When I requested Fred Bahnson's Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith, I had hoped for a nice bookend with Keeping the Feast. One of my greatest passions is cooking for and feeding people, and I was looking forward to another book along those lines. When a shiny new hardcover arrived at my door, my brows crinkled in dread as I began to page through it: Gardening?? No, no, no, no. This would not work at all. Pesky Speakeasy. Pesky responsibility to read books. I picked up a pen, hunkered down, and cracked open the book with the enthusiasm of an undergrad looking for Gen Ed credits in a Shakespeare course.
But despite my lack of enthusiasm for the subject, Behnson completely won me with his journey from his bucolic community farm to other similar outposts around the continent. Overwhelmed with the mundane problems of running Anathoth, his church's upstart serving a food-insecure community, Bahnson takes a leave of absence, traveling "as an immersion journalist, but also as a pilgrim" (11), and I pilgrimaged along with him. No gardener myself (though I did pick up a few tips from the read), I found myself contentedly joining Bahnson in his forays.
It's tempting to summarize Bahnson--to list off places visited and lessons learned: welcoming in the outcasts of drug dealers and parolees at Tierra Nueva, drawing parallels between mushrooms and prayer lives with monks at Mepkin Abbey, bringing Sabbath and Sukkot to life with a Jewish farming community in Connecticut. But the worth of Soil and Sacrament is, as it should be, in the journey. As Bahnson goes from one farm to another, he and the reader both pull bits and pieces along the way, not only the victories but the failures, the messes.
My only minor complaint stems from how the book wraps up--or, rather, doesn't. While I appreciate that Bahnson doesn't distill everything for the reader, I finished the book wondering about how his journey affected his faith. As the Author Notes will tell you, Bahnson no longer works at Anathoth, and there is no indication as to whether that decision was influenced by his trips, or how. Understandably, he seems very drawn to each community while he's there, but I'd be interested to know what's remained, what's dovetailed together for him now that he's back home.
In a final weaving of theory and practice, Bahnson concludes the book with several practical steps as to how to go about setting up your own community gardening venture, whatever that might look like. Inspiring and grounding, this memoir leads you to look around at the fields you've been given, and leave you asking how you can best serve it, and your community through it.