John Gerber: Hope springs from new gardens

Last modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013


AMHERST — It’s spring again in the Pioneer Valley and the gardeners are out in force. Most of my neighbors know I have a big garden, raise chickens, collect honey from my backyard beehive and harvest greens throughout the winter in an unheated greenhouse.

So I often get the question while walking the dog, “Why do you want to do all that work?” My first thought often goes to the reality of our current global situation, which in my mind includes the “perfect storm” of climate change, peak oil and economic downturn.

But rather than launching into my rap about the need for more community and family-level self-sufficiency in the face of this pending crisis, I generally choose to tell my neighbor about a book I just read.

“Prelude” by Kurt Cobb is a fast-paced espionage story set in a time of escalating oil and gas prices. One of my favorite scenes comes when Cassie Young, a rising star at a Washington, D.C., energy consulting firm, asks a friend, Victor Chernov, “So what do we do now that we know the truth about peak oil?” For Cassie, this is a moment of despair, which many of us have felt.

And Victor’s response? Grow a garden. It seems this former oil executive is learning to grow tomatoes at his Washington, D.C., townhouse.

While not destined to become a classic, the appearance of mass market books like “Prelude” suggests we are beginning to accept the fact that there is an oil/climate crisis on the horizon — and yes, at least one of the solutions might be to grow food for myself, my family and my neighborhood.

The author, a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, proposes a simple response to the crisis we seem afraid to face. Cobb reminds us that “fear trumps hope” and finding a source of hope is a necessary first step toward developing solutions to a problem.

I believe that if we can’t imagine reasonable solutions to a crisis, then we are not going to face the problem. So yes, let’s grow more food. This might be anything from a single potted herb on a windowsill to a big family garden. For me, I like to give fresh eggs from my backyard hens to my neighbors.

We realize of course, that a few eggs or tomatoes won’t solve global problems like climate change and rising oil prices, but it is a place to begin to find hope.

And with hope, anything is possible.

Following the story, my neighbor often asks if I really believed the “perfect storm” was imminent. So, I take a deep breath, give the dog another biscuit and launch into the “do it anyway” rap.

That’s the one that suggests that taking care of each other is a better way to live, even if there was no crisis. And if the perfect storm slams us sooner than any one of us would hope, at least we’ve begun to take some steps to be better prepared.

So yes, let’s learn to grow more food.

And let’s learn to cook real food. And let’s buy from local farmers. And let’s teach each other how to do all these things better by sharing our knowledge and experience.

Toward that end, new local group, Grow Food Amherst, is sponsoring a workshop Wednesday to introduce our neighbors to the joys of growing our own food. Everyone is invited to join us at 7 p.m. in the Amherst Town Hall. More workshops and events are planned. See for information and join the “backyard, patio and windowsill revolution” — the revolution with great food.

John Gerber is a professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Stockbridge School of Agriculture and Amherst resident who helped pass the local bylaw allowing residents to raise chickens in their backyards. He is a founding member of Grow Food Amherst.


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