Food from the Radical Center: Healing Our Land and Communities

Food from the radical Centerreview by Bob Banning

Gary Paul Nabhan has seen people collaborate to heal their land, food systems, and communities, and he wants us to see what he sees. He imagines many more people doing the same joyful, hopeful work, and he wants us to imagine with him the further spread of this work. He continues to work with old friends, new friends, and friends-to-be to bring about further healing, and he invites us, if we’re not already so engaged, to take up this work.

In the introduction, Nabhan, a celebrated environmental writer and, according to the dust jacket, “recognized as the father of the local food movement,” evokes the joy of working to restore one’s own local food system—“conservation you can taste,” as he calls it. However, he’s concerned that environmentalism, which “began [in the 1970s] as a nonpartisan effort to protect our planet[,] has become one of the most perniciously divisive issues in public life.”

In chapter 1, “A Land Divided,” Nabhan enumerates some of the divisions in our society and notes that we are divided on environmental issues. However, he writes, “America is not divided about whether the environment deserves restoration. . . . What divides us is who gets to decide how this work is done, who does it, and how much it should cost.” He believes this sort of division has developed because environmentalists have emphasized regulation and prohibition too much, and this approach to environmental restoration leaves many people feeling misunderstood and disenfranchised. Nabhan’s remedy is what writer E. Franklin Dukes calls “collaborative, place-based decision processes.”

In chapter 2, “Farming in the Radical Center,” Nabhan introduces six principles of place-based collaboration, in the form of six questions to ask about any given proposed restoration project. He also tells an anecdote about how one speaker at a meeting of environmentalists, by how she dressed, provoked audience members to react to her in a way that revealed their stereotypes of and prejudices against the group they supposed she belonged to. The theme that emerges from the six principles and this story is that land and food systems can be restored for the long term only if all the stakeholders feel they have truly been listened to and treated fairly and if they believe that the result of the restoration will be a better life for everyone in the community. The phrase “the Radical Center,” according to Nabhan, was coined in the 1990s by a rancher named Bill McDonald to refer to a “fertile middle ground” where participants in a dialogue are willing to take risks and make principled compromises in order to achieve consensus.

The rest of the chapters, 3-13, tell many stories of the successful restoration of soils, waters, species, and human communities. Each begins with a question directly addressing readers, in the form “Have you ever . . . ?,” inviting readers to remember a time when they have been captivated by the beauty and abundance of a certain spot on earth. He then affirms that he too has enjoyed that beauty and abundance. The body of each chapter narrates one or more examples of people collaborating to restore the health, beauty, and productivity of places, plants, and animals, motivated both by the beauty of places and their creatures and by a desire to create a better life for themselves and their neighbors.

A list of chapter titles may serve to evoke the nature of these stories that make up the body of the book: chapter 3, “Will Work for Dirt”; chapter 4, “Replenishing Water and Wealth”; chapter 5, “Bringing Back the Bison”; chapter 6, “Teach a Community to Fish”; chapter 7, “Plant Midwives”; chapter 8, “Strange Birds Flock Together”; chapter 9, “Herders of Many Cultures”; chapter 10, “Immigrant Grains”; chapter 11, “Urban Growers and Rare Fruits”; chapter 12, “Return of the Pollinators”; chapter 13, “You Can Go Home Again.”

The book concludes with an appendix composed of eleven “conservation couplets,” pairs of short paragraphs in the form “We once thought _____. But now we realize that ____.” These statements summarize the themes Nabhan has seen emerge from the restoration projects he has observed and participated in.

I enjoyed this book very much. I agree with Nabhan that people will take care of a spot of earth for the long term only if they know it, love it, and see its health as necessary for their own. I was heartened to learn that this is happening all over the country. And I was provoked to thought about what more I myself might do.

As is consistent with the desire of the book’s many protagonists to do good work, the book is well edited, and it has a sewn binding, which is unusual nowadays and will enable the book to last a long time.