating my views. The faculty, who had gotten a pay raise in large measure due to my activism, formed a committee, and Bob Tucker, one of my poetry teachers, sent me a letter saying that my withdrawal had caused the faculty to lobby the board of directors to remove the ROTC requirement, and they had done so. So they were asking me to come back. It’s nice to be appreciated, but I had already arranged to go to BU, after spending an extra year at ARS. Had I accepted the invitation to return to UMass, you would not exist.
So after spending most of my life in the country, I lived in DC, then Boston, and the in New York City where I had enrolled in graduate school. I soon decided that graduate school had been invented by the Gestapo, and dropped all my courses except the Shakespeare classes. I had a job as a glorified lobbiest for the Seafarers’ International Union, then for a rather technical photo magazine (Photo Methods for Industry). In New York, I managed to live without fear of starvation and without urges to eat any rats or mice or roaches that we killed. (Your mom and Thor were in the picture by then.) While cities have their benefits (mostly really good food, ironically), I longed to move to the country and when you were in the oven, I decided that the time had come to move away from toxicity and into trees and fresh air. Food wasn’t a consideration and I started the first garden in Williamsburg because I could. It was small. Porcupines destroyed all my melons, which were the only melons I had managed to grow there, and rabbits ate everything else. Eventually, I went to war with the rabbits. Your mom refused to eat them and so I gave them to a neighbor (in the School House). I gardened more and more because I liked it, started canning because it made sense, and about then you became old enough to be aware of my actions. I just wanted to be in the garden all the time, except when I was walking in the woods or fishing. Through all that I’d been through, and I’ve skipped vastly more than I’ve mentioned, I always wanted to grow food.
I just did.
So it disturbs me to read your back blog saying I grew food because I had starved. Yet here are you with the same urge to grow food and you have not starved. It is just there; in the blood as they would say a few centuries ago.
I also know that sooner or later there will be a major resource crisis, caused by failures of the energy system in this country, and that will cause economic upheaval, eliminating ‘jobs’, and raising the price of everything, probably with revolts and certainly with international warfare. It is inevitable. We cannot sustain the system we have now and the system is digging in instead of planning for a transition. The situation in the rest of the world will be worse. I worry about my children and grandchildren. But now I garden mostly because Cynthia does better eating the good food that I know how to grow. I don’t enjoy it as much as I used to, but I do like it a lot some days and I like being about to go out and cut our food, pick up our eggs, and see how I have overcome the impossible in creating rich organic soil in a climate that breaks down organic matter in a few months. And I do enjoy learning about a new environment — I’m still figuring out Florida, and the container gardening angle is interesting.
I have already lived longer than I expected, due to the damage done to my system from starving. Ironically, I think that my two bouts with cancer were due to spraying herbicide (essentially agent orange) after I had moved to the country and was growing Christmas trees.
I was surprised that you did not eat the raccoon that you killed because 1) they are good meat, cleaner than what you can buy (at least the raccoon in Woodbury would be), and 2) it is disrespectful of living things to kill them without purpose. They were in conflict with your life, so you killed them, and that is understood. But respect, if not reverence, for life would suggest that their deaths be given as much purpose as possible. (BTW, we never ate squirrel in Williamsburg.) For the same reason, I started using tongue, and kidney, and liver, etc., when I killed pigs and beef. These were not foods that I had eaten in the past, except chopped liver (which is chicken liver), and rabbit liver. To kill an animal and then discard parts of it that could be returned to the cycle of life; that seemed wrong to me. What you did eat in Williamsburg, now that I think of it, was woodchuck. It was tasty though it had a sweetness that one does not usually associate with meat. We also tried to eat the mussels from the stream. They were abundant. But they made a gross-looking chowder. Yuck! We fed the chowder to pigs and ate the pigs.
I’ve come to think that accepting abundance is a form of reverence. We are offered mussels by their abundance, and if we say, no, we want steak, we are being very insulting toward the giver, however you want to define that entity. I’ve also come to believe that we have a responsibility to protect scarce resources for the same reason. I find it strange that many more people endorse the latter than the former.
Abundance can be perception of opportunity, such as placing a container garden in a small space, or such as relentlessly knowing that you can get better medical support for your daughter, as Eliza has done. You (plural) do not give up because the resource is there somewhere. (Of course absolute scarcity does exist in some places.) The eating of raccoon or woodchucks is tied in with the recognition of the abundance of the Universe, not with a fear of scarcity, which you attributed to me in your blog. I am not offended by your misinterpretation; I just want you to know me better.
PS We did not eat many of the squirrels that I shot here, when I was shooting them. (I’ve given up…they win.) The time required to dress them out is vastly out of proportion with the amount of meat that we get. If I do shoot one nowadays, I might dress it out, but I’d be more likely to give it to the dog. However, I think that she buries them. If it isn’t good enough for the people, she doesn’t want it either, and she has seen me bury them in the garden for fertilizer. Pigs would be an idea solution. So I am not actually a hard-ass about this stuff.
To learn more about my Dad, or his Permaculture Design work, click here.