It must have been more than a dozen years ago that I walked into the Iron Hill in Newark and discovered on the menu something I didn’t remember seeing before: “Quinoa Salad”. I asked the server, “What’s Quinoa?” She explained that it was an ancient grain of some kind. I thought, “Why not? Sounds healthy,” and was surprised when she brought me a plate with lettuce and a nicely sculpted pyramid of small reddish “stuff” that resembled the barley that Dad once raised on his farm.
This month I’ve attended several events in the southern part of Yuma County, Colorado. A friend, Maureen, who is a community organizer and metal sculpture artist, has gotten a grant to support an educational event to address “Prairie Futures”, concerned with producing food on the high plains. The series of events are instructional and entertaining, with lectures, readings, music; and farmers’ markets; the installation includes circles of plants largely new to the area, but which require little water and also have significant root systems which replenish the earth they’re planted in rather than extracting nutrients from it. The not-new-but-not-traditional plants the project supports are amaranth, sunchoke, millet, hemp and – quinoa! A meal was served one evening making use of these plants.
The problem the project seeks to address is that northeastern Colorado like much of the farm and ranch land of the lower Midwest sits above the Ogalala aquifer, a huge underground aquifer that stretches from southern Montana to Oklahoma and north Texas. But in the eighties and nineties it was used to irrigate otherwise dry land and now the wells are producing far less water than they once did; and some parts of the aquifer will never be replenished. One of the farmers explained in a forum: We don’t just need to practice sustainable forms of agriculture; we need regenerative forms of land stewardship.”
Every week lines form outside St. Stephen’s comprised of those who need additional food. A blessing of the pandemic may have been that the need has been forced into Trolley Square so that the whole community has become aware of “food insecurity” in Wilmington and has taken ownership for meeting that need. But the need is not just a “Trolley Square” or a “Wilmington” or a “great plains” issue: it’s a global issue. I think it is so wonderful that churches like St. Stephen’s and elsewhere in the Delaware-Maryland synod and people of faith in other faith traditions are investing in gardens and learning gardening practices that are not just “sustainable” but “regenerative”. And I find it interesting that quinoa is not just an exotic salad in a rather upscale Wilmington-Newark restaurant chain; it’s a hardy plant that might be part of an agricultural scheme to regenerate a parched earth and provide more healthy food for more needy people.
Last Sunday we heard once again St. John’s story of Jesus feeding 5,000. We shared Andrew’s anguish, pointing to a boy with five loaves and two fish: “But what are they among so many?” I’ve mused a bit through the years about Jesus’ miracle: wat it a miracle of production or of distribution? I wonder more and more if it was actually a miracle of satisfaction: the people ate and were satisfied and there were five baskets left over! I think again about my quinoa salad: it wasn’t large; but it was satisfying. When Jesus feeds us with his body, he doesn’t give us large portions: a fragment of bread and a sip of wine – but it’s satisfying.
The crops that my friend Maureen is introducing to us in south Yuma County are not new: some of them have been raised in the southwest since before the Europeans came to the continent. But it might be that Jesus’s use of bread and wine and of a few loaves and fish might suffice to help us reimagine new uses for ancient grains that give back to the earth more than they take from it, not just to sustain the earth, but to regenerate it. One wonders how Quinoa might do where St. Stephen’s plants grain and vegetables.
The Rev. Allen Heggen