The title of this piece was included in an end of year TomDispatch commentary, written by one of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit:
…Many seeds stay dormant far longer than that before some disturbance makes them germinate. Some trees bear fruit long after the people who have planted them have died, and one Massachusetts pear tree, planted by a Puritan in 1630, is still bearing fruit far sweeter than most of what those fundamentalists brought to this continent. Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.
and near the end of her piece, this:
I don’t know what’s coming. I do know that, whatever it is, some of it will be terrible, but some of it will be miraculous, that term we reserve for the utterly unanticipated, the seeds we didn’t know the soil held….
I am going to adopt this as my new mantra (my friends and colleagues should get ready to hear it often) for the work that we are all doing in food, in recalibrating what health and wealth means in our communities and in demanding a civic (public) life that breeds empathy and justice.
Writer/activist/teacher Michael Harrington who used the metaphor of being a “long-distance runner” for community organizing and movement work would also say this in lectures:
“…you must recognize that the social vision to which you are committing yourself will never be fulfilled in your lifetime.”
Some of Harrington’s writing and the majority of Solnit’s is about how successful movements-when pulled apart and examined-are made up from a series of direct action moments and negotiations finally coming to fruition around a shared narrative of big or even scary ideas that will lead to societal transformation.
Yet Solnit’s content is most often written about the individual or about small groups using meandering/karmic ways to create this change, outside of the broken or simply too large formal structures that stopped responding to individual plights a long time ago. And that when it happens the right way, collectively and with heart-thumping goals attached (let’s say during the American Revolution or with the 18th and 19th century abolitionists or with the woman’s suffrage movement) it starts slowly with small groups of citizens and spreads to those governing us, not the other way around. And that it takes a while.
All of that is all very nice I hear some of you say. But what does this matter to my never-ending project list and non-stop funding crunch?
What I ask is while you take the time to read this, do examine your own way of working and ask yourself now (and later on too) if you are also caring for the seeds yet unseen. If you have the maturity to manage your or your organization’s relationships in your work like a long-distance runner does with his/her energy and time.
I don’t expect you to remember this post every time that you sit at your desk or head out to the community to work on food and justice. Just remember the title of this piece and remember my teacher Michael Harrington, pacing himself as best he could. He died long before he saw what he defined as success but I believe that he was genuinely glad the work outlived him. Not the injustice certainly but the connections and the ideas.
How could any of us expect to get it all done in our lifetime? My god, I hope many of the seeds and saplings that I have planted bear fruit 300 years after my passing, just like that long ago pear planter.
However you find your pace, I hope we can all find the energy and patience to stay on for the long seasons ahead, some with cloudy dusks with fallow ground and others with sunny days full of trees bearing fruit as far as the eye can see. If not, if you only want a win, to bring in a single crop, then throw it all in now by all means. We need those too. I suspect you will find more work to stick around, but if not, I will still salute your effort and your time. And I’ll come get you when the green shoots takes hold.
Solnit gets the last word:
A decade ago I began writing about hope, an orientation that has nothing to do with optimism. Optimism says that everything will be fine no matter what, just as pessimism says that it will be dismal no matter what. Hope is a sense of the grand mystery of it all, the knowledge that we don’t know how it will turn out, that anything is possible.