My Life for Yours

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

It seems to me that the ungrateful spirit is the meanest, and the person who does not acknowledge a gift the sorriest. Life itself is a gift, perhaps the greatest of all.

So we give thanks for life on this Thanksgiving, the 387th, if you count from the first one decreed in Massachusetts by Gov. William Bradford in 1621, or the 145th, counting from President Lincoln’s formal proclamation in 1863.

You may remember an experiment in the desert around Tucson in the early 1990s, called Biosphere 2. Eight scientists lived for nearly two years in a sealed enclosure to see whether it was possible to produce food and oxygen, while recycling wastes, and to live self-sufficiently over the long term.

Applications like future spaceships in which travelers would live for years while traversing the distances between planets, Biosphere 2 was a study of conservation in a microcosm of the self-contained planet on which we live.

Before the doors were closed on Sept. 26, 1991, a farm was in full operation on a half-acre of land which included field agriculture, a tropical orchard, and an animal area. The crew had about a three-months’ supply of staples and food in storage, but beyond that, if they couldn’t grow it, they didn’t eat it.

Sally Silverstone, co-commander of the “expedition” and manager of the food systems, reflected later in interviews and wrote a little cookbook called Eating In (published by The Biosphere Press, Oracle, Ariz.)

Sweet potatoes – heretofore just a holiday meal ingredient – assumed enormous importance because they are easy to grow, incredibly nutritious, and could be used in a variety of ways. The crew’s appreciation of bananas skyrocketed when they discovered that in the absence of refined sugar, they could use bananas to sweeten desserts. Both potatoes and bananas were thickening agents, too.

Salads and starchy foods were the most readily available. Each Biospherian ate an average of one pound of starch a day, in the form of rice, sweet or white potatoes, plantains, or taro. Yet they recorded dramatic drops in cholesterol levels and a quick loss of the excess weight they had brought in.

Silverstone reported that approximately two-thirds of the crew’s waking hours were taken up with some aspect of food production. Everything they ate, of course, had to be made from scratch. And in Biosphere 2, “scratch” meant planting a seed.

“When we ate a particularly delicious meal,” Silverstone writes, “we would often reflect on how long it took to prepare from planting and growing, to harvesting and processing, to cooking. We figured that our favorite dish, Biospherian pizza, took at least four months [italics mine].

“This was the time it took for the wheat crop to mature, not to mention the time to thresh it and grind it. Then there were the tomatoes and peppers and onions to go on top and the goat cheese made from milk. We needn’t go into the time it took to grow the fodder to feed the goats to produce the milk, etc.!....”

Gives new meaning to the term “fast food,” doesn’t it?

Silverstone said they also came to understand why feasts and festivals have become so important to human beings. They feasted on every holiday and birthday:

“For the first time in my life, the availability of food was restricted and the edge of hunger was an almost constant companion. We eagerly anticipated the days in which we could stuff our bellies full and then sit back and enjoy the sensations of satisfaction. Over the first few months, feasting became firmly established as one of the most important features of our lives....

“The feasts developed in magnitude and magnificence over time. Our first one was on Thanksgiving in November 1991 and set the style for many to come....”

The menu: roasted rack of pork ribs, sweet potato pie, garden salad, chutney, fried rice, gravy, stir-fried vegetables, and cheesecake (made without sugar or eggs – the hens produced erratically and eggs were too precious to be squandered.)

When you sit down to your feast next week, ponder the sacramental nature of food. Thomas Howard, in Splendor in the Ordinary, writes of the “common, daily, and necessary” business of eating, “the thing that lies at the root of all life; namely the principal of exchange. My Life For Yours.”

Whenever we gather around a meal, he says, we enact that principal, whether bran flakes, pizza, or a Thanksgiving turkey is before us.

“Whatever it is, life has been laid down for us. We are receiving life by chewing and swallowing the life of something else. We have to do it to stay alive. We have to do it daily. A long as we live, we will be doing it.”

Nothing, Howard says, could be more ordinary and functional, more routine, yet remains the biggest mystery of all, three times a day.

“We are enacting the rite. We are participating in the holy mystery.”

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Invitation to everyone: The Fayette Interfaith Network of Fayette County invites the community to a Thanksgiving celebration at First United Methodist Church in Fayetteville, at 4 p.m. Sunday. Jews, Muslims, and Christians will share stories of their respective Thanksgiving customs, then serve food from each of their traditions. No charge, but non-perishable food will be collected for Fayette Samaritans. More info: 678-523-5080, 770-461-4313, and,

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