Monday, August 04, 2014
Little by Little
There's a child who lives down the street with his mother and brother that is very shy. I always say hello to him when he passes on the sidewalk, and he'll nod hello back. We've tried engaging him in conversation as he's just a bit older than Danny, but he'd always scurry away before being asked if he'd like to go to the park, or play.
Today, I was harvesting a few things from the garden and he was pacing the sidewalk, looking bored in that way children get when the new school term is only a week or two away. Summer's essentially over for them, and there's nothing left to be excited about.
"You grow stuff?" he asked.
I introduced myself, and showed him around the plants, letting him smell the lemon balm ("furniture polish") the tarragon ("medicine") and the oregano ("pizza"). We talked about bees, and weeds, and how he's starting grade 7 in a new school, and is worried about getting lost as there's a different room and teacher for each class in middle school. I remember that same fear-I didn't tell him that sometimes, I still have nightmares where I'm sitting an exam and realise I'm in the wrong class.
"So are these vegetables...you know, fresh?"
It seemed like such an odd question, but he was so sincere I figured I must have misunderstood what he meant. He clarified,
"Did you grow them, or were they just here, you know, like nature?"
I grew up in a very urban environment with only the tiniest bit of green in front of the house. We played in alleys, abandoned buildings (don't do that kids, if you're reading) and railway stations. We had parks that were more cement than green, and until I was ten when we moved north, we had to get in the car and drive a bit for any sort of enjoyment of nature that wasn't a beach. That said, by the time I was in grade 7 I knew how vegetables grew. I blame the schools, I really do. We live in bloody Nebraska where a good 3/4 of the state is covered half the year in corn and soybeans. Oh, I know Omaha is a city, but five minutes outside the city, you're in farmland. Really, you can't miss it-green stuff all over the sides of the road.
I picked a ripe paprika pepper, and told him to take it home for his mother. He seemed so happy, then turned around about halfway down the street, and brought it back telling me she wouldn't use it. I couldn't convince him to take it. I replied that it was OK if he changed his mind, and that if he wanted to come back for some herbs to nibble on that's OK too. I really hope he does, and that Danny is around when he shows up. This was just the sweetest kid, so incredibly out of touch with the natural world-maybe Danny can drag him off to watch birds at the feeder or something. It would be one thing if he wasn't interested, but this child was. He comes from a lovely family that we see going out for walks, the children are polite if a little shy, and I'm sadly aware that his disconnect to the world around him isn't something exclusive to him. I don't know how we can get these children out digging, and planting, and cooking what they've grown but I'm frightened for humanity's future if we don't.
I've had the experience of supermarket cashiers not knowing what a fruit or vegetable is (broccoli rabbe is understandable, beets less so) but that's a little different from not knowing how gardens are planted. This was an intelligent, articulate child, so it isn't a matter of being a poor student-it is a matter of poor curriculum. They put so much emphasis on nutrition to the point where they're obsessing over children's weight and BMI statistics with letters home to parents, and confiscating juice from their lunch sacks that they got distracted from teaching them where food comes from. Heaven help these kids the first time they go for a drive in the country, and come across a feed lot. The hamburger didn't just materialise at the fast food joint.
I don't have any answers. I can offer seeds and windowsill plants to the kid down the street, but I can't do much for his classmates. There's a community garden, but you can't force children to use it. I suspect you'd get these kids interested in eating better if they grew it themselves. Maybe that's too optimistic, but at the very least I'd feel better if they knew the life cycle of plants. We have 4-H in the city, but it is tough making it appeal to youngsters. The schools start back just as the State Fair gets underway, but it is 150 miles away so there aren't class trips to see the exhibits. Families can go at the weekend, but not everyone owns a car, or can afford to rent one for the trip. We're staying over, so that adds a hotel bill onto the tab. I understand the logic of moving the fair location farther west (we're a large state) so more people from the largely rural areas can attend, but my heart sinks a bit because it is the kids in Lincoln and Omaha that need the fair most. If I could pile each and every one of them into the cheap rental car and bring them with, I would.
Too late for this year, but perhaps a neighbourhood gardening effort for youngsters can be something I can organise for next spring with a plan to enter their harvest in various preserved forms at the fair. I could teach a dozen kids to make tomato sauce or a jar of green tomato chutney.
Or maybe I can just get the child down the street to take home a pepper. Baby steps. Little by little.