A Madison guy with an imperfect understanding of city ordinances plants six fruit trees in his terrace — “just because,” he says later, “I enjoy fruit.”
Fast forward 15 years and the trees are mature, the ordinances still deem them illegal, city streets workers complain they are interfering with their work and the city decides they must go.
If it sounds like your, well, orchard-variety man-fights-city-hall story, you’d be wrong.
Because these days in this best-of-list city that — as the Buddhists might say — is pretty keen on “right” living, the path to nirvana goes through the stomach.
Before you know it, the Madison Area Permaculture Guild has gathered 400 signatures to save the man’s trees and the city’s getting ripped for its attempts to kill a fresh, local, nutritious food source just as the mayor is announcing the creation of a new city committee to work, in part, on how to boost fresh, local, nutritious food sources.
Madison’s food fetish goes beyond the hullabaloo over one guy’s fruit trees, though.
Backyard chickens are all the rage, a new ordinance allows for backyard beekeeping, a website maps fruit and nut trees available for public gleaning and at least two citizen groups encourage local food production.
“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to feed ourselves within the borders of our own neighborhoods,” said Twink Jan-McMahon, organizer of Sustainable Atwood, which is active in my neighborhood.
Kate Heiber-Cobb, founder of the permaculture guild, told me she knows a couple who produce about 80 percent of their own food through gardening and hunting.
“It doesn’t mean we’re going back to the dark ages,” she said. Urban agriculture, including the keeping of animals, has a long history prior to World War II.
Growing one’s own food or buying it direct from a nearby farm does have an almost self-evident allure.
You know where it’s coming from and what’s put into it, presumably it takes less fossil fuel to get it here and profits are more likely to go straight to the producer than some nameless agribusiness CEO.
For these reasons and more, my family has a community-supported agriculture share and buys much of its meat from the local farms that sell at the Willy Street Co-op.
Locavorism might not always be the cheapest, most convenient or best tasting, but it sure does feel right.
Which doesn’t mean it is.
Because of this year’s drought and other unusual weather, crops suffered and some CSAs had to postpone delivery, and locally grown fruits have been in short supply. Having to go to the supermarket to buy that bag of New Zealand-grown apples with the huge carbon footprint is a pretty damning indictment of locavorism.
A global food system able to compensate for poor growing conditions in one part of the world is one of many rejoinders to locavorism a pair of university researchers deliver in their recent book, “The Locavore’s Dilemma.”
Titled as a takeoff on Michael Pollan’s popular “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the book makes a number of arguments for why locavorism isn’t particularly good for the planet, our health or the economy.
“Locavorism, far from healing what ails us, is a recipe for widespread human misery and ecological disaster,” the authors conclude in a July 1 essay on TheDailyBeast.com.
As I said, the guy with the threatened fruit trees, Mark Bauman, didn’t plant them out of any particular food philosophy, although in the intervening years, he has taken to gardening and buying more local foods.
I was struck by the impact his trees have had in his West Side Meadowood neighborhood, which not only is in a city-designated “food desert” but in recent years has seen increasing poverty, violence and social dysfunction.
With six mature trees, Bauman’s obviously got more fruit than he can eat. So he gives it away, some of it to kids who “didn’t know what a plum was,” he said. “They didn’t know what a cherry was.”
It reminded me of a girl Jeff Maurer, owner of Fresh Madison Market, said he met when he donated a load of fruit for a Boys and Girls Club event last year. The girl, Maurer said, had never seen a blueberry before.
It would seem that growing local can be similarly good for our food-poor neighbors.
Indeed, my church is one of many local organizations whose gardens help stock local food pantries, and Jan-McMahon pointed out that the homeless especially can benefit from gleaning.
So even if path to nirvana doesn’t always travel through the stomach, it most certainly ends at the heart.
And that makes locavorism worth a little love.