Here in north-central Vermont, the earth is just beginning to thaw. By May, though, my wife Catherine and I will be planting tiny seeds in the circular bed at the center of our garden. A few weeks later, we will kneel there with scissors, snipping lettuce—oak leaf, red sails, blushed butter, merlot, and troutback—into a basket, along with the blossoms of heartsease pansies and lemon-gem marigolds.
Back in the kitchen, I will trim silverskin from a piece of venison. Sautéed, then sliced thin and arranged over greens, the steak will complete the salad.
Then, on the back porch, warmed by the late day sun, we will sit. Before eating, we will reach out to clasp hands and pause for a moment of thanksgiving: a moment to reflect on interconnectedness, on what Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.” Our bowls, after all, hold more than lettuce and meat.
In each green leaf are the rains of recent weeks and the life-giving energy of the sun. In each is the sandy soil that tops this little plateau along the upper reaches of the Winooski Valley: soil that settled here some 12,000 years ago in the shallows of a glacial lake. In each is the composted manure we added to that soil, and in that manure are the lives—and, ultimately, the deaths—of local dairy cows.
In each leaf, too, is the work of human hands. In each is Catherine’s turning of the soil, when it first thawed and I was tied to my desk by work. In each is the heft and heave of shovel and bucket as we unloaded manure from the trailer. In each are dairy farmers’ long days.
In each slice of venison is the life of the whitetail buck I shot last November—“the bounce, the swish,” as American poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder put it, “of a great alert being with keen ears and lovely eyes, with foursquare feet and a huge beating heart.” In each is everything the deer ate—leaves and twigs, blossoms and bark, corn and clover. In each is the current of the small stream from which the whitetail undoubtedly drank and the wetland from which that stream flows.
In each slice are all the places this deer lived: the fields where he browsed on summer evenings, the thick woods where he sheltered on winter nights, the places where he ate and slept and mated. In each, too, is the place where he died, a bullet through his great heart, the spot where I knelt beside him that morning, my hand on his still-warm shoulder. In each are the long hours I spent at the kitchen counter, separating muscle from bone.
The greens and meat are made of all these things, all these places, and more. And so, too, are we, as we ingest them.
Fork in hand, I am reminded yet again that we are part of a vast food web, members of a great community of life. I am reminded that though we had a hand in bringing these foods to our bowls, we did not make them. They were made by the miraculous world, the planet and places on which we depend for everything. And someday, upon our deaths, our bodies will feed that world in turn. The making and unmaking goes on.
Taking that first bite, I am reminded that eating is an act of communion. I am reminded that we are not merely on this earth, but of it.
© 2013 Tovar Cerulli
(Note: The video below is an Earth Day tribute to Rachel Carson, produced by Open Road Media. I’m honored to be part of it, alongside Richard Ellis and Jean Craighead George, one of my favorite childhood authors. The tree and landscape footage was mostly shot near our home here in the upper Winooski Valley.)