City Mouse, Country Mouse

Sharon October 4th, 2007

Today is Shemini Atzeret, when Jews pray for rain, and when we say goodbye to Sukkot. Sukkot is the holiday in which Jews eat and sometimes sleep in funny looking little houses in their yards. One of my more urban Jewish friends used to say that carrying the soup out from the house to the sukkah was the closest he ever wanted to get to camping ;-). There are a lot of Jewish jokes about not going anywhere near nature, because Jews are overwhelmingly an urban people, for a whole host of reasons. Many places forbade Jews to own land, or much land. Through most of Jewish history it was only a matter of time before you would be cast off your land or driven out of it. So urban life made sense, and gradually, most Jews left the land and agriculture, and mostly even forgot what it was like to be an agrarian people. But we are reminded of the agricultural roots of our faith in a whole host of ways, one of which is sukkot.

Sukkahs are temporary dwellings, with roofs made of branches that let you see the stars and feel the rain, to remind Jews of the booths they lived in in the desert after escaping slavery. They remind us of our vulnerability. Irving Greenberg argues that Sukkot is the Jewish people’s reminder that we don’t usually get to stay much of anywhere - so don’t get too attached to any bit of soil. In fact, he argues, we shouldn’t get attached to our land, because it can kill us, if we don’t leave in time when things get bad for the Jews.

Despite that reminder of our vulnerability and our instability, Sukkot is a happy holiday, a harvest festival. And that’s perhaps the most remarkable thing about sukkot to me - sukkot reminds us of dwelling in the desert, where there was no harvest from the soil, only manna from heaven. But, it is implied, we still celebrated the harvest, even though we were far from the people harvesting. That is, our agrarianism doesn’t depend on our being *present* or participants in agriculture, merely that we know and understand that right now, the most important thing going on in the harvest, and that even in cities, we live our lives around that knowledge.

And it is that part of Sukkot that most fascinates me - the insistence that we live the agricultural rhythyms of the earth no matter where we are, that we are fundamentally tied to our agrarian culture. My husband grew up in an apartment in suburban New Jersey. His family had an agricultural past - his great-grandfather had a farm on the German Danish border, until the day the Nazis came for him. Eric’s great-grandfather, Ali Wolfe, escaped, but the farm no longer belongs to his family, of course. And thus, my husband and his family were left to express their ties to the land through religious holidays and the occasional backyard garden.

My husband grew up, as most Americans who live far from rural places do, only dimly aware of the links between rain and agriculture, food in the stores and on shelves and food in fields. He grew up far away from the places where food was grown, far away from the rites and rituals of agriculture, seeing them only through the lens of his synagogue, which was itself a suburban place, where ritual foods come from the store. In two generations, my husband’s family lost not just a farm, but an awareness, a systemic understanding of how nature and human will and
the blessings of G-d unify to feed and clothe and shelter them - that is, precisely the facts that shaped the development of their faith.

Urbanization is the biggest trend in history. For the first time, more human beings live in cities than in the country. More than 50,000 farmers worldwide leave their land or are driven off of it every single day, most of them moving to cities, often to slum dwellings on the outskirts of growing megacities. And in each family, there is a cycle in that movement. The first generation who moves from the farm to the city remains agricultural in mindset and practice. They will never fully assimilate into urban life, but will be the grandparents who embarass their children by picking edible plants from the side of the road and giving nutritious soups instead of vitamins. Their children will want to fit into the urban life. They will disdain and reject the skills of their parents, in many cases, or at best view what their parents know as irrelevant. The second generation recognizes that what the first generation knew is now gone, and wants it as far out of the way as possible. The second generation will be taught how to pick and use those plants, but they will see such knowledge as old fashioned, embarassing or even “dirty.”

Then comes the third generation removed from the land. They may have eaten grandmother’s soup, or seen her pick the greens, but they will also have absorbed their parent’s rejection of these things - at least at first. And only when they are grown will the grandchildren begin to see the value of what their grandparents knew, and to try and recreate it a little. If they are fortunate, they will have noticed their lack before the first generation is gone. If not, they will try and recreate what is lost as best they can, knowing that it is never the same as the first. They will start searching for the echoes of their agrarian past everywhere, and begin trying to remake the world from the echoes in their religion, their practices, their habits.

This process, with variations, gets enacted everywhere that people move out of the country and into the cities. Sociologist Lynda Kim argues that this is pretty much universal in the transition from rural to urban cultures. But does it have to work this way? We may not be able to reverse the tide of urbanization - indeed, there are good reasons for concentrating people into cities. We simply don’t have enough land to allow every single person on earth an agrarian life. But how do we keep the link between city and country? It is a link that is important to both parties - the exploitation of farmers who are underpaid and disregarded is only possible when you don’t know any farmers, when you don’t care what they have to do to make your dinner. And urbanites who have lost touch with natural rhythyms need to get in touch with them, to have a relationship not only to their food, but to their agrarian origins.

America has an unusual gap between city and country. In many places in Africa, Asia and Russia, even urban people have a “country place.” But this does not imply a recreational second home, as it does here, but a simple shack or other shelter designed to allow you to gather or grow food during the correct season. In much of southern Africa, middle class urban dwellers keep cattle, and go out the land to tend them during the weekends. In Russia, summerhouses allow people to collect mushrooms and wild plants.

In America, there are still vestiges of this culture. Hunting and fishing camps are now recreational to a large degre, but there are still millions of Americans who rely for deer and fish for primary sources of food. The community garden in the undeveloped areas of urban centers might be a metaphoric version of this - the reminder that food does not have to be grown only on land you own, or on land your house rests upon. But the overwhelming assumption is that the first step to agriculture is ownership.

That’s wrong. It is wrong because many of the people who most need to grow food cannot afford to own land, and it is wrong, I think because as Sukkot reminds us, it isn’t about any one piece of land. It is about all the land. Our society can only survive the coming crises if we make the nation, and the world bloom, if we use land productively, wisely and carefully. But it is also wrong because understanding what is going on depends on having a populace that is connected to its own agriculture. That is, we cannot afford to leave millions of city and suburb dwellers out of the project of creating a sustainable agriculture. And since few people can afford to live in expensive cities and also own large quantities of rural land, we need to think of more creative ways than traditional ownership to draw those connections

How might we reconnect urban dwellers to their own agricultural traditions? CSAs have provided an excellent model, but up until now, most CSAs are providing only in-season produce to their members. There is no reason why urban dwellers shouldn’t also get their grains from CSGs, signing up in the spring to receive a fair share of wheat, beans, corn or rice. There is no reason why we shouldn’t get our yarn, sweaters, mittens, gloves, tshirts, socks, tablecloths and blankets from CSFs, that produce fiber goods, or yarn that someone can bring to their neighborhood weaver or sock knitter to be made up. While this would be more expensive than buying sweatsocks from Walmart, it would also be putting our money where our principles are.
Albert Bates told me last year that The Farm has started the US’s first “CSE” - where they use existing expanses of outbuilding roof to generate solar electricity, and sell it back to their neighbors. The possibilities for wood for heating and building, clothing, food, and other goods are enormous, and vastly underexplored.

But it isn’t just enough to have a relationship with farmers. There are some things you can only learn by touching and smelling and living. We need to bring urban dwellers out to the land, at least some of the time. Train and boat lines that run from cities to the countryside could take teenagers who need summer work out to farms. It wasn’t so very long ago that many teenagers barned tobacco, baled hay or picked cherries every year. It could be that way again.

While buying your own dacha in the countryside is a pricey proposition, there is no reason why urban dwellers might not invest in local farms. They might buy some sheep that will be theirs, paying to have them fed, tended and grazed, receiving lamb and wool at the end of the year. We routinely stable horses this way - there is no reason we could not do so with food animals. The owner, of course, would have a relationship with the animal. Or perhaps urban dwellers might join together to buy a plot of land with a farmer. The farmer would farm the land, paying out the owners in produce and food in perpetuity. Thousands of young people would like to get on some land - there is no reason they should not. Such arrangements are new, and potentially come with difficulties, but normalizing them would go a long way to making them easier to navigate.

The movement to limit development has meant that towns and cities often now hold parcels of land that cannot be developed. There is no reason why such community resources should serve only the tax rolls - there is no reason why cattle cannot graze the local commons again, why farms rescued from the bulldozer should not be transformed into smaller truck farms, or farmed by tenants, or turned into community gardens. Many already are - the intervale in Burlington Vermont being a stunning example. More could be.

It is harvest time now. We are filling the grain bins and enjoying the lush period of the autumn. It is time for all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike to remind ourselves that none of us is so very far from our agrarian past, and that all we have to do to reclaim it is to begin to do so.


25 Responses to “City Mouse, Country Mouse”

  1. Rosaon 04 Oct 2023 at 7:25 pm

    Thank you for this post, Sharon.

    CSAs are often also an opportunity to work on the farm, and that can be very important emotionally. I was at a Green Expo a few years ago where one of the speakers was an African American man who said joining a CSA healed his relationship to agriculture, which he had always associated with slavery. My neighbors are Mexican-American and their kids did Youth Farm this summer. Their dad was *very* skeptical that farm work could be fun, but the kids loved it. They’re going to grow up with a completely differet relationship to food production than their parents, in a good way.

  2. Anonymouson 04 Oct 2023 at 7:49 pm

    good post

    One point I have to dispute.
    On urbanization I think you contradict yourself. I admit my argument as being simplistic, but …
    In fact we can ONLY afford to have as many people as we can fit if everyone had agrarian life.
    Think about this - productivity of a large mechanized farm that feeds a thousand people does not mean that the same thousand people could not grow that same food themselves.
    Just the opposite - I was reading that the smaller acreage that you farm - the more productive is each square foot.
    So if we all lived on the land - we could likely feed a lot MORE people (better food too).
    Of course we want the factories to run to make us widgets etc. But the more people on the land the more food. AND the better care is taken of the land.
    I am not talking about the endless suburbia - that is a waste - house and a lawn, but like you said - agrarian life, as in growing food.
    I would think that increased productivity from tiny farming would give us plenty of room for individual houses as big as anyone could maintain.

    What do you think ?
    I would appreciate your opinion on this.

  3. homebrewlibrarianon 04 Oct 2023 at 8:07 pm

    With regard to not owning land first to grow your own food, I worked on two CSA farms the summer of 2006. One was operated by a young woman who was growing her vegetables on land owned by the brother of her partner. Her partner baked pizzas and cookies on site that were frozen and sold at farmer’s markets and his brother the owner was heavily into permaculture and garlic. Lots of garlic. She owned the business and lived on the land but the land was owned by someone else. She was in her mid twenties and completely passionate about what she was doing. If I hadn’t lived two hours away, I’d have been there more frequently. It was the distance issue that lead me to another CSA farm only 15 minutes from where I worked. The woman who operated the farm owned several acres and had a number of worker-share and hourly helpers. She was in her late 40s and had been involved in agriculture for a couple decades but had the same passion at the younger one. I stopped working there because the season ended and then I moved from Wisconsin to Alaska during the winter.

    What I learned is that young people with no previous agricultural experience are returning to farming. And making it work. This young woman didn’t need to own the land to have a farm, she just needed access to it. I also learned a whole lot about seasonability (I also learned that the farmer’s life was not for me, although I do find it terribly therapeutic to pull weeds for several hours at a time - just not every day).

    Similarly, after having read _Good News for a Change_ by David Suzuki, I was inspired by the people who practice guerilla farming. These are folks who either green up wasted abandoned land or plant food plants on them. There’s an abandoned house on the corner down the street from where a friend lives which has become a forest of birch saplings. I’m considering doing the lazy gardener approach to preparing land (cover the ground in question with several layers of newspaper, top with cardboard, pile hay or grass then compost on top, cover with a weighted tarp and wait several months. Eventually everything will break down and you’ve got good soil to garden upon) and have talked my friend into participating in my idea. He’s going to chat up a fellow who is the self designated neighborhood watch about our idea and he expects the guy would be fine with that and not call the cops on us. Good to keep the community on your side. I fully expect to be thrown off the land at some point, but in the meantime, why not use it? It’s certainly not doing anyone any good in the condition its in now.

    Besides having a place to grow food, this guerilla garden will allow my friend’s daughter and grandson the opportunity to learn about agriculture as they share a building with my friend. I’ve played with backyard gardening and found it to be both amazingly educational as well a way to supplement my food needs. I hope that that this very young man gets some roots set down himself and becomes familiar with agriculture as he matures. That and we all benefit from the products of our labors.

    Good post!


  4. LimeSarahon 05 Oct 2023 at 2:32 am

    This is our first year being CSA shareholders, but I’ve been told that one of the previous directors of the farm wrote very eloquent newsletters each week, because he started out as a journalist. He was assigned to do an article on local agriculture, and now has his own farm out somewhere :-)

  5. jewishfarmeron 05 Oct 2023 at 2:07 pm

    Anonymous, I think you have a good basic point. The only place where I’ll quibble is this. Let’s say we divide all the arable land up in the world equally, and move everyone out onto it. But that would mean making no use of existing urban infrastructure, that now covers large chunks of arable land, and it would also involve building houses, and roads and all the other things that even a basic agrarian way of life requires on now open land. Which means that while small scale agriculture is more efficient, we’re also losing significant portions of each acre lot (estimates suggest that by mid-century we’ll have about .6 acres of existing arable land per person) to infrastructure. Not to mention the additional water infrastructure, etc…

    In places where arable land is already covered by infrastructure, like suburbia, it makes sense to use it this way - we’ve already subdivided the land. In fact, the half acre lots of suburbia are probably what most American’s subsistence plots will look like - that’s about how much land there is for most people.

    But it isn’t necessarily clear to me that it makes a lot of sense to then more infrastructure or existing fields, as compared, to say, arranging transportation so that people in surrounding cities and towns can travel out to the fields in the morning and back at night to live in the cities, or building small dormitories so that urban people can come out and spend the summer farming.

    We’ve simply got too many houses covering up land right now, I think we have to be vary careful how we treat our existing arable land. That’s part of why I wrote this post - because I want to think of it in other terms than one lives on it and builds on it.

    Does this make any sense?


  6. Larryon 05 Oct 2023 at 3:18 pm

    Good post, Sharon. I’ve been wondering how someone could organize a CSE for wood, it might cut down on wood poaching and clearcutting. A CSG would be a much better way to get grains.

  7. Ameliaon 05 Oct 2023 at 5:05 pm

    The previous owner of our home loved his cars: fully a third of the 1/3 acre lot is taken up with various hard surfaces dedicated to parking and storing them.

    Next year (would have been this year, but bad weather and poor health prevented it) a friend is taking out three parking spaces in the back and the front driveway: my next-door neighbor and I are putting in a shared herb garden in the space the driveway currently occupies, the veg garden in the back will expand tremendously, and the garage will eventually be converted into a guest house (it’s brick, and tall enough that a sleeping loft could be built with no trouble).

    A few people have screamed that we’re ruining the resale value of the place; I think living on a major public transit line and having a large established garden is going to increase it quite a bit once PO starts manifesting more prominently.

  8. homebrewlibrarianon 05 Oct 2023 at 5:39 pm

    Amelia’s comment reminded me of a quote from Bill McDonough:

    The question is, when do we all become indigenous people? When do we become native to this place. When do we decide we are not leaving?

    I’m going to think of this quote any time I hear about someone catching grief from the neighbors about property values going down the toilet because a vegetable garden is going in the front yard or that the land is being maximized to include other structures. It seems unbelievable to some folks that there are people that actually DO NOT intend to ever move out of the place that they own. I can only imagine the shock the buy-low-sell-high crowd is going to have when they realize that when things gets tight, no one will buy their homes. Best to consider using and adapting what you have.


  9. Ameliaon 05 Oct 2023 at 6:55 pm


    That’s something my husband and I talk about constantly, inspired by a post of Sharon’s about choosing to stay where one is: what if this is home? What if we decide to see things through here, until we die or the Wasatch Fault cuts loose and the valley liquifies?

    That radically changes our priorities: if we stay, the next big project after the roof needs to be a rainwater collection and storage system, and pushing the city council to change the ordinances so that people living east of I-15 can have vegetable gardens in their front yards.

    I need to assume that my son and his partner and any children they may have will be living with us at some point, and redo the basement accordingly: expand the cold storage room, gut the two tiny bathrooms and put in one that will stand up to heavy daily use, convert the junk room full of outdated computer software and hardware into a pleasant bedroom . . . .

  10. Canadianon 05 Oct 2023 at 7:20 pm

    As an urbanite, I would love to be more in touch with agriculture. I can’t actually go there though. How would I get there? I don’t have a car. And for me to buy one would be a huge step backward for the planet and for peak oil.

  11. Anonymouson 05 Oct 2023 at 7:27 pm

    Dear urbanite,

    What about a farmers’ market? Is there one in town? Could you help rally to get one started? I’ve heard of people volunteering to work at them in exchange for produce. Or how about an urban garden? Or dabbling with indoor gardening and container gardening? We have one sunny sill and a fire escape and (without obstructing the latter) are experimenting with sprouting, indoor greens (wheatgrass, sunflower greens, onion greens), herbs, and container varieties of tomatoes and peppers.

    -another urbanite

  12. Anonymouson 05 Oct 2023 at 7:28 pm

    Also, if you look into CSAs through, you might find a farm that delivers to a drop-off spot in the city for customers. That’s the case where we are.

  13. jewishfarmeron 05 Oct 2023 at 8:21 pm

    Canadian - at least in the major cities where I live, it would be possible to take forms of public transportation to some food producing areas. So that would be one option. Carpooling with others who have similar interests would be another. Depending on where you live, bicycling might be possible - Cubans bicycle out of Havana to rural areas, but in many sprawling cities, that’s not an option.

    Farmer’s markets, CSAs and urban community gardens are also good options. The beautiful thing about the internet is that you can build “unofficial” CSA relationships now - find a local farmer though localharvest, and see if you can get one large delivery of apples, or tomatoes for preservation, perhaps a year’s supply of brains and greans (ok, I know that’s wrong, but I wrote it, and I kind of like the way it looks - you know what I mean ;-).
    Particularly if you can combine orders with other people in your community, it would be worth someone renting a car, taking a bus trip or the farmer making a delivery for a large enough order.



  14. jewishfarmeron 05 Oct 2023 at 8:22 pm

    Kerri, I’ve always liked that quote. Every time someone offers us a home refinance or tell us that we could get X amount for our house (not likely anymore, but it used to happen), we remind them that we don’t see our house as a commodity - it is home. The land is something precious to us.

    But that’s not how most of us are trained to think, I guess.


  15. Ameliaon 05 Oct 2023 at 9:02 pm

    canadian, I live in downtown Salt Lake City: the original city boundary is three blocks north of my house. Getting to the farms would be a challenge for us, but as others have wisely remarked, it’s possible to get the farm to you. If you’re in an apartment, start with a window box; ask the owner if you could set up square foot box gardens on the roof.

    If there are farmers’s markets near you, shop there. If there’s a CSA in your area, buy a share. If there’s a community garden organization, apply for a plot and then show up and work it.

    I liked homebrew librarian’s quote and will respond with another: “Do what you can with what you have, where you are.”

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