Starving Time

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ames
June 2003

Every spring as the earth starts to warm I look for the plants that are the first to awaken. I look for the emergence of rhubarb with its wrinkled brown/red bud poking up from the bed where it has laid dormant since October. From the asparagus patch I rake off the thatch of last year’s leaves and stems and look for the first point of an asparagus tip. I’m always premature, there’s nothing there. I look for the unlikely appearance of the feathery-leaved the horseradish. I have to wait. It is the starving time.

Early this spring when things were just beginning to look green, Mark and I talked of how we longed for fresh vegetables and fruits from the garden. In this conversation we remembered that this time of year was called the ‘starving time’. A time in the past when many would starve as winter stores had long since been consumed. It was a time when those things just planted had yet to yield. It seems a cruelty to succumb to starvation while surrounded by so much promise, the flowering fruit trees, and the corn and bean seedlings just coming up. I would hate to die in the spring surrounded by so much of life wanting to make more of itself.

Starving time for us is not one of a lack of something to eat. It is a lack of sustenance of sorts. Sometimes I lack an easy connection to the place on which I live. A strong emotional connection to place could help sustain me. Up until just a short time ago in human history the connection was deep and required if one were to survive. Part of me feels this human emptiness, a sense of not belonging, a stranger in my own environment. I feel as though I’m standing outside looking in wanting to be invited to belong to this natural place. In winter I grow weak and vulnerable, I succumb to the siren call of the strawberries on the grocery shelves in January. Suffering later, I stand there in my own kitchen holding a half eaten berry, disgusted with myself, and the lack of flavor and the hard, cardboard-like texture. Duped again. In February I’m weak-kneed just looking at the alluring red tomatoes. I buy even though I know they’re engineered to turn red after they’ve been picked greener than green and treated with ethylene to force ripening. The flavor is never there. But my longing for the real thing is so great, I just have to try. I’m disappointed, I’m starving. Maybe you’ve been starving too.

I think we suffer a starvation from unintended consequences – consequences of reduced labor have resulted in people who are heavier and less fit. Bigger machinery and the invention of engines and the steel plow, 12 row planters and the combine have separated us from the land. We have rapid transportation of fruits and vegetables from around the globe. I’m not saying these things are bad, just that they’ve had the unintended consequence of detaching us from the natural world. Starving us of something intangible. I want to take some of this intangible back.

In mid March, on a rare dry sunny day Mark tilled a small section of the garden.  I planted lettuce, spinach, and radishes. Then it snowed. They like it cool, they waited. In May we were eating from this early garden. The starving time was beginning to ebb. These vegetables were crunchy, the lettuce was beautiful, light green, dark green, curly, and smooth. The radishes were red and white with deep green foliage. The spinach was a dark green, rich in flavor, perfect in shape. And this is only the beginning.

We planted more fruit trees, cherries, plums, apples. There’s so much hope in planting trees. Our older trees bloomed, there was enough dry weather to bring out the bees. Now the fruit is forming, apples, peaches and cherries. The raspberries are blooming, green hard little brown/green berries promise to become infused with sugar and sunlight, and grow red and sweet in July. Strawberries are ripe. The rains have made them plump. The starving time is over.

Some of us continue to starve all year ‘round. Not realizing that we don’t have to. The people of Iowa used to produce nearly all of their own vegetables. The state had canneries with which to preserve the excess for export. It used to be the biggest apple producing state in the U.S. During World War II it gave many a great sense of pride to have victory gardens producing as much of their own food as they could. So much has changed in 50 years. But maybe the starving time is over. Iowa is once again taking pride in their ability to grow more than corn and beans. Even HyVee (an Iowa-grown company) is carrying Iowa Grown products. They’re labeling these as such, they’ve become aware of our hunger for real sustenance. 

Starving time is over. We are connected whether we know it or not. The natural world welcomes us, we are not separate, just hungry. And the table is set. Drink deeply of the summer air, rich in scents of peonies and freshly mowed grass. Watch closely as the irises give way to Queen Anne’s lace and wild rose. Hear the birds, they’ve gone crazy with celebration. Feel the grasses growing the heat of the summer sun. Taste the strawberries.