Welcome to the Abundant Table | Perkins Fellow, Isabella Hall '19

This blog post is reprinted with permission from The Project on Lived Theology.

Ventura, California, is a coastal city where grandmotherly mountains morph seamlessly into the seemingly infinite Pacific ocean. The water’s cool breath mitigates the heat of the ever-present sun and creates a consistently seventy degree oasis. It feels fitting to compare Ventura to Eden with its year-round growing season and nutrient rich sandy-loam soil, a product millions of years in the making as mountains gave way to erosion by winds, rains, and the slow tectonic shifts of the land. In case I have not described a place befitting of the Eden comparison, Ventura country is an agricultural epicenter known as a global supplier of strawberries. The extensive strawberry fields, their neat rows populated by teams of harvesters, are visible from the California 101 freeway and almost every other roadway in the county.

In the past week, I myself have become intimately acquainted with the process of plucking these red-ripened strawberries from their leafy habitations. My work is punctuated with pauses here and there in order to taste the warm flesh of a berry nurtured to maturation by the light of the sun and expert care by the hands of farmers Reyna and Guadalupe, the two farmers who manage The Abundant Table’s small organic farm. If I’m honest, the sublime scene I described above—standing tall in the fields with a box of freshly picked strawberries on my hip, sweat on neck, and dirt all over—was precisely the romantic vision which initially kindled my interest in farming. Can you relate to this confession? Have you ever read poetry by Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, or Annie Dillard and then resolved to live more connected with and attentive to the land? Have you ever thought of uprooting your current constraints and pioneering a new path as a wildflower farmer, an urban agrarian, or a naturalist poet? I have a sense I’m not alone in this. The earth enchants the soul; its holiness at once both mysterious and self-evident. Wendell Berry remarks, “We did not make it. We know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough to make our survival sure or our lives carefree.”[1]And yet for the overwhelming majority of Americans, connectivity to the land is a remote reality.

Many live, at best, removed from and insulated against the rhythms of the natural world and, at worst, with worldviews which assert humankind’s right to dominate, commodify, and deplete the land. As someone located within the Christian tradition, it grieves me to witness how scriptures, doctrine, and tradition have been co-opted by colonialism and capitalism to perpetuate a “functional Docetism” which “has numbed Christians to the escalating horrors of both ecological and social violence, because spiritual or doctrinal matters always trump terrestrial or somatic ones.”[2] Contrastingly, the Bible and the Hebrew scriptures in particular offer “a story and a discourse about the connection of a people to a place” and ecological stewardship as “implicit in that story’s insistence upon the land’s sanctity.”[3] In this vein, Ellen Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School and author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, suggests agrarianism as a hermeneutic, or in other words, a lens through which one might read the scriptures and thus distill pertinent interpretations, meaning, and wisdom. Furthermore Davis claims, “Reading the work of contemporary agrarians can make us better readers of Scripture.”[4] That is a surprising suggestion amid a historical moment when most folks have little connection to the elements, let alone the process of food production. However, I wonder if each of us is nearer to the ethics of land and food than we might imagine:

Our largest and most indispensable industry, food production entails at every stage judgments and practices that bear directly on the health of the earth and living creatures, on the emotional, economic, and physical well-being of families and communities and ultimately on their survival. Therefore, sound agricultural practices depend upon knowledge that is at one and the same time chemical and biological, economic, cultural, philosophical, and (following the understanding of most farmers in most places and times) religious. Agriculture involved questions of value and therefore moral choice, whether or not we care to admit it.[5]

Davis’ framework, which connects spiritual matters with the physical matter of land and its proper or improper usage, invites me to revisit my strawberry scene and tease out some of the unseen complexities.

For one, my experience on The Abundant Table’s farm is inextricably shaped by social location as a college-educated white woman endowed with various sorts of capital which have allowed for my educational and immersive internship experience. My willful presence is so viscerally contrasted from the overwhelming majority of farmers in Ventura County, many of whom are Latino/a and working grueling 12-hour shifts for shockingly low wages. The gravity of the realization pains me when I feel the ache of my thighs and lower back from just a few hours of farm work. Farmer Reyna has shared with me a small glimpse of her experience working within conventional agricultural operations where farmers like herself monotonously harvest hundreds of acres of monocrops dusted with chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. These conditions lead to horrendous illnesses, such as various cancers and late-onset asthma, not to mention the devastating effects upon the soil and the pollution to the surrounding air and water supply. Reyna compares these experiences to her time at The Abundant Table, where farmers are paid living wages and organic practices are used in ways that are honoring of the land and what it grants. She affirms, “It’s important that all work be dignified…My dirty clothes are my professional uniform. I believe it’s very important that youth have opportunities to work in the field and grow their own understanding of farm work, so they can begin to respect and value this work and the tremendous physical strength and earth-literacy it requires.”[6]

The earth-literacy Reyna describes is a lexicon I am continuously cultivating. As I explore and experience the uniqueness of this bioregion—where mountains dissipate into ocean and an intricate network of estuaries and waterways form a living, breathing watershed—I simultaneously encounter the historical, cultural, and religious narratives which have grown over these lands, and in the midst of all this newness I, a visitor, ask, what does this place and its people have to teach me about encountering the Triune God? What does it mean to join The Abundant Table community in the work of doing justice and loving mercy by transforming existing food systems? How can I live into the divine calling to recognize my location within creation and my responsibility to it, and to grow into a disciple of this particular watershed?

[1] Wendell Berry, foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), ix.

[2] Ched Myers, introduction to Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, edited by Ched Myers (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016), 5.

[3] Berry, foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, xi.

[4] Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 22.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sarah Nolan, Erynn Smith, and Reyna Ortega in “Growing from the Edges” from Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, edited by Ched Myers (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2016), 151.