Soil and Sacrament: book review and interview with author Fred Bahnson

Originally posted on June 27, 2016

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

In Soil & Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, author and professor Fred Bahnson takes us along on his yearlong odyssey, visiting Christian and Jewish communities of faith enacting environmental care through their gardens. Along the way, Bahnson provides depth to the stories by weaving in his own thoughts, memories, and the experiences that led him to a deep concern for caring for the land, grounded in his Christian faith. He also introduces us to surprising, engaging, and wise individuals: monks growing mushrooms, a prisoner who wants to start a farm, and a southern pastor working to heal a racist community through gardening.

Whole Terrain readers may be surprised to learn about the emergence of a food and faith movement, blossoming all over the country, contrary to many vocal Christian voices denying climate change. A network of such thriving communities is evident in the links found on websites such as Hazon, a leading organization in the Jewish food movement, and this list of organizations by the Christian Food Movement. Many seminaries anddivinity schools are also beginning to train pastors, priests, and ministers in environmental care. Bahnson directs and teaches in one such school: the Food, Health, and Ecological Well-being Program at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Bahnson also founded Anathoth Community Garden, a church-supported agriculture ministry in North Carolina. When he found himself feeling burnt out after initial years of passion for community gardening, he decided to use his sabbatical to spend time nourishing and restoring his soul through connecting with other people of faith and the land they tend.

The reader journeys with Bahnson through the four seasons, experiencing each of four holidays in a different religious community and its garden: Advent at Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina, Easter at the Lord’s Acre in North Carolina, Pentecost at Tierra Nueva in Washington State, and Sukkot (Feast of Booths) at Adamah Farm in Connecticut. Bahnson describes these communities and his own journey with eloquent prose as well as humor, offering the reader a glimpse of both the holy and the profane—the “sinner” and the “saint”—in the lives of each of the people he meets. His lyrical descriptions connect us to the people and places he visited, as well as something deeper: a source in tune with the rhythms of the seasons and the rituals enacted by each community.

I asked Fred Bahnson to give us some insight into the process of writing this book, what soil and sacrament have to do with one another, and to connect his work with our upcoming volume’s theme of Breaking Bread.

Whole Terrain: What sparked your idea to write Soil & Sacrament?

Ananthoth Community Garden

Fred Bahnson: The idea really arose out of the soil of a place: Anathoth Community Garden. I helped start this garden in rural Cedar Grove, NC back in 2005, and over the four years I worked there I started writing about the garden and its people. It was, and is, an extraordinary place. It occurred to me that a community garden is a kind of microcosm of society. It’s a stage on which the actors fret and strut their hours—two at a time on volunteer workdays—and as a writer I wanted to capture their performance. The first essay I wrote about Anathoth appeared in Orion.

The book grew out of the story of that place, but I realized there was a larger story to tell. That was the story of how faith communities across the country are re-rooting themselves in the soil: growing gardens, starting farms, and reconnecting with the sources of their nourishment. I needed to try and tell that story, too. So I chose one community for each season, each community corresponding with a liturgical holiday. That gave me my structure.

WT: What one or two experiences or individuals were some of your favorites from this book?

Tierra Nueva

FB: I grew fond of many of the characters in the book. Though the book is an extended meditation on the metaphor of the garden—“the garden is our oldest metaphor,” I write in the introduction—my primary subject is people. I’m thinking now of Zach Joy, the lead coffee roaster at Tierra Nueva, a Pentecostal ministry in Washington’s Skagit Valley who appears in chapter 5. I spent one Friday morning roasting coffee with Zach in the Underground Coffee shop. Zach, a former heroin addict, was an imposingly large man with lots of tats, a shaved head, andthe heart of a puppy dog. We got all hopped up on caffeine together while he roasted beans and told me stories about his previous life. He described the roasting process, how when the beans heat up they crack, and that’s when all their aromatic goodness is exposed. “It’s like when the heat of the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” Zach said. “It cracks you open and makes you better.”

WT: Can you sum up why and how the ideas of “soil” and “sacrament” go together?

FB: In the book I use the word “sacrament” to mean “a physical manifestation of God’s presence, a channel of Divine grace.” In the Christian tradition things like water, bread, oil, and wine are sacramental, in that they convey divine grace. Soil, by extension, is a sacrament as well, because bread, wine, and oil all come from the soil, as does our daily nourishment. Soil is the medium by which God sustains Life. Without soil there is no life; therefore, it is inherently holy. “Soil is a portal that joins us to the world to come even while rooting us more deeply in this one.”

WT: It seems like your sense of time changes across the pages of this book. Can you share a bit about how your understanding or experience of time changed as you began to immerse yourself in community gardening and meeting with people of faith who were working with food?

FB: I’m glad that you asked that, because time is one of the sub-themes of the book. Another sub-theme, one that continues to fascinate me, is the tension between the poles of solitude and community: the need to be alone and refuel, and the need to engage with others. It’s a journey each of us navigates every day.

Back to your question on time: during my years working at Anathoth Community Garden, I found that the work itself slowed me down. So much about our modern world speeds us up in ways that are not always healthy—like getting jacked up on caffeine, my drug of choice—so we need to actively seek ways to slow ourselves down. Working in a garden does that. So does good liturgy. I found my time at the Jewish Farm (Adamah Farm, chapter 7) was also an exercise in slowing down. I immersed myself in the Jewish Shabbat, the weekly Sabbath, which ushers us into a temporality at once strange andbeguiling. I learned much from reading Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel’s lovely book The Sabbath. Here’s a passage from my book in which I quote Heschel:

After three days of rain, Shabbat dawned clear and windy, as if something new had blown over the mountains and down into our little valley. The Sabbath is not just a day; it is an aura, a spiritual force that infuses everything with the gentle and feminine light of Shekhinah [the feminine aspect of God]. “The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all,” Heschel wrote, “It is not a date but an atmosphere…the Sabbath sends out its presence over the fields, into our homes, into our hearts. It is a moment of resurrection of the dormant spirit in our souls.”

WT: In connection with the theme of our upcoming volume, Breaking Bread, you discuss a number of times of breaking bread with different types of people. You talk eloquently about the reconciliation and sense of connection that occurs, sometimes when the food is directly connected with the land you’re working, and sometimes not (as in the prison story of “breaking bread” with prisoners in solitary confinement illicitly sharing candy). You also discuss breaking bread as a form of potential environmental justice. What does “breaking bread” connote to you, based on the stories and experiences you relate in this text?

FB: I would say the entire book is an extended answer to your question. My aim was to show the profundity of connection between the food we eat, the soil in which it was grown, and the people who grew it. For the people I wrote about, and indeed for myself, those connections are all animated and sustained by God’s spirit. There are holy webs of connection waiting to be discovered in the way that we eat. The stories about those connections are boundless, and my book was born from a desire to tell a few of them.

WT: How would you describe the work you’re doing now?

FB: In terms of “breaking bread” in my teaching, I’ve just finished leading an annual seminar called Bread in the Wilderness. You can see a glimpse of what that looks like here.

Much of my writing focus lately has been focused on climate change. Last year a lovely journal called Image—one of my favorites—commissioned me to write an essay about art, belief, and evolution. What emerged is a reflection on climate change. The piece is titled “Sons of Noah” and appears in their 2015 Summer issue.

This past year I’ve been reporting and writing a long-form piece tentatively called “Tree of Life.” Part essay, part immersion journalism, it’s a reflection on what a contemplative response to climate change might entail.


Bio: Fred Bahnson is the author of Soil & Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith (Simon & Schuster, 2013)His essays have appeared in Harper’s (forthcoming), Oxford AmericanImageOrionThe SunWashington Postand Best American Spiritual Writing 2007. His writing has received a number of awards including a Pilgrimage Essay Award, a Kellogg Food & Community fellowshipand a North Carolina Artist fellowship in creative nonfiction from the NC Arts Council. He is Assistant Professor of the Practice of Ecological Well-being at Wake Forest University School of Divinity and lives with his wife and sons in Transylvania County, North Carolina.

News Reporter
Cherice Bock edited Whole Terrain's volumes 22 and 23, "Trust" and "Breaking Bread." She is currently a general editor and works mainly on soliciting, editing, and creating web content.

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