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Food, Farming, and Faith – Norman Wirzba

[MUSIC] There are so many exciting and invigorating
things happening at Duke University, but if you ask me, one of the most important is the
Duke Farm. I’m not going to tell you a lot about what’s happening at the Duke Farm, which
you can see pictured behind me, because what I would really love is if you were to go out
there and see what’s being grown, and even better yet, I would love it if you were to
get there and taste the good that is coming out of there.
What I want to do instead of describing the farm is I want to tell you about why the farm
matters, and I want to tell you straight off that one of the best things, one of the most
important things is that this farm is cultivating a new food imagination. It’s actually an old
imagination, but it’s new to us because we are, perhaps, the most ignorant eaters the
world has ever known. We, for the most part, we get our food by going to a store.
It’s all there. It’s all in beautiful packages. And we just pick it out and bring it home.
What we don’t understand is that there are so many stories, so many activities that are
happening behind that package, and these are the stories that we need to know so that we
can have a food imagination which will prepare us as we move into the world to feed a growing
population. We have significant challenges ahead and we
have to figure out how are we going to feed the world while we’re also feeding the soil,
feeding the plants, feeding the animals, because we cannot have health unless the whole the
planet is healthy, too. We have an impoverished food imagination because we think of food
as primarily a commodity, because when we think of it this way, what matters is, is
the food cheap; is the food convenient; is the food in big supply.
And we don’t understand or appreciate how that desire for cheap, convenient food is
doing a lot of damage. It’s destroying and degrading our soils. It’s polluting our waters.
It’s abusing the animals and it’s abusing agricultural workers. We can do much better
as a society that tries to feed itself and all the people who are going to need food
in the future. And so the Duke Farm is one of the places where the imagination that we’re
going to need can be cultivated. So let me ask you, if you think about food
as a commodity, what would be a better way? Well, I want to suggest to you that a better
imagination, a much richer one, would be the one that says life and food are precious gifts.
Eating is not simply a mechanical act in which you try to get as many of the right combination
of calories to fill some gustatory hole in you. It’s not simply fuel to keep your machine-like
body on the move. Eating is an act of profound intimacy, because
when you eat, you consume the flesh of plants, the flesh of animals. And when you take that
food into you, you become one flesh. What could be more intimate than that? And so,
when you take a bite, you never simply bite into one thing. When you take a bite, you
bite into the whole world. And so the question you have to ask is, are
we worthy of receiving the life and the death of others? Now, you’re all worried, right?
[LAUGHTER] Am I going to eat supper tonight now? But people have known this for millennia.
We’re the first generation that doesn’t understand this.
So I want you to think for a minute about bruschetta. Bruschetta is one of my favorite
summer foods. It’s a very simple thing, right? You take a slice of bread, preferably home-baked
bread, and then you add some pesto, put a fresh tomato on top, sprinkle it with cheese,
and you bake it. And then you get to it in your mouth, and there’s a flavor explosion
in your head. If you’re just a consumer of food, you’re not going to get what’s going
on-what’s on this bruschetta, what’s behind this bruschetta that makes it this delectable
experience. Well, I would suggest we have to think about
several things-things that can be learned if you’re at the Duke Farm and you’re involved
in the growing of basil and tomatoes. We haven’t got cows there yet, but that might happen.
Let’s start with the soil. Do you know that soil is a miracle? Hans Jenny,
one of the great soil scientists of the last century, spent his whole life looking at soil,
trying to understand what it is. And he said, “It’s a mystery because it’s the place where
geology meets biology.” It’s the place where we get the basis for all the fertility that
makes all of the eating that we do possible. One of the great miracles of soil is that
it absorbs death and transforms it into the possibility for new life. The poet, Walt Whitman,
once asked, “Why are we not overcome by the stench of death?” Because everything dies.
Where does it go? Well, soil is the place of hospitality that welcomes this death, and
there, when it’s introduced to worms and grubs and the billions of microorganisms that are
circulating through healthy soil, this death becomes absorbed. It becomes eaten and digested
so that it can become the basis for the fertility that makes the healthy plants that we all
need, so that we can eat. Now, let’s think about plants. Plants are
tremendously fascinating creatures. Since Aristotle we’ve said that plants don’t really
matter because, well, they’re sort of a low-level life form. They’re not like human beings that
have reason. But do you understand how intelligent plants are? Scientists are discovering that
plants are in significant and widespread conversation with their soil and with other plants. Think
about this: one rye plant in the context of a four-month period of growth will produce
roots and fibers and hairs that exceed hundreds of miles.
So you could think about plants as being hungry for a conversation with the soil, because
it’s there that it meets the minerals and the water and the carbon that then makes possible
this vigorous-and if it grows fully fruit-delectable experience. The flavor of our food, the health
of our food is directly attributable to the health of the soil and the richness and the
depth of the conversation that’s happening with that soil.
Then think about cows. I grew up with cows. I love cows. They’re amazing. They have a
four-quadrant stomach. And one of those quadrants is the rumen, and we are really glad about
rumens because rumens can eat plant cellouse. If you don’t believe me, try and eat some
grass sometime. Your stomach will not like it. But cows have rumens, which means that
they can eat this plant fiber and transform it into innumerable delicacies, one of which
is milk, which can make the cheese that makes its way to the bruschetta. How great is that?
But of course, we also need to think about the people. We need to think about the farmers.
We need to think about the farm workers. We need to think about the food service providers.
We need to think about the cooks. These are all people who lend their hands and their
creativity to devise something called bruschetta. It’s an amazing thing because what these people
do is they invest their love in the food that they grow. It’s like when you make a meal
for somebody, you’re investing your love in that food to show to them that you care about
them. My grandmother cried if I didn’t eat her food, because I was rejecting her love
when I rejected her food. Love makes the world go round. It’s a fabulous thing.
So what does this experience at the farm teach us? That eating is this act of intimacy with
the world. It puts us in innumerable moral relationships with all the life that makes
possible you and me. And what we need to figure out as a society is how are we going to nurture
the soil, how are we going to nurture the plants, how are we going to nurture the animals,
how are we going to the nurture the human beings, so that together we can grow into
a healthy community of life. This is what we need to figure out. I don’t
expect that many of you are going to become farmers. It’s an incredibly complicated task.
So here’s what I think you can do. Over the next days and weeks, perhaps at Thanksgiving,
I’d like you to think very intentionally about making a home-cooked meal with people you
love. Think very carefully about what you’re going to serve, ask yourself where this food
come from, what are the stories that are at work behind this food to make it real. Engage
your friends and loved ones in the cooking of that meal. And when you come together at
the table, don’t just wolf it down; talk about what the food means to you. Bon appetite.
Food, Farming, and Faith – Norman Wirzba Page 2

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