Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Breaking Bread Together, Two Examples Very Different

It is an old tradition, as old as humans have walked the face of this planet, that eating together is central to human community. This post is about two such communities.


Twin Willows Seminars

Twin Willows is a residence on the eastern shore of Lake Erie just south of Buffalo, NY. It is named after the large twin willow trees on the property. When I visited there it belonged to the late David Hays and his wife, Janet.

Dr. Hays, as I called him then—though I came to call him “Dave” once I got my Ph.D., an old academic tradition—would hold informal seminars at his home, Twin Willows. These seminars were informal in the sense that no academic credit was offered for them nor did one have to enroll in a specific course to attend. They were open to anyone interested in the matters under discussion—language, cognition, human culture, as seen through ideas that Hays had been developing over the years.

Otherwise, these seminars were as serious as most academic discussions I’ve been privy to, in fact, far more serious than most, and more fun. The routine was simple. At the beginning of the intellectual part of the meeting every participant, whether lowly undergraduate student on senior faculty, could put an item on the agenda. They would then be discussed in order. I forget just how that order was determined, but it makes little difference. If something didn’t get discussed, it would go on the agenda for the next meeting.

The distinguishing feature of these meetings, the feature that makes them unlike most academic seminars and meetings I’ve attended, or like most meeting period, is that real work got done. Questions were posed, discussed, and answered or not, depending on deep and difficult they proved to be. Some issues were resolved in a single discussion, while others were never resolved.

As I said, that was the intellectual part of the meeting. There was more. Depending on whether just when in the day the intellectual discussions were held, there was a meal either before or after the discussion. Everyone participating in the discussion helped to prepare the meal and to clean-up after ward. Dr. Hays felt that the communal meal was essential to the felicitous functioning of the group.

He was right.

Lafayette Community Learning Garden

Those seminars happened years ago, more than a quarter of a century ago. The Lafayette Community Learning Garden, on the other hand, is ongoing and was started only in the middle of April of this year, as I explained in A Community Garden Builds Itself. The garden was founded by June Jones, of the Morris Canal Community Development Corporation
... to provide a Community Garden for any person of the Morris Canal/Lafayette Community to come for Knowledge, Friendship, Therapeutic Relaxation and chemically free grown fruits and vegetable and flowers....we are deeply committed to community pride and unity, teaching organic methods and preservation of open spaces. We encourage sustainable living techniques and recycling, honoring diverse abilities, ages, and cultures. [from the garden’s mission statement]
A bunch of businesses and municipal agencies donated goods and services, no doubt a reflection of Ms. Jones’s years of work on behalf of the community, and some 40 or 50 citizens, friends and neighborhoods, have pitched in and done the work, from children of six or so, to adults looking at the far side of sixty.

From the first day, in mid-April, there was a barbecue grill on the lot—and then another—and Ms. Jones was grilling hot dogs and hamburgers. And chicken. And a bit later, cucumber salad and tomatoes from the garden, with garden-fresh herbs as well. It’s not just that doing physical work in an often hot sun makes people hungry, though that’s a good enough reason for providing food.

The real reason, though, was and is community. The purpose of the garden is to build community. Eating together helps that. And so Ms. Jones saw that there was food there, food prepared in the garden, and others cooked and brought food as well.

There will no doubt be more meals in the garden. And seminars too, not to mention music and dance.

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