“Let’s take a more holistic approach,” said Kenyan Ester Wanjiku Mwangi as she passed around the burning sage and sweet grass. She called on us to try and summon our ancestors into the room, sang and told us that she would like to bring the spirit of Wangari Maathai into the room. Then she sat down to begin the conference.
Ester comes from an indigenous community near Mt Kenya. There she has studied with sangomas and is a woman very much in touch with her spiritual side. We were gathered to talk about food, medicine and spirituality and the points at which they meet and overlap. “The elements came before us,” she tells us, “as did plants, animals and food.” In societies like Ester’s, food is sacred, so too is nature.
While this idea is nothing new or revolutionary to a Westerner – we know nature has long been sacred (in spite of our continued abuse of it) and are well aware of the spiritual affiliations of plants such as Marijuana or Opium. But what about food? It doesn’t really go hand in hand with spirituality – after all, supermarkets are the most mundane of places.
Next to speak was Kim, a Korean Buddhist. He explained the centrality of rice in the diet of Korean Buddhists and how it is celebrated and revered with great sensibility. But boiled rice is boring! – Not for Kim. He urged us to perceive the sacredness of the foods we eat: that bowl of rice is the result of the sun, rain, biology and microbiology that facilitated its growth. It is the interdependent connectedness of all things. The act of eating is just another interaction in this great net of life. An idea to keep in mind the next time you sit down to dinner.
A holistic approach goes beyond just eating too: Traditional plants and medicines are often the victim of globalization. At present the system has taken traditional knowledge and processed it into medicines, which is a very positive thing. However, medical companies are profit-driven and risk creating a vacuum in traditional knowledge and practices. Tarin from Thailand gave us the example of the Eurycoma Longifolia Jack plant, now widely used in both traditional and alternative medicines. The plant is now being harvested in too large a quantity and is damaging the environment. Nature has the answers, but once they are found they are repackaged and sold for profit. Territories are said to be rich in “natural capital” and the bulldozers move in. They damage traditional communities and the environment in their wake.
Next came Maria Irene Cardoso from Argentina. “Colonizers imposed their religion and culture on our continent.” She explained. One thing that survived was Yerba Mate the once-sacred drink of the Guarani people and currently an anti-globalization emblem across Latin America. It is drunk by over 90 million people today – it is a success story. Yet Maria is not content. She explains the drinks spiritual role in the ancient and traditional communities of the land, it’s specific processes for growth and processing and the specific vessel from which it should be communally drunk. “We cannot define our identity without the herb,” she said. “In all our criticisms we must remind the industry that this is a scared plant.”
We tend to shun such notions of spirituality in favor dispassionate scientific values – but the two needn’t be mutually exclusive. If we believe our existence to be the result of billions of years of evolution and serendipity in the face of the incredible odds, then the beans on the Slow Food Ark of Taste are the result of this incredible and unlikely process. Yet we no longer eat them! They are unique in the known universe and yet they have been abandoned in favor of a limited number of usual suspects that find their way onto our trollies. The fields where they once grew is now full of monoculture soy – where is the spirituality?
Whether you are atheistic, agnostic or deeply religious, understanding the sacredness of things is a simple idea. They are ideas that can help us develop a better food culture. The spirit of the late Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt movement and Nobel Peace Prize winner was invited to our conference. Perhaps it would be fitting to end with her words, “All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet.”