It was Earth Day this week. Instead of marking the occasion in the traditional manner (getting polluted), I toured Reynolds secondary school in Saanich.
At Reynolds, hallway garbage cans have been replaced by six-bin recycling stations, which is almost as remarkable as the fact that, by and large, the students use them properly.
A formerly dark, underused courtyard now holds several garden beds where students have spent the past three years growing lettuce, chard, strawberries, beans, herbs, you name it, with some of the food destined for the student-run organic salad bar.
The courtyard is also where 17 hens have been raised by students since being hatched (the chickens, not the students) from incubator eggs Feb. 13. The hens will be farmed out to school families this week. Any eggs the families don’t eat will be returned to Reynolds for use in the special-needs students’ Tuesday cookie-baking classes.
This is all alarming for a couple of reasons:
A) It messes up middle-aged misconceptions about teenagers. (Suggested headline: “Today’s youth — meth-crazed menace or indolent drain on society?”)
B) The students who gave me my tour are in Grade 11. When I was in Grade 11, I was learning to smoke, not garden.
It’s a generational thing. For baby boomers, growing vegetables was something your parents or grandparents did, like using a wringer washing machine or going to war with Germany. It didn’t seem necessary: Statistics Canada says food costs relative to the family paycheque dropped dramatically after the Second World War, plunging to just 17.9 per cent of disposable income by 1961 and bottoming out at 8.6 per cent in 2007. Why get your hands dirty when California lettuce sells for 69 cents?
This attitude dismayed my father, who grew corn as sweet as my mother but a couch potato for a teenage son. “It wouldn’t kill you to help in the garden, you know,” he would say. Well, maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t, but I wasn’t about to find out. In my day, the only kids who knew about germinating seeds were the dope growers (and only the hash dealers knew metric: 28 grams to the ounce).
Not to say I don’t like the idea of gardening. It’s a wholesome pursuit, conjuring up images of Amish barn-raisings and simpler times when your neighbour would cheerfully pick up a shovel if a well-needed digging or a travelling salesman had to be stored in a wheat field.
Gardeners never tailgate, always pay their library fines, seldom hide children in the trunk when boarding the ferry. Gardening is a way of signalling that you’re a decent human being.
Alas, my ignorance remains profound. True, we plant vegetables each spring, but when I say “we” it’s in the same way that guys say “we” had a baby. In truth, I grow nothing but hair, and precious little of that.
But, we are told, there has been a shift. Canadians are growing vegetables again. Seedy Saturdays have become mob scenes. Canning supplies and starter plants sell out faster than a gangster facing hard time.
Horticulturist Gordon Mackay has noticed the change. When he asks “How’s your garden?” people talk about their vegetables, not their flowers. “That’s a recent thing.”
It’s also generational. I ran into Mackay this week as he headed off to give a lecture on alpine plants to a gardening club. That’s typical subject matter for older audiences, he said. Younger ones are keener on the stuff you can eat.
There’s a particular appetite, as it were, for learning how to grow food organically. People want their lunch made by Mother Nature, not Big Brother — no genetically modified Frankenfoods, no tomatoes as tasteless as Jersey Shore, no lettuce that wilts like the Maple Leafs in March. “Heritage strains are huge,” Mackay said.
Some of us mark Earth Day once a year. Others live it every day.