Jules Dervaes and his three children live on a plot of land that is half house, half food. This would not be utterly remarkable in many parts of the world, were it not for three factors: 1) This plot is snugged into the flank of a major freeway in Pasadena, California, near the Rose Bowl 2) The plot itself is 1/5 of an acre and 3) 1/10 of that acre yields 6,000 pounds of food per year. When Manish, our main contact at Shikshantar (a local initiative to re-create Udaipur as a zero-waste “learning city”), informed me that our group would have the opportunity to meet with a California-based family of activists called “Path to Freedom”, I was curious but cautious. The prospect of yet another alt-minded, smug California hipster contingent intent on proselytizing their irrelevant brand of “Whole Foods” yippie sustainability in impoverished areas did not appeal (we prefer to be the only smug alt-minded California group within a hundred kilometers).
Within minutes of meeting Jules and his salt-of-the-earth brood, it was obvious that they are about as pretentious as homemade pickles. The Dervaes family found themselves in India due to a short film, originally created as an audio visual aid for a talk Jules gave to a group of undergrads at UCLA (opening for Michael Pollan, demigod of food politics). The video found its way onto YouTube, and evolved into a piece that is being selected for film festivals all over the world. People from Torrance to Torino have become inspired by the Dervaes’s story of how they turned their barren SoCal lot into a lush profusion of edible vegetation and renewable energy, aka an “urban homestead“. Every available surface is covered with some form of plant life, and the acreage is now literally on higher ground than its neighbors, due to the fertile topsoil painstakingly nurtured by Jules and his offspring over the last 25 years. They call it the 100 Foot Diet, and judging by the clear-eyed determination and hearty energy of the bunch, it beats the hell out of Atkins.
I cornered Jules to talk about his vision, his methods, and that unbelievable topsoil, and he took up my ill-informed questions with an enthusiasm that he sustained for the next three days of presentations, film viewings, and community gatherings. He believes that growing our one's own food is the most powerful political, social, and environmental action possible to reclaim sovereignty over our bodies, minds, and communities while restoring the earth. He is a farmer-activist-philosopher in the tradition of Wendell Berry, and I think I’d bronze a gym sock if he’d scribbled some words across it.
I sat with him at breakfast this morning- a beautiful traditional Indian spread of fresh fruits, moong dal, crisped flat bread, and spiced puffed grains, discussing how the Western diet is literally changing the shape of the world and the people in it. He shared with me that he recently saw projections of how meat consumption worldwide is steadily increasing, despite environmental and health hazards and a depressed economy. Heavily populated countries such as China are being lured by the preservatives and prosperity of Western fast food culture, demanding more beef and less broccoli. His urban homestead is off that chart entirely. There's just no room for a cow bigger than a shitzu at "Path to Freedom".
Jules gazed across the table at his daughter’s plate, which looked more like a work of art than the packaged and processed food substitutes many people consume for breakfast. “See, someone take a picture of that. That plate just wouldn’t happen in the U.S. Someone would have to take the time to find and prepare that kind of real fruit, to cook those beans… People just don’t do that anymore.” True, the contents of that plate were about as far from a Pop Tart as it’s possible to get. Someone snapped a photo, and I exhaled a silent prayer that it wouldn’t end up in a museum someday.
The closing shot of the Dervaes’s film, which is called “Homegrown Revolution”, is of a clear blue sky, with a hand thrusting a trowel towards the sun. It’s funny, but also deeply stirring, or at least it was to me. Me, who hasn't grown anything more revolutionary than hair in longer than I care to remember. I do take pride in the work I am doing to bring college students into contact with people like Manish and Jules, but what the hell am I doing? In the last year and a half, I’ve acquired a carbon footprint the size of Greenland (I might be the sole reason it’s melting), and due to my aversion to giardia and typhoid, I’ve gone through more plastic drinking water bottles than I can even stand to think about. I don’t cook my own food, never mind grow it. Hell, I don’t even know what I’m eating a lot of the time, except that it’s spicy enough to singe Satan’s eyebrows, and was probably routed through a major distribution center in Delhi.
I don’t belong to a CSA or replenish the soil with my food waste (though sometimes I feed it to cows on the street to keep them from eating plastic bags). I don’t even have a watershed to defend, unless you count all of the places where I have my cardboard boxes stashed while I hop from continent to continent. But I want these things, I do. I want to stand for what I stand on, and I want what I stand on to be higher ground. Observing the ills “traditional education” has perpetrated on the minds and spirits of today’s youth reassures me that I am here, doing this, for some very good reasons. But looking at the way the pendulous squash bows the trellis in the Dervaes’s backyard (as Pasadena City tour buses line up along the curve to witness first-hand the way life could, and probably should be), I feel a desire to go and plant my own revolution.
Genetically modified foods are dismantling the infrastructure of food security all over the world (the world’s first GMO eggplant is about to hit the markets right here in India), and God knows how altered DNA are changing the most basic definitions of what it means to be human. I have learned a lot about my own humanity, frailties, and strengths in the last year and I half spent in service of the next generation, but in doing so my life has become one which does not acknowledge the finite capacities of the natural systems upon which that life depends. Though my traveling days are far from over, my age, my lessons, and my disintegrating backpack are all telling me that it’s time to find a place to plant my roots, to grow some shelter and live the wisdom I’ve been stalking around India as though it hasn‘t always been waiting right underfoot.
Learn more about the Dervaes family and “Path to Freedom” at www.pathtofreedom.com