My Trouble with the Modern World

The Backyard Economist – Issue. 2
My Trouble with the Modern World
by Harriet Fasenfest

I admit to having trouble with the modern world – its pace, technology, economy, entertainment and promise. It seems I am always on the look out for clues to a time when things made better sense. A time when actions, traditions, design and relationships resonated with the rock – that ground zero of purpose and meaning. Perhaps this is a lingering adolescent obsession but so it goes and so I follow.

Hunting for the rock requires a maddening process of deconstruction. It requires a precursory understanding of history, sociology, religion, economics and psychology to establish even the crudest framework for dismantling cultural norms and assumptions. And even then you are smacked by the relativity of it all and the inevitable holes in the search. Still, the effort is guided by the belief that modern culture is broken and, too, by the hope that solutions are available. And in the midst of such ponderous consideration, solutions do come, if only obliquely.

Sometime last year, sitting in the backyard, I decided it was odd I grew no food. I had always been a gardener. Over the years I had put in flower gardens, perennial gardens, shade gardens, herb gardens, arbors, pickets, shrubs, trees, flowering vines and bulbs. I created “rooms” that added structure and color throughout the season. But through all of that considerable work I had never grown food. Maybe the occasional tomato but nothing more, it didn’t catch my fancy.

Then last year I decided to change all that. It had a lot to do with the pear tree (see The Pear Standard issue 1). I had just sold my last business. I had been operating a coffee shop on Alberta Street in Portland, Oregon and after coming face to face with….(no, that will come later), I decided to sell and retreat to the quiet of my backyard. Sitting in that backyard watching the pears drop I began to question the logic of letting good food go to waste. I wondered how I had gotten to a place in my modern world where going to buy food made more sense then walking a few paces to retrieve what was growing in my own backyard. The folly of that was glaring to me. It seemed a misstep in human evolution and a clue in the hunt. How big a misstep and how difficult a repair was not clear. With humility and a fair amount of hope, I took to hacking up the yard in search of food and answers.

I think something odd happens when we allow someone, somewhere to secure our food. Just how important that it is our hands on the plow, or spear or net is not clear to me. What does seem true, however, is that too great a distancing invites trouble. It invites a disconnect with the health of our eco-system, with stewardship, with the vulnerability of the harvest and the life lessons inherent to that. When we are too far removed from the source and health of our food systems a false security sets in, an arrogance of sorts. How can we be aware of the vulnerability of others when there is none in ourselves? But who among us does not know of the starving children of the world? It is a tired adage of most parents who would hope to instill an ethic but give few real tools. Having to grow ones food is invaluable in that regard. Yet few do. Few have the time or skills or inclination. And that fact is a parable of our modern lives, a shift that has obscured the rock.

Yet that shift is obscured by a million other shifts of modern life. Shift we have taken for granted; shifts that have been presented as breakthroughs in modern life and leisure. Shifts like agribusiness, big-box shopping and global markets making it cheaper to buy food then grow it. Like fast food and drive-thrus presumably savings us time and money. Shifts that present themselves as reasonable and good in the modern world of limited time and income, a world of duo careers and endless responsibilities. A world of the good life freeing us up to do what we really love like volunteering in hospitals, school functions, sports, scrap bookings, shopping, gambling, having affairs, taking drugs and internet porn. My point is, not everything in our modern life is making us truly happy or healthy. I think it is doing us as much harm as good. And that is just on the personal level. On the global field, giving up the growing of our food and the wisdom of soil stewardship has, in so many ways, led to the lack of global stewardship.

“What has happened is that most people in our country, and apparently most in the developed world, have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter. Moreover they are rapidly giving proxies to corporation or government to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of the sick and the elderly, and many other kinds of ‘service’ that once were carried on informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities. Our major economic practice, in short, is to delegate the practice to others.” This passage by Wendell Berry written in 2002 for Orion Society magazine should be read in its entirely at In short, the case was made, and I believe accurately, that delegating basic personal and communal needs to corporations and governments leads to a life of disconnects and abuses both spiritually and environmentally. And therein lays my problem with the modern world.

I sense the disconnect, I feel the abuses. I watch a youth culture attempting to make sense of the world their inheriting. And in answer to all of this I grow food and attempt to define a softer, kinder and more responsible measure of economics. With every bit of lawn I turn over to the growing food and with every can of the season’s harvest I preserve I get a little closer to the rock. I am well aware that my concerns and obsessions may not guide all or many but for the few who find discord with the modern world I suggest taking up the growing of food. It is a good first step in redefining our place in the world and in reinventing a principled economy, a whole-life economy and a backyard economy. That, at least, is what I’m hoping for.

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