Cancer Update - Remission

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"As far as I'm concerned you are in remission." Those were the doctor's words today when we got the results of yesterday's PET/CT scan. According to the report I am "PET negative," which means there are no signs of cancer activity in my body. (I'm also "pet negative" when it comes to cats and dogs but that's for another time.)

If you dig down into the details, it's a little more mysterious. My spleen is slightly enlarged and has the doctors wondering what's going on there. It's a centimeter smaller now than when we started chemo. The bottom line is that I may have a splenectomy in my future just to be sure there are no rogue cancer cells hiding out there, but there is no definitive evidence of any cancer activity in the spleen. It will be something to keep an eye on in future scans.

The CT scan shows that the tumor in my shoulder has gone from being quite large to being a small little thing. Because the PET scan shows no metabolic activity in that area the doctor believes that what is left over is scar tissue. We'll do preventative radiation therapy on that to make sure the scar tissue is clean of cancer cells.

All in all, it's a great report and a relief. The treatment is working which gives me a much needed boost for the four remaining five-day rounds of chemo in the hospital. We still have a ways to go and there are some mysteries to be solved ahead but we feel very blessed tonight. 

Thank you for your prayers and encouragements.

Cancer Update: The Room Where People Go to Die

Cancer Update: "You know what they usually use this room for, don't you." That was the nurses response to my many exclamations about how nice the room is for this week's stay at the hospital. 

(Yes, I'm back for another week of chemo at Sacred Heart hospital. I'm working on a streak of spending 3 of 5 weeks dancing with a shopping-cart-wheeled tower of tubes and machines.)

Unlike the many other sterile, fluorescent cubicles I've been assigned to in past weeks, this spacious room has faux hardwoods and carpet, earth-toned wallpaper, and even it's own fridge and microwave. The soft lights paint the room in a soothing glow. They call it the suite, and, being a pastor, I know exactly what they "use" this room for. 

This is the room where people go to die. 

When the chemo wing of the hospital is full they use this hospice room to handle the overflow. I am truly delighted for a peaceful space but I confess to a slight hesitation lying down on this bed that has been the final resting place for so many. I've sat around beds like this dozens of times; holding hands, offering prayers, shedding tears, but I've never climbed in one and pulled over the covers. 

Ever since my doctor muttered the words “tumor” and “cancer,” it seems like death has been a constant companion. The first thing I did when I got home from the doctor was to check my life insurance policy to make sure it was current. In those first weeks of crisis, when we didn’t know if a cure was possible, I was haunted by the question, “What if this is it?” My well-worn defenses keeping death at a safe distance were shattered. It’s been the most unsettling experience of my life.

But here’s the thing, now that the crisis has settled down and we’re hopeful for a cure, and the chaotic rhythms of those early days have given way to the odd boredom of treatment, there is part of that initial brush with death that I don’t want to let go of. 

I was talking to a 15-year cancer survivor friend about this and he surprised me by saying, “I know exactly what you mean.” We talked about how there is something about staring one’s own death squarely in the face that clarifies and empowers. It peels away frivolous layers of fear and anxiety, it puts things in perspective, it awakens you to the beauty of being alive, and it’s something worth holding onto.

Ann Lamott writes about an encounter with this clarity in a conversation with her dear friend Pammy who was dying of breast cancer. Ann was trying on clothes that she hoped would impress her boyfriend and turned to Pammy in her wheelchair for advice, “I asked whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, “Annie? You really don’t have that kind of time.” (Traveling Mercies) Lamott marks it among the most important bits of wisdom in her journey toward faith and sobriety. 

It’s the kind of wisdom that I want to hold onto from this experience with cancer. I’m not so worried about how my hips look, but I have a long list of other frivolous worries that the fresh truth of my someday-death is freeing me of. I just don’t have that kind of time.

So I welcome my week-long sojourn in the hospice suite. It’s a good reminder that I’ll be back someday, hopefully 50 years from now. And somehow that’s helping me this week transform this room where people go to die into a room where I come to live - more abundantly, more generously, more beautifully, more lovingly, more peacefully.


Cancer Update: I'm back in the hospital getting chemo number 2 of 6. Feeling good so far. It's been a day of serendipities.

1. It turns out my nurse for the day read my book and is a fan. She said, "I've never met an author before." I think that was God's way of strengthening my immune system for the 101 hours of continuous chemotherapy. Nothing like a little ego boost to to get your white cells fired up.

2. The winning pitcher in tonight's World Series, Jon Lester, is a Lymphoma survivor. This could either mean I have a future in Major League Baseball or I've got a good shot at beating this. I'm open to both possibilities. 

3. Sacred Heart hospital just launched a new computer system called "EPIC" and my cancer regimen is called "EPOCH". I'm thinking this points to the totally epic new epoch in my life post cancer diagnosis.

4. Unfortunately, a beloved member of our church, Bob Sheppard, had a heart attack on Sunday morning and is in the ICU here at Sacred Heart. He and his family are literally about 50 steps away from my chemo cave. (With the help of the elevator.) 

One of the challenges of being sidelined by cancer is that I've been unable to provide pastoral care to some families in our church in the midst of major crises. It's a strange blessing to know I will be able walk closely with Bob and his family this week in their time of need. It's amazing how caring for others puts your own trials in perspective. 

They might need to add another letter "P" to my chemo regimen. 

Oncovin (vincristine)
Hydroxyldaunorubicin (doxorubicin)


Praying for others in need

Let's just call it PEPOCH.

In another related serendipity, Pop-tarts also begin with "P". I've improvised them into the treatment. This is my version of holistic/alternative medicine. 

5. And the final serendipity is that I finally opened all the cards from friends and family and I got to behold the card from the Comellas. See the attached picture. They say your hair comes in different after chemo. I'm rooting for the lower left Keith Richards look.

Cancer Conversation Starters

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On October 4 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Here's my update from October 23.

"Wow, you used to have a lot more hair. When was that picture taken?" That was the comment the retail clerk at Sears made when she saw the shaggy-haired picture on my credit card. I'm new to this whole cancer thing so I made the mistake of saying, "Yeah, I just started chemo." That's not such a great conversation starter. It's almost as awkward as telling a stranger you're a pastor.

The sales woman did her best to respond to my revelation, drawing on her experience with a cousin who had cancer. The words came out in a careening run-on sentence, 

"I'm sorry to hear that, my cousin had cancer, it was really hard, but it went into remission and we even had a party to celebrate when he was cured, 

but then the cancer came back, 
it was really terrible, 
and he died..." 

You could almost hear the background conversation in her head, "I really want to be helpful, but this isn't going well. Oh no, I'm crashing and burning here. Pull up! Pull up! Goose, I can't reach the ejection handle" 

I'm not absolutely sure the Top Gun references came into play but you get the idea. The plane crashed and Goose was dead and my new salesperson friend was Maverick, left floating in the crash debris wondering where things went wrong.

She assured me that technology has come a long way and that I probably will be fine, but I left the conversation resolved to not bring up my cancer with strangers. Most people just don't know how to deal with it. 

Knowing this has made me that much more grateful for the church. For all of the church's idiosyncracies and shortcomings, we know how to navigate the awkward truth of our mortality. Sickness and healing, mucking through the "slimy pit" and finding a rock to stand on (Psalm 40), complaining that our way is hidden from the Lord and flying on eagles wings (Isaiah 40) are the rhythms that animate our worship and work. God is not imagined by the congregation as a magical escape from the brokenness of the world, rather through the incarnation of Jesus we are anchored in the truth that God has entered in and walks alongside.

A reporter asked me yesterday if my cancer diagnosis has shaken my faith. I said, "Who am I to think that I am somehow exempt from the injustices of the world. I don't understand why it's happening but I know that God is with me in it, and, if anything, that has strengthened my faith." 

My cancer may be awkward for others, but not so much for me. I'm scared and angry and confused but I am buoyed by the ordinary grace of local congregational life, where we walk together in the truth of death and resurrection.

In other news, I am a one-man drain-plugging machine right now. All of my hair is falling out. I'm glad to be shedding nose and back hair, but I'm going miss my eyebrows and eyelashes. Hopefully our pipes will survive all the Dran-O they will process in the coming weeks. 

I'm feeling great this week. Gearing up to start chemo again on Monday and will be in the hospital through Friday of next week. Looking forward to killing more cancer cells. 

Photo: I finally felt good enough this week to get out with my camera. This shows Spokane Falls adorned in fall colors. 

Kicking Cancer's Butt

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On October 4 I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. I'm going to start migrating some of my ongoing reflections to this blog. 

Here's the update from October 17.

I've been out of the hospital now for a week and the chemo fog has lifted. I had my first full night’s sleep in over month last night. Instead of waking up at 1:00 a.m. to medicate some ache or pain I woke up to the sounds of Nancy yelling at the kids to get out of bed for early-morning jazz band practice. 

“Noel! Lily! Get out of bed. I mean it this time. I need you in the bathroom.” Five minutes go by. “Are you guys awake?! Come on. I really mean it this time. You have to wake up.” “OK MOM! JEESH!” Five minutes go by. “Are you out of your bed? Oh my goodness…” And so it goes. One downside to feeling better and getting a full night’s sleep is that I will soon be re-enlisted as the morning bouncer to physically drag the kids out of bed.

It’s been two days since I took a pill for anything, thank goodness. I have so many pill bottles in my book bag that I sound like the maraca section of a mariachi band when I carry it anywhere. 

I’ve even been to the gym twice to get on the treadmill and do some light circuit training. I’m going so slow and lifting so little weight that I feel a little self-conscious. Maybe I need a T-shirt that explains to the others in the gym, “I work out like a 90-year-old because I have cancer.” 

My first trip to the gym was precipitated by frustration. Just as my intestinal distress was subsiding I was struck by debilitating lower back spasms. Instead of lying on the couch in discomfort I got up in a fit of angry defiance and went to work out. I spent 40 minutes on the elliptical and felt good, other than some back pain. When I got home Noel asked me what I was doing and I responded with bravado, “I was at the gym kicking cancer’s butt.” 

It was an empowering moment but that soon gave way to back spasms that were so bad I couldn’t hardly breathe. I spent the majority of that night slumped over an ottoman like I’d been washed ashore by a huge wave. It was the only position that provided some relief. To make matters worse, when we went to the doctor the following morning he recommended we get an MRI of the lower back to see if it was being caused by a mass. 

What? We had just gotten a handle on the extent of the cancer, and now this? I wasn’t prepared for more scans and more question marks about my diagnosis. 

So much for my triumphant efforts to conquer cancer by vigorous joint-friendly stepping on the elliptical. Thankfully the back spasms went away as quickly as they arrived and concerns about a lower-back mass have subsided.

My little failed foray into “kicking cancer’s butt” has got me thinking that defiant anger and metaphorical battles are not the most constructive ways forward. I need to fight this cancer but I can’t let this turn into a fight against my own body. 

This summer I studied the history of asceticism in the Christian church around food and I learned that too often food practices fell into this trap. Fasting became an effort to starve and punish uncooperative desires and tame the messy materiality of the body. Even if we’re not familiar with the history of the early church we are all familiar with instincts that lead us to battle our overweight, not-attractive-enough, fatigued, breaking-down bodies.

The early church spent considerable energy pushing back against these tendencies toward self-hatred and promoted a much more grace-filled approach. They envisioned food practices as a way to wake people up to the sacred wholeness of life; body and soul, soil and table, hunger and pleasure. They were means of holy cooperation that promoted healing and wholeness. Those are the kind of practices I need right now and that’s the approach that will serve me best.

There will be plenty of anger and frustration on the road ahead but I’m not going to turn that against myself or my cancer-riddled body. I’ll aim for practices that are energized by faith, hope, and love, and an approach that is built on the foundation of grace and humility. 

I returned to the gym last night for my second outing. I settled for 30 minutes on the treadmill walking like a limp noodle and a couple pulls on the machines. I went home, had a beer and called it a night. Gone were the grand visions of kicking cancer in the behind, but unlike my previous outing I slept like a baby.

Graham Crackers, Corn Flakes, and Other Echoes of Christian Food Ethics

The most interesting section in Theology on the Menu, thus far, is the review of early U.S. history where Christian leaders were on the forefront of the healthy food movements. The authors highlight the religious justifications for 19th century justifications for vegetarianism, whole foods diets, and healthy eating.

For example Dr Sylvester Graham was a Presbyterian minister who spoke out against the delitorious effects of white bread and advocated for breads made from whole grains. He came up with his own healthy flour mix made with whole-wheat flour, bran, and wheat germ from which he developed the well known cracker that bears his name. Along with being healthy he claimed that the dryness of Graham Crackers curbed sexual urges, both of which modern civilization has counteracted by adding chocolate and marshmallows to make S'mores.

In another example of the strong historic connection between early health food movements and Christian faith the book highlights the development of corn flakes. John Harvey Kellogg was the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitortium, health center and headquarters of the Seventh Day Adventists who were strong advocates of vegeterianism. This close relationship gave birth to Kellog's breakfast cereals and the iconic corn flakes. Once again, modern America has taken this historic holy urge for health and added lots of sugar to transform them into Frosted Flakes. 

These are just two examples of many that point to the strong religious roots of modern food movements, but that really shouldn't be a surprise. Many secular food passions have an implicit, if not explicit, spiritual vibe. From vegans to raw foodites, to localists and bacon evangelists, there is something more going on than just calorie counts and fat content. These dietary regimens point to a way of life and possess hints of the meaning of it all.

What Happened to Christian Food Practices?

image from ecx.images-amazon.comI'm in the reading and studying phase of my sabbatical and one the my questions as I approach the reading is, "What happened to Christian food practices?"

Food is a prominent topic in the Bible and through much of church history but food seems to play a minor role in the lived faith of the Western Church, in great contrast to a secular culture that has passionately embraced food practices. My ultimate question relates to how the modern expressions of the church might embrace food practices but before I get to that I'm simply wondering what happened. Why is there such an absence of practical guidance around food as an expression of faith in today's church.

The best book so far in my research is Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat and Christian Diet by Grumet and Muers. It's a scholarly work with original research that describes the history of food practices in the church.

Here are some choice quotes and observations from this book thus far:

  • Referencing Clement of Alexandria's attitude toward food in his work on Christian ethics, The Instructor, "Among the skills of cookery, Clement singles out for special criticism the 'useless art of making pastry' which, he contends, vitiates the tastebuds and imperils moral discretion. Based on my experience with doughnuts I think he might have a point. 
  • Benedict's Rule offers a more positive attitude toward food. According to the Rule the cellarer is required to "look on all the monastery's cooking utensils 'as upon the sacred vessels of the altar." 
  • As a Protestant I was surprised to read about Calvin's argument that the Lenten fast was not "divinely inaugurated" and that Jesus' 40 days of fasting at the beginning of his ministry was not a model for followers to emulate during the 40 days of Lent. According to Calvin, "It was therefore merely fasle zeal, replete with superstition, which set up a fast under the title and pretext of imitating Christ."(p. 30-31)

    The book points out that the Reformation did not automatically lead to the end of fasting and food rules in the Protestant expressions of the church, but Calvin and others planted the seeds of suspicion that continue to shape the Protestant attitude toward fasting. 

  • One line of argument they make in the book that I find especially intriguing is that certain rhythms of food practices, especially the Lenten fast, arose out of the context of the rhythms of nature. For example, during the late winter and early spring when meat was most scarce they abstained from meat as part of the regimen of Lent. It was seasonal eating incorporated into the church calendar and Christian conscience.

    The authors highlight this perspective as a neglected approach to the topic that deserves more attention, and I agree.

  • In their chronicling of the early church the authors highlight the debates about sex and food. Many argued that lust was the source of all sin, but there were many who posited that gluttony was the granddaddy of all vices. Gregory the great argued that the moral path began with the "fight against gluttony" and this logic led many to conclue that fasting was the most important and valuable practice in the monastic life.

    A cursory glance at debates in modern churches it seems clear that sex won out over gluttony as the most important moral issue, but perhaps it would be worth returning to this debate and giving gluttony another look. I can't remember hearing the topic gluttony ever mentioned in church debates about morality and ethics.

Feel free to chime in if you have thoughts about what happened to Christian food practices. I'll share more from the reading as I progress.

Wendell Berry - The Bible is an Outdoor Book and "outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders"


Took this picture at Schwabacher Landing in the Tetons earlier this summer.

“I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is....It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders;

we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence.

It is our daily bread.

Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle.

We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes,”

– Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

h/t Andrew Sullivan

My Huckleberry Cleanse or What I Learned from a Week of Wild Foraging (Pt. 2)



Tulip heads are cleaned off the plants at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.

As I prepared for a week of eating only wild-foraged foods there was a lot of chatter online about the recent popularity of cleanses, where people go for a period of time only drinking juice, or following some other regimen of limited foods that supposedly cleans out impurities from the body. Much of the conversation in recent weeks has been driven by an article by Judith Shulevitz at the New Republic, "Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses, That doesn't mean you should." The more accurate description of the article is visible in the web URL that titles the piece, "The idiotic-cleanse-craze-and-modern-theology-juice-fasts." 

What caught my attention is not just the controversy about the merits of calorie-depriving cleanses, but the strong religious streak to the movement. Shulevitz notes how similar they are to religious fasts and argues that this is really what drives the movement:

...people don’t afflict themselves for their health, or not only for that. I won’t be the first to point out that cleanses look a lot like religious fasts or that people crave the transcendence that comes from self-deprivation. 

According to Shulevitz it's an existential acting out in response to a world envisioned as poisoned. In the laymans terms, the world is full of $#@$ and therefore we are a full of $%@#, and cleanses are a way to clean out the you know what. It's original sin reduced to terms that even a middle schooler could understand and some would argue that the movement has the sophistication of junior high boys when it comes to the digestive system. The books apparently spend a lot of time on the topic of defecation.

Most mainstream doctors and scientists are highly critical of the cleanse movement as Shulevitz notes. As a pastor who sat at the bedside of a dead parishioner who chose homeophathic cleanses and diets to cure her cancer instead of chemotherapy I join with those doctors and scientists in their criticism. It is dangerous and irresponsible to make unproven claims about the health benefits and curative powers of diet and herbal remedies. When I see such assertions arise in the organic/slow food/real food conversation it drives me crazy. 

But I'm more interested in the spiritual/religious aspects of the movement. Should pastors and theologians be just as skeptical of these pseudo-scientific detox regimens as the doctors and scientists? I don't think so.

Shulevitz is right to identify the movement as primarily an expression of spiritual longing and we in the church ought to take note. Just as we have abandoned fasting as a spiritual practice the void has been filled by pseudo-religious movements that take seriously the real connection between body, mind, and spirit. This is the part the cleansers get right and the church, these days, mostly gets wrong.

I just finished a week of eating wild-foraged foods. Here in the Inland Northwest that means I spent a week eating mostly huckleberries, call it my Huckleberry Cleanse. I didn't go into it with visions of dirty toxins in my intestines. It was a personal challenge and I did have in mind the experience of Israel in the wilderness foraging for manna every day for 40 years.

I have to admit I come away from the experience feeling some affinity for the "Cleaners."

It did reset my body and mind and awaken my spirit in new ways. It did clear my body of the high-salt and high-fat diet I gravitate toward. I did lose 10 pounds and here on the morning after I'm not nearly as hungry as I was a week ago before my foraging began. It's easier for me to concentrate and I feel psychologically in a better place. The first coulple days were a hassle but after that there was a strange peace and quiet that settled on me as I experienced freedom from the tyranny of hungers that clutter my mind. In a sense I feel clean.

I've had a similar awakening every time I've fasted. Last year when I followed the dietary regimen of Ramadan, going daylight hours without food or drink, I felt empowered and peaceful. When our family joined with our local Greek Orthodox congregation for their Advent and Lenten fasts last year we experienced spiritual renewal and a strengthening of family and communal bonds. When we followed the Kosher food laws for a month we experienced renewal in our family life. In my experience, intentional fasting has the potential for spiritual growth and renewal.

It's been an important practice for most of the history of God's people in the Bible and in the Christian church, but in the modern west it has fallen victim to the spirit/body divide imposed on the church by the Enlightenment and modernity. (That's my assessment that I'll flesh out more later.) Not even Catholics do fish Fridays anymore and Protestants are mostly left to our own whims when it comes to Lent. We're missing out.

Shulevitz is wrong. "Jesus and Moses Went on Cleanses," and we should to.

The church in the west would do well to listen to the spiritual longings expressed by those who are turning to colonics and cleanses for help in this crazy fragmented world we live in. They are looking to put the pieces together, body, mind, and spirit. What does the church have to offer them? We have a treasure trove of resources if we dig a little into our history, and it's not based on scatologically obsessed pseudo-science, it's based on the Bible, on the life of Jesus, and on the experience of the early church.

And contrary to the Cleanse movement these practices lead us to embrace the body as good and holy, as sacred space. 

(This post is part of an ongoing inquiry into food practices in the church supported by a grant from the Louisville Institute. Find out more about the Tables of Plenty Project here.)

What I Learned from a Week of Eating Only Wild-Foraged Food (Pt. 1)

Purslane-1I've long wondered what it would be like to dedicate a week to eating only wild-foraged foods and this has been my week to give it a try.

The foraging experience is vastly different depending on the season. Early spring is abundant with fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, and savory mushrooms. Late summer has an array of ripe fruits and tree nuts. But mid-summer, while lacking in tender greens and beefy fungus, serves up a main course of berries - strawberries, thimbleberries, blackberries, serviceberries, elder berries, and huckleberries. I timed my week-long foraging experience to coincide with this wild-berry buffet. 

I have some broader inquiries to make about the experience but here are some initial observations about the week.

1. It takes time: The first four days of the week all started with a couple hours of picking huckleberries in the mountains around the Spokane. My rule has been to pick only enough for each day, so each day has arrived with nothing in the cupboard. In this sense it's the ultimate slow food. I've enjoyed the quiet time in the mountains for reflection each morning but the time required would make it difficult to fit into my non-sabbatical rhythms.

I could imagine making one day a week a forage day, sampling what nature offers up and intentionally making time to head out into the wilderness.

2. I'm surprised I'm not more hungry: My daughters' softball tournaments later in the week led to afternoon foraging, which meant going long stretches without any food. To my great surpise my cravings have been minor during these long stretches. Early in the week I was cranky and hungry, but with six days under my belt my hunger has subsided. Last night I actually had leftovers from dinner. 

I find this to be true every time fast. The first couple of days are miserable but after getting over that hurdle there is a quiet contentment that comes over my body and mind. At first I rebel against the limitations as a small crisis, but then the crisis passes and the limitations become a path to a strange peace. I suspect that this experience is what compels religious ascetics. 

3. Berries get old after awhile: It seems like a dream come true to eat your fill of huckleberries every day but I'm kind of sick of them at this point. Thankfully I discovered purslane, a nice-tasting wild green that grows abundantly in our garden. There is a poisonous lookalike (spurge) that grows right alongside it so you have to be careful, but it is fantastic in a little stir-fry. It is also renowned for containing more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green vegetable.

I also discovered an old apricot tree on conservation area land in Spokane Valley. I have avoided gleaning from working farms but the apricot tree is wild at this point so it's fair game. Because the tree isn't being watered the fruits are small and the sugars are concentrated. Wow! The best apricots ever.

The purslane and apricots are good examples of the tasty but hidden abundance that surrounds us. 

I've also eaten thimbleberries, serviceberries, and tiny strawberries.

4. There is enough: The first couple of days were filled with urgency. I wondered if I could gather enough each day to sustain me. I even picked strawberries the size of sunflower seeds, thinking that they might be all I would have for the day. I now know, at least this time of year, there is enough. Huckleberries are the perfect example.

Spokane is part of what I'll call the Huckleberry Belt. You go anywhere in the mountain regions of Eastern Washington and Montana and you'll find that huckleberries are a cultural icon. Red-fingered pickers sell them at stands on every corner in tourist towns and high-end boutiques carry lines of huckleberry soaps, make-up, and gourmet candy.

Whole families in this region dedicate summer-weeks for camping and picking berries, filling coolers with them for jams, pies, and the freezer. Everyone has their "secret spot" for picking and no one is too eager to share the details of the location. It's one of those, "I'd tell you where we go for berries but then I'd have to kill you," sort of situations. 

There is a strong culture of scarcity around this legendary berry, primarily because it only grows in the wild. Despite their best efforts, hortculturists have failed to cultivate huckleberries for commercial growing. Like morel and porcini mushrooms, farmers can't grow them and package them for Costco. It's a wild plant and you have to go into the wild to harvest. Go here for more background on this. 

This wildness lends itself to the sense of scarcity that surrounds the berry. If a food doesn't grow in crop rows or through industrial practices, we can't imagine there is enough and so we sneak around to keep others out of our patch or some even pay $80/gallon plus $35 shipping to buy them online.

Well I'm here to bust the myth of scarcity that surrounds the huckleberry. My foraging week has led me to the mountains almost every day and every place I go is packed with berries. Huckleberries are everywhere. They are not scarce, they are abundant and there is enough for everyone in the Inland Northwest to harvest till it hurts - your back and your tummy. (I've learned that it is actually a little uncomfortable if you eat too many.) If you live in Spokane there is no need to drive to the Canadian border to your families secret spot. Just drive 30 minutes to Mount Spokane and hike around a little and you'll find your fill. 

In a cruel irony it is often our fear of scarcity that leads us to degrade natural places to grow crops or harvest timber which leads to actual scarcity. Haiti is an extreme example of this but the truth holds everywhere. Our fear of scarcity is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An alternative posture to a fear of scarcity is to live in wonder of the abundance of what nature offers up. Foraging has helped reinforce this perspective in my life this week.

5. Be careful: For every edible in the wild there is often a poisonous lookalike. Only eat what you know and rely on more than one source of information to identification. For example, my primary ID book says that purslane doesn't have a poisonous lookalike, but all my other references point to spurge as similar to purslane. I'm grateful to the clarification provided by my these sources because in our garden the spurge grows right next to the purslane. So close that sometimes I'll grab a handful of purslane and a spurge plant is mixed up in the harvest. 

I'll follow up with more observations later in the week.

Tables of Plenty Project

It was almost four years ago that I started blogging about our family's Year of Plenty in which we committed to consuming only items that were local, used, homegrown, or homemade. Here's the linkto the first blog post with pictures of our fated attempt to make a flamingo pinata. It has been four enriching years of learning and writing about food, agriculture, consumerism, the environment, and faith. Our YoP experience has led to wonderful friendships and conversations that have sparked our imaginations for more learning and more exploration, especially when it comes to the role of food in Christian faith practices and spiritual formation. 

In recent years I've been struck by the strong connection between faith formation in the Bible and food practices. I've developed what I call a foodie hermeneutic of the Bible, reading the Bible through the lens of food and food practices, and I've been amazed at how central food is to the unfolding story of God's people in the Bible. It starts with the words to Adam, "You are free to eat," and ends with the grand vision of a feast. From manna during the exodus to Jesus fasting in the wilderness to Peter's hunger-induced vision of unclean foods in the book of Acts, the path to following God's will is often negotiated at some point on food's journey from field to table.

In contrast to this prominent role of food in the Bible, I've been surprised by the relative absence of food as a means of spiritual formation in my experience as a Protestant Christian in the west. I never thought much about it until our YoP experiment led us into conversations with locavores, slow food foodies, vegans, sustainable agriculture activists, and others who all seem to understand the powerful role of food choices in the formation of a person. In these communities we have found people fleshing out the meaning of life and embracing food as a central practice in that process. While most of these movements are considered "secular," they often have a sacred feel to them.  

For example Novella Carpenter writes in her book Farm City about her experience raising a pig named Harold:

Although I usually call myself an atheist, a lonely universe offers little comfort to a person confronting death...But to hold Harold, this amazing living creature, to know that his life force would be transferred to me in the form of food, felt sacred.

Michael Pollan writes at the conclusion of The Omnivore's Dilemma about a dinner with friends that he calls the "perfect meal":

The stories, like the food that fed them, cast lines of relation to all these places and the creatures living (and dying) in them, drawing them all together on this table, on these plates, in what to me began to feel a little like a ceremony. And there's a sense in which the meal had become just that, a thanksgiving or a secular seder, for every item on our plates pointed somewhere else, almost sacramentally, telling a little story about nature or community or even the sacred, for mystery was often the theme. Such stories food can feed us both body and soul..."

Bestselling books like Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, preach the gospel of food as spiritual formation and the message is resonating.

Alexander Schmemann, a prominent Eastern Orthodox theologian sums up this situation well in his book, For the Life of the World:

Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian. Food is still treated with reverence. To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that ‘something more’ is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.

Just as our Year of Plenty experiment was launched out of a desire to answer questions about how our faith speaks into contemporary issues around consumerism, this Tables of Plenty project is motivated by a desire to answer questions about how our faith speaks into these contemporary conversations around food. With Michael Pollan and Novella Carpenter, we have a sense that there is something sacred about what we eat and we suspect that there is a rich Biblical and historical tradition in the Christian faith that has been mostly lost in current expressions of church. Like so many, we are hungry and thirsty for a sacramental life, so we're going to read, and explore, and eat our way through the year, hoping to reconnect with sacred food practices and maybe even help others do the same.

Washington Monthly - How Washington D.C. is failing farmers

The Washington Monthly has an important article about recent efforts to help independent farmers who are increasingly victims of unscrupulous practices by large meat processors. The gist of the article is that the meat industry has become so consolidated with just a few large corporations that local farmers have no options in the marketplace. The article explains:

The practical result of all this consolidation is that while there are still many independent farmers, there are fewer and fewer processing companies to which farmers can sell. If a farmer doesn’t like the terms or price given by one company, he increasingly has nowhere else to go—and the companies know it. With the balance of power upended, the companies are now free to dictate increasingly outrageous terms to the farmers.

To make things worse, Washington D.C. has lacked the political will to make changes that would help the situation. 

It's a long article but worth the time if you're interested in really understanding the dilemma of our current food system. It also highlights the urgent need for the growth of alternative markets like Co-ops, farmers' markets, and CSA's. 

Bike of the Future? Chainless, Electric, and Foldable or Fixed Gear


Instead of pedaling to turn a chain and wheel hub, these pedals power an alternator that charges the battery that motors the bike. And it folds up. Pretty cool.

Not sure why no one is wearing a helmet in the video. Maybe the battery also creates a force field that keeps people from hitting the pavement when they crash. 

I was in bike-crazy Portland last week and more than half the people I saw riding downtown were on a fixed-gear bike. I'm really intrigued by the simplicity of not having gears but wondering how the heck you get up those steep hills. Everyone I saw seemed to have them geared up pretty high. Anyone seen any fixed-gear fanatics in Spokane?


The Other Pew Poll - 1 in 5 Americans Now "Unaffiliated" With Religion

While the Pew poll on the Presidential election is getting most of the recent headlines, there is another Pew poll that came out this week on religion in American that is more significant. 

According to the Pew Research Center, one in five American adults — nearly 20 percent of the US population — now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentage ever in Pew’s polling. 

This is a 25% increase in just the last five years.

As a pastor and leader of a religious organization this poll got my attention but it doesn't shock or surprise me, rather it confirms what I have experienced and observed in my 15 years of ordained ministry. More and more people are just not that into religion. The Christian church in North America used to function under the assumption that people wanted to be involved in a church, and if they weren't currently affiliated, they were actively engaged in looking to be affiliated. Those days are gone. 

I did a funeral yesterday for a 95-year-old saint of the church. As his widow described it, when they moved to Millwood 53 years ago, "Everybody went to Millwood Presbyterian Church," so that's where they went. In the conversations after the service with people from that generation, there was both a wistful remembrance of the deep friendships and strong community connections that were forged at the church in those years, but also a frank recognition that things have changed dramatically. The Pew survey confirms what they intuitively understand, "everybody" doesn't go to church anymore.

Of the roughly 20% who are unaffiliated with a particular religion, most are not looking to find their sacred niche.

The vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans are not actively seeking to find a church or other religious group to join.  Of those who describe themselves as “nothing in particular” (as opposed to atheist or agnostic), 88 percent say they are not looking for a religion that is right for them.

If you're not already a little disoriented by this news, check this out. Most of these comfortably unaffiliated folks still believe in God:

Two-thirds (68 percent) of those who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated say they believe in God or a universal spirit.  More than half (58 percent) say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, and more than a third (37 percent) describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.”

Anytime someone says "I'm just not into you," it's natural to ask, "Is it you or is it me?" Is this a problem with religious institutions or is it a problem with the people who are opting out?

Some of my ecclesiastical friends are pinning the blame on the growing ranks of the unaffiliated. Pastor Lillian Daniel's critique of the spiritually-but-not-religious crowd is probably the most prominent example of this approach. She writes:

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo....Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.

Her critique has hit such a cathartic chord that it is on tap to become a book in 2013. As much as I appreciate Lillian, and as much as I like to bemoan the shallow, self-indulgent ethos of our culture, I don't think this is a helpful posture for leaders in the church who want to engage these current realities. It has an air of superiority to it that is likely to push even more from the ranks of the religious membership rolls.

Just imagine the billboards for the marketing campaign that national denominational offices can roll out in support of this approach: "Do you consider yourself spiritual but not religious? What a loser." or "Are you unaffiliated with a religious institution? Good! We don't want shallow, self-centered people anyway."

Instead of pointing fingers at those who are leaving, we in the church need to listen to what they are saying. There is a legitimate critique that church leaders need to grapple with if we are going to have some relevance in the future. The unaffiliated in the survey put it like this:

Overwhelmingly, they [the non-affiliated] think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics...

No wonder us religious folk are inclined to diminish this trend and the people who are a part of it. It's hard to look that critique in the face and not blush. 

There are some glimmers of hope for religious institutions in the midst of the growing exodus:

More than three-quarters (77 percent) say religious institutions play an important role in helping the poor and needy and bring people together and strengthen community bonds (78 percent).

These are challenging times for religious organizations like the Presbyterian church I am a part of, but also times of opportunity for innovation and change. Instead of dismissing this news I hope our congregation will respond with humility to listen and the courage to adapt and change.

Beware Visions of a Vegetarian Dystopia

Roger Ebert's Journal pointed me to a forboding article at the Guardian by John Vidal that warns that the coming worldwide water shortage will force all of us into a meat-lovers apocalypse of vegetarianism.

Leading water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying that the world's population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages.

Humans derive about 20% of their protein from animal-based products now, but this may need to drop to just 5% to feed the extra 2 billion people expected to be alive by 2050, according to research by some of the world's leading water scientists....

Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in an increasingly climate-erratic world, the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One third of the world's arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals. Other options to feed people include eliminating waste and increasing trade between countries in food surplus and those in deficit.

This news also comes on the heals of the recent warning of a worldwide bacon shortage, otherwise known as the Baconpocalypse. 

None of these warnings are all that upsetting to me. Our family has gradually migrated toward a more vegetarian diet. We still eat meat but much less than we used to. Our foray into food and faith traditions has accelerated this shift. The Orthodox fasts are vegetarian, our kosher month was mostly vegetarian because of concerns about mixing meat and dairy, and now I'm experimenting with the Seventh-Day Advent regimen which is strictly vegetarian. (I haven't worked my way up to no caffiene yet but I'll get there.) These traditions affirm that vegetarianism is good for the body and the soul, and it sounds like scientists agree that it is good for the earth as well.

I'm not ready to give up bacon yet, but I don't live in fear of being a vegetarian, and I don't see why any of us should. It could be worse, we could be talking about a future without coffee and chocolate. Oh, wait a minute. Some scientists are warning that climate change could bring an end to coffee an chocolate as well. Now that's a future worthy of apocalyptic angst.

Year of Plenty Update - Chasing Butterflies

July 5-5My last post on this blog announced the start of a new season for the Millwood Farmers' Market. Somehow it seems appropriate that I should now announce the end to the outdoor season at the Millwood Famers' Market. Another growing season has come and gone and I've gone four months without a Year of Plenty update. I didn't necessarily plan it this way, but I took the summer off from blogging. Consider this your retroactive notice that I won't be blogging during the summer of 2012. 

I don't have a great explanation other than noting what the wise preacher in Ecclesiastes affirmed: "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal...," and if he were writing today I'm sure he would add, "a time to blog, and a time to not blog." 

Here are some of the things I've been up to in the season of "not blog":

I explored a slight obsession with photographing butterflies, birds, and other wildlife. The highlight was getting a picture of a Clodius Parnassius on Mt. Spokane that hadn't been spotted in the area since the 1960's. I almost launched myself over a cliff chasing it but I survived, and more importantly my camera was unscathed. The camera is in the shop for a repair so maybe that explains why I have time to blog.

I am working on a new book project exploring food and faith practices which included observing the Ramadan fast. To my great surprise this was a real highlight of my summer. This month I'm trying out the Seventh-Day Adventist regimen. I've applied for a grant with the Louisville Institute for next summer to write a book manuscript. I've played around with starting a new blog for this project but I'm planning to migrate all my writing on the topic to this blog so you can expect more activity here in the coming months.

I learned how to cut a stair stringer.

I spent a wonderful week at Glacier National Park. 

I continue to speak at garden clubs, book stores, and anywhere else that will have me. 

I'll be speaking at Third Place Books tomorrow, Thursday October 4, in McMinville, Oregon. Go here for the details. I would love to connect if you live in the Portland area.

Farewell season of "not blog." 


Wendell Berry, the Inhabit Conference, community gardens, and the kingdom of God

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Inhabit Conference, a collaboration between the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and the Parish Collective, a network of faith leaders equipping churches to live out the gospel in their neighborhoods. It was a wonderful collection of people seeking an alternative imagination for being the church in this modern, commodified, flattened cultural moment. In a fitting convergence of events, Wendell Berry gave the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday. The Inhabit Conference and National Endowment for the Humanities lecture both expressed a prophetic call to reconnect with a sense of place and a responsibility to people.

The Chronicle in Higher Education had the following report on the Berry lecture:

Mr. Berry's speech was a discussion of affection and its power to bind people to community. It was also a meditation on place and those who "stick" to it—as caretakers and curators. "In affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy," Mr. Berry said.

The opposite of the "sticker"—in the words of Mr. Berry's mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner—is the "boomer," those who "pillage and run."

"That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated," Mr. Berry said. Our relationship to the land and to community is increasingly abstract and distanced.

"By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers....." 

The antidote, Mr. Berry said, is affection, connection, and a broader definition of education—to study and appreciate practical skills like the arts of "land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking."

Berry's comments echo much of what I heard at Inhabit. In the midst of the growing wreckage of "boomer" models of church in North America, people shared stories about what it looks like to be a "sticker" church that specializes in affection, connection, and homemaking. As someone who battles mightily with my boomer instincts in leading the church, the conference refreshed my vision for a different, stickier path of leadership.

Part of the gift of the conference was to help me see the blessing of the stories that have unfolded in our community over the last couple of years. (The test of a good church conference is whether you go home feeling envious of God at work in other people's stories or encouraged by God at work in your own stories. Inhabit provided me with the latter.) Many spoke of starting community gardens, so I thought I'd share part of our story here as an example of how community gardens can serve as a living alternative to the "pillage and run" pace of life.

The story of the garden goes back four decades to the start of an iconic neighborhood pumpkin patch on the shores of the Spokane river, located next to a major north-south thoroughfare in the Spokane valley. Generations of children grew up in our vicinity making a seasonal pilgrimage to the pumpkin patch to pick out the perfect pumpkin and pluck it from the vine. Not only that, they got to see the field plowed, the seeds planted, and the plants growing as their family station wagons drove by the site in the spring and summer. It was a community-sustained umbilical to the land and a constant connection to the rhythms of springtime and harvest that have been lost in most communities.

Ten years ago Spokane County set out to widen the Argonne bridge and the pumpkin patch was designated as the lay-down area for all the heavy equipment and machinery required for the year-long construction project. I was told that tractors came and shaved off the two feet of black humus that had accumulated from the years of growing pumpkins in order to level the land. After the construction was completed the land was left as a hard-packed abandoned lot that served as a turnaround area for school buses and a shortcut for people walking through the neighborhood. The land was so hard it took a pick-ax to loosen enough soil for a soil-test. 

Four years ago people in the church and in the neighborhood started a conversation about the potential of recovering the land and the story of the land by turning the site of the old pumpkin patch into a community garden. I had only known that plot of land as an abandoned lot and it was only after these conversations started that I learned its history. The loss of connection to the land is like that, we not only lose the use of the land we lose the stories that at one time gave life to the neighborhood.

We knew we couldn't do it on our own as a church so we reached out to the neighors and other community partners. The paper mill that owns the land agreed to let us use it and they even donated the water and facilitated the donation of lumber and compost through their connections. We enlisted neighbors, the school district, a local group home, scouts, local landscaping businesses as co-conspirators in reclaiming the land. We even had a bunch of guerilla gardeners from the Twitterverse that came to help us get started. We joined together and named it the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden.

I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story:




The garden has become a gathering place for families and neighbors.


One of our goals with the garden is not only to let people have a plot to use for personal use, we wanted to bring back the pumpkin patch. So along with individual raised beds we have some area for row crops for Second Harvest and a place for pumpkins. Last summer we had a bounty crop of pumpkins and invited children from a local group home to come over and choose a pumpkin. The rule was that they had to pick a pumpkin that they would carry to the car. 

Some of them pushed the rule about carrying the pumpkin to the limit. 

Others tried to find the perfect pumpkin. It took this little girl 15 minutes wandering the patch to find just the right one.

It was a wonderfully redemptive moment to see kids once again walking on this land with anticipation in their eyes and joy in their hearts about finding a pumpkin to call their own.

I imagine that when these children now drive by the pumpkin patch they remember the fruit of the land, they remember the richness of the soil, they remember the rhythms of the seasons, and the joy of the harvest. To use Berry's words they have a new sense of affection, for a land that sustains them and a community that is committed to a place, which serves as a tangible sign that they are part of a community that is committed to them. 

Along with this I think they have a better sense of God's redeeming work in the world and we in the church who have been involved with the garden have a better sense of this work as well. We better understand that the kingdom of God is not some abstract notion, it's like a community garden -- putting down roots in a place, redeeming abandoned places, and renewing affectionate relationships.

Thanks to those at the Seattle School and the Parish Collective for putting on the Inhabit Conference. It helped remind me of the God who is at work in our neighborhood.

My Take on Ethics of Eating - More grace needed in current food debates


Last week I was a panelist on an Ethics of Eating event at Sante' restaurant in downtown Spokane and today's edition of the Spokesman Review has an article on what transpired. The in-person event, pictured above, was organized in response to a heated virtual debate on Facebook over the fact that Sante' serves foie gras. You can look on the Sante' Facebook page for a run down of the debate. Local TV news even did a story on it. Here's one of the critical comments posted on Faceboook:

You will never have our business/patronage because I now know you serve foie gras. And we will never recommend your restaurant to local friends or out of town guests. In fact, we will tell them about your inhumane offerings and I'm sure they will decide the same, as our friends are all animal caring people. In your quest to serve haute' cuisine and be a Cosmo restaurant, you have shown us that you have made unethical choices to seek your customers. With many other dining options, our money will be spent elsewhere. Shame on you for putting money above the suffering of ducks and geese.

I personally really enjoyed the event, especially hearing from Jeremy and other leaders in the Spokane sustainable food community. There were not any strident critics in the audience but there were some good questions from vegans about the justification for killing animals when other alternatives are available. I explained that I find those arguments a lot more compelling than I used to, although I am not yet convinced. I appreciated that the audience expressed a genuine desire to learn about food systems and the my fellow panelists responded with a gracious desire to inform and inspire people to learn more. I guess the big surprise was that the in-person event was such a pleasant dialogue compared to the rancor and bitterness of the online lobbing of accusatory grenades. The online ethical debate around food has taken on an almost religious character, with the puritans on one side and hedonists on the other.

This is one of the reasons I have been compelled to explore actual religious traditions around food. I have suspected that the religious-like debate around food systems might actually have something to learn from actual religious food practices. We've spent the last four months following kosher food laws and Orthodox fasting rules. We celebrated the end of the Orthodox Lenten fast last Saturday with the midnight Pascha service at Holy Trinity Orthodox church. 

I plan on writing extensively about what we have been learning but there is one aspect of the Pascha service that I found especially helpful for current debates around food. In the Orthodox church the fasting rules for Lent are very strict. On most days there is no meat, no dairy, no oil, no fish, no eggs, and no alcohol. On days where there is an evening celebration of the eucharist the strict rule is that you abstain from all food and drink until receiving the communion elements at the evening service. We followed these rules closely but there is a wide range of observance in the Orthodox church, with many loosely observing the rules and many not observing them at all. One of the ethical questions around these food rules in the Orthodox church is how to deal with the diversity of practice given an ethical ideal. This is the same question that faces locavores, slow-food advocates, vegan evangelists and the rest. 

At the Pascha service I learned how they deal with this diversity of practice as they prepare to gather around tables and celebrate the Paschal feast. Their approach is summed up in their reading of the famous sermon from St. John Crysostom which opens with these words:

If any be a devout lover of God,
  let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast.
If any be a faithful servant,
  let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself with fasting,
  let him now enjoy his reward.
If any have laboured from the first hour,
  let him receive today his rightful due.
If any have come after the third,
  let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness.
If any have come after the sixth,
  let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth,
  let him not hesitate but draw near.
If any have arrived only at the eleventh,
  let him not be afraid because he comes so late.

For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour
  in the same was as him who has laboured from the first.
He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.

Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord.
First and last, receive alike your reward.
Rich and poor, dance together.
You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.
The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.
The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry.

When it comes to sharing in the abundant feast of lamb that follows the Paschal service they make no distinction between those who come first and those who come last, those who fasted strictly and those who didn't fast at all. (See Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard for the theological background to this.) My orthodox friends model this approach throughout Lent by not talking openly about their individual fasting practices so as to avoid pride and the divisions that it cultivates. In the midst of the most strict food rules I've ever encountered they somehow manage to offer grace instead of judgment. 

The fullness of the gospel expressed in the invitation to the table at the Paschal service can't be reduced to a simple lesson, but it does offer a provocative vision of what it looks like for a community to gather around food practices, which might be helpful for food activists filled with religious zeal for their cause:

Instead of identifying all the people (or chefs) that they'll never share a meal with, how about a grace-filled invitation to gather around the feast table, seeking community and relationships, knowing that these relationships are the foundation for more ethical practice.

Instead of exalting the puritans and hurling accusations at the unfaithful, how about an acknowledgement that we are all sinners caught up in a fallen food system. 

Instead of prideful proclamations of approved practices, how about a humble stance that lifts up ideals but avoids creating a culinary class system. 

I'm glad for the face-to-face gathering at Sante' last week. It felt like a generous invitation to gather around the table in the diversity of our practices to learn and grow together. I look forward to more such conversations.

Gardening Advice - crop rotation, companion planting, and other planning tips

image from
One important consideration for planning your garden is rotating crops to manage soil fertility and control insects and disease. For example tomato, potato, eggplant varieties should not be planted in the same place from one year to the next because they are all in the nightshade plant family. Plants in the same family are all susceptible to the same kinds of insects and diseases. Remnants of these insects and diseases are left over in the vicinity of last year's crop. If you move the crops around it keeps the insects and disease from building up year after year.

Rotation is also important for maintaining healthy soil. You want to follow heavy to medium feeders that draw a lot of nutrients from the soil (tomatoes, corn, cabbage, peppers) with either light feeders (carrots, beets, onions) or heavy givers (beans, peas) that actually will fix nitrogen in the soil and enrich it. I like the methodology explained here that recommends a rotation of heavy feeders followed with heavy givers which are then followed by light feeders. I also like the chart above from Better Hens and Gardens that explains the sometimes confusing logic of crop rotatio in an easy-to-understand infographic. 

Another key consideration in plotting out your garden plan is to consider what plants make good companions and like to be together and which plants are arch enemies and will fight each other all summer resulting in reduced yields.

You can go here for a run down on plants that are beneficial and antagonistic. I get kind of overwhelmed by all the information and different criteria for planting, so I have developed Craig's anecdotal, simplified companion planting plan.

Basil & Tomatoes: My first recommendation is interplant your tomatoes with basil, lots of basil. We discovered this two year's ago. We always had trouble with our basil going to seed because of the intense heat of summer, but when we interplanted them with the tomatoes the large tomato plants shaded the basil just enough to keep them in check. We had wonderful basil all summer and the tomatoes seem to really like it too.

Nasturtiums and Marigolds all around: These are my go to plants to intersperse in the veggie garden. Marigolds are legendary among organic gardeners for helping with aphids although there is some debate on this topic. One farmer friend told me about the summer he found the aphids actually feasting on the marigolds. Some people say ants will one day rule the world, I say aphids will offer stiff competition.

Plant a rainforest of peppers: Peppers are one of my most challenging crops to grow. They love the heat of summer but they also seem to like humidity which we don't have in Spokane. Planting them close together is the best trick I've learned to keep them happy.

Enlist volunteers: I have companion plants that I put in the garden every year and then I have volunteers that come back every year from previous crops. I thin them out or move them around, depending on the layout. These are known as self-seeding plants, meaning they do all the hard work of planting on their own. Some of my self-seeding companions are borage, calendula, dill, and purple coneflower. Some plants like mint are too good at self-seeding and could be considered invasive. Raspberry plants are also notorious for spreading via underground shoots. 

One last consideration for your garden plan, make sure to plant you're tall shade producing plants on the north side of your plot so they don't block the sun from your shorter plants. Lettuce on the other hand is good to plant in the semi shade of sunflowers to keep it from going to seed too quickly.