Bonnaroo’s Victory Garden

My favorite spaces at Bonnaroo are always the smaller ones: the This Tent, the That Ten, the tiny stages hosting a bar band from Chattanooga or drummer from Ghana. Dave Matthews blew out the 70,000-capacity What Stage this year, and Nas and Damian Marley raised its roof, but the smaller stages allow the performer and audience to create an intimacy that’s just not possible on the superstar stages. Witnessing the Carolina Chocolate Drops kill at the That Tent, or Lissy transcend the itty-bitty Troo Music Stage, moments like those always feel to me like fantastic gifts revealed and shared.

The artists on those stages feel it too. They almost always look ready to pop, their smiles and surprised eyes are so wide. After they take their final bows, I usually feel the need to track down the rest of my festival family to tell them what they missed. I want to spread the good word. It’s like my understanding of Bonnaroo’s possibilities has evolved; growth through close contact.

That intimacy is not limited to the musician and audience. Bonnaroo, continuing its steady growth toward a musical pilgrimage site with the long-term vision of game changers, stepped-up its focus on sustainability again this summer with the Three Sisters Victory Garden, a ring of edible crops, flowers, and herbs circling the festival post office. Grown in Knoxville and transplanted as seedlings into some of the thirty tons of compost created from last year’s waste, veggies like sweet potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes stretched up toward the sun. Broccoli, strawberry, and eggplant bushes popped their tops in baby-green foliage. Because food vendors are required to use only compostable utensils, some of 2009’s plastic forks, not yet digested in the heat of the compost pile, peeked out of the dirt, their little shadows falling next to those of the cucumbers and winding Turkey Craw Beans. Surrounded by stages with helicopter-sized sound systems run off PA boards with controls worthy of NASA, the garden offered a chance for Bonnaroo’ers to get soil beneath their fingernails.

Edible Revolution, a Knoxville-based business specializing in sustainable garden design and construction, helmed the project, and its founder Sarah Bush spent festival mornings using it as an educational tool in her crash-course lessons on sustainable eating. Before workshop crowds averaging 40 early(ish) risers, she explained that the ingredients of an average American dinner are grown between 1,500 and 2,500 miles away from the tables upon which they are eaten, that these ingredients are less than healthy because they are grown to achieve a homogenized appearance rather than to be nutritious, that 80% of the plant varieties grown 100 years ago are no longer propagated. Her face nearly lost beneath the tremendous brim of her sunhat, she lead her audience around the garden, picking up more listeners as she went, explaining the art and science of composting, the value of heirloom varietals, the easy steps average people can take to have more control over what they put in their body. Behind her on the Solar Stage, a woman sang graphically sexual folk songs in a chirpy, laughing way.

“You can learn something from this garden regardless of your level of experience,” Bush said, walking the group back to the tent, where many more were gathering to participate in a workshop on seed saving. “Find food freedom in your daily life.”

Bush uses freedom and other words from the vocabulary of human rights generously when discussing the garden. Her business name is fifty-percent food and fifty-percent revolt, and victory gardens originally sprang up during World War II as a government-encouraged way for Americans to grow their own food and thus save resources for the war. Contemporary Americans who see disaster looming if we do not change our industrial agriculture practices have resurrected the term to emphasize the patriotic nature of taking responsibility for our own food. Those Americans believe that the Big Money interests who dictate U.S. agriculture policy are at war with our physical and environmental health, our taste buds, and our history.

“I’ve always been lucky enough to be introduced to real food, and I guess I took it for granted,” she said, sitting on a hay bale and watching a middle school teacher from Vermont, Tom Sabo, begin the seed saving class. “A lot of people don’t know that, and it’s just not fair. They have no access to fresh food. They’re just a few generations away from being farmers, and the skills of growing food, saving seeds, even cooking with whole ingredients, is lost. I think that’s just really a crime. I don’t want any child to go through life without picking something out of the ground and eating it. I think that’s a basic human right.”

Bonnaroo thinks so, too. After focusing on water issues last year and continuing to reduce and offset their reliance on fossil fuels, organizers decided for 2010 to focus on food. They reached out to Bush, who happens to be the next door neighbor of the festival’s Sustainability Director, as well as folks at the American Community Gardening Association, a sustainability-minded distributor of gardening tools named Gardeners Supply, and the Knoxville-based business, Everything Mushroom. In addition to Bush’s gardening basics and Sabo’s seed saving, Bonnaroo’ers could participate in workshops on growing Shitake mushrooms, fermenting wild plants into food, and building nutritious soil.

“People at Bonnaroo have a certain care for the earth, for being self-reliant, for being respectful of everything else,” Bianca Meleo, a Massachusetts resident participating in the seed saving class, told me. “It’s so easy for a thing like Bonnaroo to devolve into being the same thing every year, so it seems like they are trying to grow.”

Of course, those seemingly polar-opposite impulses – to progress forward while restoring the self-reliance and environmental practices of the past – form the core value of many advocates of a sustainable civilization. People want to return our collective morality to one that existed before the current slash-and-burn mode, or at least what they imagine existed before, and they want the engines of progress to push society into a new golden age of long-term health. Bonnaroo, the festival that this year showcased both Jimmy Cliff and Gwar, is broad enough to accommodate such a simple hope that encompasses such complicated choices.

The festival is inclusive enough as well, with Sabo’s seed saving class a case in point. All participants were offered heirloom seeds to take home and plant. Those who did so agreed to save the seeds of the resulting fruit and return to trade them next year, thus starting a Bonnaroo seed exchange that will grow as those seeds cross-pollinate with others, giving birth to new varieties of each vegetable. There was no way to ensure that people do not squander the seeds, neglect the plants after the seeds are sown, or fail to return next year to participate in the exchange. But Sabo believes that most of the participants will. He trusts them.

“Would people be less receptive to this at Coachella?” he said when I asked what makes Bonnaroo’s crowd special. “I don’t know. But people are receptive here. And I tell you, if Bonnaroo has Bonnaroo Beans going, as festivals try to distinguish themselves, no other festivals out there will be the ones with their own variety of beans.” He was sweating and grinning when he said this, so high on the enthusiasm of his listeners that his eyes seemed more focused on the possibilities of the future than on mine.

The Bonnaroo Bean is Sabo’s big dream for the next step beyond the victory garden, a way for Bonnaroo to brand itself agriculturally by inventing a new heirloom variety particular to its attendees. There are 8,000 varieties of heirloom fruits and vegetables that have yet to become extinct, the only remaining testament to a once-upon-a-time world of food that included purple tomatoes, red string beans, and okra the size of basketballs. Only within the past hundred years or so has the world’s produce been bred into the one-size-fits-all state that makes all tomatoes round and red, all string beans green, all okra small and gummy. Nature, unencumbered by humans, cross-pollinates, and spent millions of years developing far more unique varieties than those we still cultivate. Cross-pollination (“It’s like open source development with computers,” Bush said) is essentially natural evolution, species changing according to their environment and the pollen of various botanical neighbors carried to their pistils on the wings of insects and the wind through the fields. It makes produce more disease resistant, obviating the need for so many harmful synthetic pesticides, and the tastes are out of this world. Ever try an heirloom Purple Cherokee tomato from your local farmers market? Do so, and you’ll spurn those tasteless, mealy tomatoes your local supermarket sets out in the dead of winter.

Open-pollination makes for a teeming, idiosyncratic world of food as well, one that reflects the diversity of life on Earth and that allows geographic regions their own testament to their individuality. During Sabo’s class, Bush held up seeds including those of Perkins Long Green Okra, which historians believe came to North America on slave ships from Africa, and examples of the Tennessee Red Peanut, likely of South American origin. Both Bush and Sabo see heirlooms as nothing less than the great American melting pot made manifest in garden beds, the individual contributing to the vibrant whole.

On the opposite end of the community spectrum are the Industrial Agriculture companies, who are as exclusive as exclusive can be. Eighty-two percent of the world’s seeds are now proprietary, two-thirds of those owned by ten companies. How can something as fundamental as a seed be proprietary? Companies like Monsanto, the largest seed company in the world, breed limited varieties in controlled settings and then patent the resulting seeds. In the case of engineering a genetically modified crop, they patent the modified DNA. When the pollen of those modified crops is caught on the breeze and carried down the road to a farm of natural crops, they cross-pollinate, and Monsanto legally owns all of those new crops too – no matter who planted them or on whose land – because the company owns the DNA.

Industrial Agriculture companies point out that the plant varieties they develop and own are disease resistant and produce higher yields, thus helping to feed the ever-increasing global population. This is true, though folks like Bush and Sabo would likely argue that a more responsible and localized food system would do the same thing with far less destructive environmental costs, as well as leave the control of a lunch or dinner in the hands of those eating it, rather than with a company that can dictate whatever price it desires for the ability to purchase seeds to grow those lunches and dinners. Regardless, proprietary seeds are the result of very real long-term business plans followed by Industrial Agriculture, and an example of the kind of debilitating power monolithic companies have been able to exert on American policy over the past 50 years.

Bonnaroo’s plan is the antithesis. Organizers want people like Bush and Sabo to disseminate knowledge, seeds, and support. Sabo’s hoped-for Bonnaroo Bean would, over the course of its development, lead to scores of new strains originating from the original template he distributed this June. In the future, he wants to include a few of the Bonnaroo brand in each envelope containing a festival ticket and mailed to purchasers.

“What percentage of seventy-five thousand,” he said, referring to the general annual number of Bonnaroo’ers, “do we need to plant those beans to make it worthwhile? Even one percent would be good. And each year that will build. It will help build community. That’s what seeds are; they’re continuity between generations and the past, but they also provide continuity for this community here.”

To emphasize the point, Bush held up a dried specimen of German Climbing Okra sixteen inches tall. It looked like a dinosaur. “There are 53 different varieties of okra,” Bush said, though she then told us that her example was not actually okra at all, but a kind of melon that happened to look exactly like the other vegetable.

It took a lot of time and research for Bush to figure that out, though. Sustainable agriculturists come across such little-known plants somewhat regularly. People hunt them down to bequeath the evidence and seeds from a grandparent’s garden that they helped tend decades ago, hand over the booty and then slip off into nostalgic tales of working the soil around seeds passed down to their grandparents by their grandparents, and on and on, back into the dark of half-memory. The botanical names aren’t known, and the origins often only guessed at. These are family, personal, humanity’s heirlooms as much as they are gardening’s heritage, and people like Sabo and Bush put in a lot of sleuthing to discover the mystery behind them.

“We’re historians here; we’re archeologists,” Bush said, handing off the dinosaur okra-melon and ducking out of the way of all the people digging into the basket Sabo had stocked with heirloom sunflower seeds, Castor Beans, and Greasy Beans. “I believe that there’s a farmer archetype within all of us, trying to get back to our roots. You look online, and all of these people are playing games like Farmville. Isn’t that weird? There’s this real interest in farming, even in the virtual realm. Maybe it’s our subconscious trying to tap into our roots.”

Maybe. Those roots run deeper than recorded history, though doubtfully as deep as our penchant for making music. We know agriculture started with hands in the earth of Mesopotamia, and we can surmise that music began when a distant ancestor of Homo Sapiens heard the birds in the trees and hummed their song to herself. Both human achievements are the heritage of all human beings, and in a community as musically diverse and open-hearted as Bonnaroo, it is easy to see these threads of our lives that connect us together. Even the most obscure band playing the lowly Lunar Stage just shy of dawn has an audience. Somewhere right now, a Bonnaroo’er is pressing his sunflower seeds into the raised bed he built along the line of his backyard fence. These are the small things that comprise the large things. Giving them their due is our birthright and, hopefully, our future.