Inch Worms and Real Food

An inch worm in our lettuceThis morning Mike and I headed to our local Farmer’s Market, as is our custom on Saturdays. Each week I feel a quiet excitement about walking down and seeing what will be available. We’ve had asparagus and strawberries the past few trips, and I was expecting some lettuces to be coming in this week. I was not disappointed.

As I meandered over to one of the tables dotted with small piles of baby romaine and green leaf, I settled on a bag of bright, fresh lettuce and gladly handed over the $3. As one of the women passed me the bag of lettuce, she warned, “Now this lettuce hasn’t been washed, and we don’t use any pesticides, so you may find some bugs in there.”

When we lived in Pasadena, we used to get a farm-share box, and the lettuce often bring a few free-loaders. As I had watched my mom do so many times, I would dunk the leaves in a bowl or basin of water and swish them around, draining and refilling until there was no dirt or debris in the fresh water. One of the first times I learned the implications of “organic,” the head of lettuce from our box was so full of aphids that, after I finished the first rinse, there were translucent, green specks covering the bottom and sides of the sink like a dusting of flour. After a moment of cringing, I chided myself, flushed the aphids down the drain with the sprayer, and finished cleaning the leaves.

I have to admit that I am one of those people who can be a little antsy about bugs and critters (like the “swarmers” and “creepers” of Genesis and Leviticus, and in my exegesis classes, I would ask myself, “Who would want to eat those anyway?”). Not super antsy, but more than I want to admit… because I know it’s ridiculous.

Not too long before the aphid experience, I read Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One-Straw Revolution, which challenged me to have a new-found appreciation for spiders. One of Fukuoka’s wider points deals with the health of the land and how living things exist in balance. He critiques the ways that particular agricultural practices wreak havoc on a micro-environment, compounding problems like pests or blights, which then require more unnatural and far-removed solutions to deal with those problems. For example, sprays do not simply kill off the leaf-hoppers that the farmer wants to eliminate but also the predators that naturally eliminate those leaf-hoppers. This then perpetuates the cycle as the population, with no predators to limit growth, spirals out of control, requiring additional or alternative sprays as the pests continue to adapt.

The One-Straw RevolutionBut in addition to this practical juxtaposition between the natural, creative balance of life and short-sighted, expedient solutions, Fukuoka speaks of the art and beauty of the balance (pp. 27-28):

We had just finished harvesting the rice, and overnight the rice stubble and low-lying grasses had become completely covered with spider webs, as though with silk. Waving and sparkling with the morning mist, it was a magnificent sight.

The wonder of it is that when this happens, as it does only once in a great while, it only lasts for a day or two. If you look closely there are several spiders in every square inch. … When you go to look at the field two or three days later, you see that strands of web several yards long have broken off and are waving about in the wind with five or six spiders clinging to each one. It is like when dandelion fluff or pine cone seeds are blown away in the wind. The young spiders cling to the strands and are sent sailing off into the sky.

The spectacle is an amazing natural drama.

I could picture exactly what he was describing; I used to ride my bike to school past the pond in Wilmore, and the morning sun would sparkle on the dewy webs that blanketed the grassy hill. So, when I thought of spiders, I would try to focus on that: the balance of living things, the vibrancy of life in a place where creeping things that creep upon the ground could multiply and fill the earth.

We were part of a community garden the summer after I finished One Straw Revolution, and we inevitably discussed our disdain for the spiders. But we remembered the spiders were important. The spiders meant our plants were healthy. They meant our plants were full of life. They meant that there would be a balance to the creepers with which we shared the leaves and beans and peppers and tomatoes. When I saw the spiders, instead of flinging them aside and crushing them underfoot, I would quietly say, “Thank you, spiders.” It became kind of an ongoing joke between me and a couple of the girls in the group, where we would smile and say, “Thank you, spiders,” and force ourselves not be squeamish.

(Now, I have to admit, last summer I saw one of those nasty, huge Missouri field spiders down in the basement, and I did not say, “Thank you, spider”—I handed Mike my shoe, and he crushed the crap out of that thing.)

The aphids were one more opportunity for me to practice appreciation for living things, for eating plants that are healthy and wholesome and existing in a balanced micro-environment. And so when the woman at the farmer’s market mentioned that there might be bugs in the lettuce, I was thinking of the aphids and of being thankful for spiders and for food that isn’t sterile like so much of our modern lives.

I washed the lettuce when we got home, and I found four inch-worms, a lady bug, and numerous small black bugs. I won’t suggest that I wasn’t squeamish about picking through lettuce to circumvent later discovering some living protein on our plates. But even as I did it, I felt content about our connection with real food, for the ways real food teaches us to be thankful and to be conscious of our existence as dependent beings, members of a broader, inter-connected creation.

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2 thoughts on “Inch Worms and Real Food

  1. I’ve been told by local farmers that with broccoli or cauliflower soaking them in salted water is the way to get the crawlies out. I tried it and what crawled out of my cauliflower ruined my appetite. I’ll have to try again this summer and I’ll be thinking of your aphid filled sink.

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