My grandfather lived to ninety-five years on a diet of snuff, homemade beer and fried breakfasts. Well, that isn’t exactly true but as a child it certainly seemed that way.
For many years my grandparents lived next door to us in a flat my Dad built on the side of our house and for decades it seemed we were heading in different directions, while I grew steadily upwards, he seemed to get shorter. By the time I was in my late teens he was about 5 foot something, a stout and whiskery little man who always seemed to wear a smile. Most of his days, come rain or shine were spent in his enormous vegetable garden, which, even well into his eighties, he insisted on digging over by hand with a shovel worn sharp by red-Devon soil.
Grumpy, as we called him, not an insult, but a pet name for the grandad in our family, was an immensely practical and down to earth man: here was someone who had been born on a farm outside Bampton with no inside plumbing, heating or electric light and who, during his life, had seem the arrival of: central heating, indoor toilets, radios, phones, tv’s, airplanes, cars, satellites, moon landings and of course, two world wars. Grumpy was a man of simple tastes, clear views and no-nonsense.
Grumpy was someone who Granny Kerslake would describe as a man would say ‘knows his onions.’ In short, he was simple, reliable, and practical, he knew ‘what was what’ He had moved from country to town over the years and back again, but he never lost his country roots and his deep love of the soil. He looked after our chickens and grew a small shops worth of veg, brewed his own lethally strong beer, know each bird and insect, each flower and animal around us and saw God’s fingerprints on all of that.
He was somebody who just was, he knew himself, where he came from and why it mattered.
Sadly, in Britain today it is getting harder and harder to find anyone who knows their onions. A brief Internet search uncovers an alarming amount of research showing that children growing up in the UK today are not able to recognise basic vegetables such as carrots or cauliflowers and do not know that chips are made from potatoes and that bacon comes from pigs. I have said before that I find it deeply concerning that for so many people the countryside is like a theme park they visit at weekends and often only going to sanitised versions of it with a café and convenient toilets. People have become disconnected not just from the wild but even the cultivated land, both of which sustain us in different ways, they are rootless. I believe this is at least part due to living in a world increasingly made of concrete, brick, and steel, of losing our connection to the land we are made from and to serve. And I believe this is a spiritual issue.
Let me explain what I mean by ‘spiritual’. It is often convenient to convince ourselves spiritual is something up there somewhere, a separate place or realm where angels and such like live, or some inner world or prayers and dreams. This is just plain wrong, Christianity is fundamentally a very earthy and physical religion, it does not observe a division between physical, mental or spiritual things. It sees human beings and everything else as the physical and spiritual woven together. When we celebrate Christmas, we should be reminded of this because in Jesus, things earthly and heavenly come together as one, that is the very definition of the incarnation.
So, when Christians use the word ‘spiritual’ we are speaking about the whole of life viewed from the perspective of God and living like this is the only way of happiness, sustainability and prosperity. I believe it is not far-fetched to say that many of our problems begin when we break the sacred connections between ourselves and the countryside, the earth we are named after.
What’s this got to do with children failing to recognise vegetables? Well, everything! It is a sign that life has become disjointed; that we have allowed a separation to get so wide that we have even drifted from that which is most basic: the food we eat, the ground we toil and the seed we sow. If you don’t know what a carrot looks like, how you will you possibly know what a plough is for? And if we spend our lives walking on artificial surfaces and surrounded by the work of human hands, how can we see the world God created for us in all its wonder and glory, so why would we value it or want to protect it.
Today too many children grow up and, therefore, many of us adults do too, not knowing even the most basic things about where our food comes from and yet at the same time we demand an ever ready supply of any meat and veg we fancy regardless of the season or of the environmental damage that is done by flying strawberries around the world so that we can eat them in winter, or sweeping away vast tracts of rain forest so that cattle can graze and we can eat burgers. Or concreting over green fields or driving roads through ancient woodland.
Today statistics show a horrifying number of children never walk on anything for months on end except artificial surfaces, have no idea about food production and cannot recognise even some of the most common wild animals in our country.
We have forgotten who we are and where we came from. We don’t know our onions. We have forgotten we are spiritual beings, which means we are people called to live as God intended and relate to the earth which carries us and feeds us. This knowledge doesn’t just glorify God but also it should also remind us that it is all of us who have a responsibility to live our lives and inhabit the world in a way that is sustainable, beautiful, respectful of the environment, and fruitful not just for us, but for generations to come.