Food Everywhere: An Urban Orchard in Burlington

Last night I went to the regular meeting of the Burlington Food Council, where food and sustainability organizations from around the Greater Burlington area meet to share information and collaborate on sustainable food projects.

There’s a lot going on in sustainable foods in the Champlain Valley, but the most inspiring topic for me was the Urban Orchard. To give you an idea what I’m talking about, there’s this 13-minute TED talk by Pam Warhurst from Todmorden, England. It’s not only kind of wonderful what they’re doing, but Pam is a lot of fun to listen to, and not just because her accent echoes a couple of the characters from Downton Abbey.

Man, what a great talk. I need to steal some of her slogans, e.g. this one on who can participate: “If you eat, you’re in.”

So anyway, what’s going on in Burlington? Well, the idea is to start introducing food-producing shrubs, trees, and other plants into available green space in the city: parks, lawns of public and commercial buildings, by the road, and anywhere else that the residents of the immediate neighborhood want it. The food is free to anyone who wants it, and residents get involved in maintaining, pruning, and planting on a volunteer basis. This has been so successful in other cities around the world that volunteers end up harvesting thousands of pounds of produce to give away to food banks and shelters, to say nothing of all the free food that’s available to local residents and anyone walking by. The idea of food without a price tag is a little mind-boggling in the present day, but in city after city, it is already working. It’s a wonderful idea.

Since this is Vermont we’re talking about, I say “orchards” and you probably think apples, like I did, but it turns out that apples attract pests like nobody’s business, and that there are a lot of other crops, both ones that are commercially viable and ones that aren’t, that are well-suited to our climate and could be grown instead. This includes garden vegetables and herbs, but also stone fruits like plums and peaches, pear, berries, nuts, and much more.

For instance, consider the slope behind Battery Park. In case you don’t know Burlington, Battery Park is on a high area in the North End overlooking the lake. A steep slope is covered with miscellaneous wild growth kept cut back by the city to maintain the gorgeous view of the waterfront that Battery Park affords. At the bottom of the slope is another park area along with a theater, restaurants, the ECHO center (a lake and science museum), a boat that runs tours around the lake, the bike path, and much more. The city government wants to follow through on a decades-old plan to build staircases down the slope from Battery Park to Waterfront Park, and they’re looking for ideas. One magnificent idea (if you ask me) that was discussed last night is a terraced orchard of fruit and nut trees, fruit shrubs, berries, and other edible foods. Alternatively, another location could become home to a kind of botantical garden of all-edible foods, a Food Forest.

These kind of initiatives beautify the city, attract tourism, help feed local residents and visitors, and create more community connections. They also sequester carbon and lessen dependence on food from distant locations, which also lessens dependence on all of the oil that goes into fertilizing, pest-fighting, transportation, storage, packaging, and marketing. Next to a backyard garden or family farm, food doesn’t get more local than just down the street.

These kinds of plans are just in the exploratory stages right now for Burlington, but maybe you could consider whether there might be an easy way to start getting edible foods into public spaces in your own city or town–or if you’re in our area, maybe you’d like to eventually get involved with this effort. If so, stop by and join the group there, or watch this space.

Oil Is a Magic Flounder!


It took Bill McKibben pointing it out to me (in his book Eaarth), but I finally understand that oil is a miracle. It gives wishes. It’s amazing.

I remember going to Europe when I was 20 on an ultra-cheap backpacking trip, stepping off the plane in Belgium and thinking This is crazy! I’m on the other side of the world! … on the average day, I probably travel farther from home than a lot of people for most of history traveled in their lives … I can tap on a few keys and magically answer nearly any question within moments (say what you will, but I think Wikipedia is probably one of the top ten things ever) … I can take a five-minute trip to the grocery store and for a pittance buy food from practically anywhere in the world …

And all of it is brought to us by oil! Not just oil, of course: coal and other fossil fuels help out, and these days even some renewable energy, but basically we’ve achieved the ability to do practically anything–from making realistic movies set on invented planets to landing on the moon to yogurt in squeeze tubes–thanks to the limitless energy made available by fossil fuels.

Except, of course, it’s not limitless, and there’s this tragic catch to it: this climate change problem. We’re so used to having a seemingly endless supply of fossil fuels, we think nothing of buying a stack of plastic plates and throwing them away after one use to languish in a dump for decades or centuries. We don’t mind using up massive amounts of jet fuel to travel to other continents just to sightsee. We toss away things we paid hundreds of dollars for a few years ago just because the new version 5 is out. We mostly just don’t get it.

Sorry, I’m starting to preach, and you don’t need preaching to: if you’re on this site reading this, you almost certainly get it already, that we’ve gotten used to the idea that things are cheap and easy and replaceable and will always be that way, even though our resources are getting a little thin and we’re making terrible, irreversible changes to our planet.

I’m starting to adjust to all this. I’m trying to revise my thoughts. For a recent meeting I was running where there was food, I went to the trouble of bringing all of the small plates and most of the forks from our kitchen rather than bringing paper plates and plasticware. They were a little heavy, but it turned out to be no big deal. When I sit down on our home computer, I’m no longer thinking “This is OK, but it’s a few years old–when can I justify getting a new one?” but rather “This works fine. How can I make it last?” Even though it’s stupidly late in the winter to be doing it, I finally went to the window at work that is so hard to open it’s physically painful and wrestled down the storm window. (I may be undoing that in a month, but at least in the meantime I won’t be wasting heat.) These are the changes I need to embrace: looking around me, realizing that we only have all the miracles we have because we’ve bought them with cheap energy we dug up, and doing the smart thing even when it’s inconvenient or not as nice or not what anyone else does.

Yet wonderfully, we don’t have to give all these things up. We can still have cars and movies and even, bless it, the Internet if we’re willing to make the changes to much more sustainable ways of living, producing, manufacturing, and powering. Fossil fuels have given us a huge leg up in infrastructure, manufacturing, and invention–Ironically, it’s fossil fuels that have made it possible for us to develop efficient wind turbines and solar panels and geothermal heating systems. When I say that oil is a miracle, I mean it–but knowing that it’s a miracle with a price, I really, really, really want to see us let go of it as quickly as possible by doing everything possible so that we can still benefit from everything meaningful our culture has achieved without paying the awful price that is beginning to come due.

I look around, and almost every human-made thing I see exists because of oil. We’re like the fisherman’s wife in the old fairy tale, who once she got what she wanted kept asking for more and more things until the magic flounder who granted the wishes in the first place took it all away again. Let’s be the smart people who never show up in these stories, the people who are delighted with what they have. We’ve had cheap, abundant energy now for generations, so much of it that it has yielded us the technology to create more cheap, abundant energy–but renewably this time. We have everything we need, provided we can just let the damn flounder alone.

Photo by Jason Rojas

How Not to Boil a Frog (btw, we’re the frog)

Al Gore’s documentary film An Inconvenient Truth is painful to watch, just like any accurate source of information about global climate change, but it’s loaded with useful information (even though it’s slightly dated now–which unfortunately makes it look more optimistic than anything else).

My favorite moment of that film is this one:


The thing I love is that it explains, in a nutshell, exactly what we have to do and exactly how to do it. The frog is our future self: the hand that reaches in for him is our present self, the rescuer. Rescuing the frog is a heroic task, inevitably difficult and painful (we aren’t going to be eager to stick our hand into that scalding water), but necessary, and also incredibly empowering.

Gore points to local, individual, and family action as essential to solving the climate change problem. I’m very much with him on that. If we aren’t willing to change ourselves, how do we expect to convince other people, businesses, and governments to change what they’re doing?

As for me, I’ve been working on a project to start making a noticeable difference in climate change locally; I’m hoping to be able to announce that with my next post.