It hit me the other day like a ton of turnips that September marks the 50th year of my doing something.  Doing what? Well, anything that really matters, I guess. Fifty years ago, I was 18, and during those early years I wasn’t much more than a tub of self-absorbed protoplasm brought to an occasional boil by increasing doses of testosterone. Nothing mattered, except, of course, me.

At the beginning of my freshman college year, the universe sent me a message that slammed me against the wall with as much force as an angry cop. It shook me loose from my bourgeois moorings, seared my khakis-clad butt with the blistering fires of Hell, and seized me by my windpipe. The thing was famine. Not mine, of course – my dining hall meal card was quite ample – but the famine of children in Africa whose protruding ribs and fly-encrusted eyes stared pleadingly back at me from the pages of Time magazine.

That was all the horror this suburban Jersey boy needed to set sail for somewhere that mattered.  After spending that first fall at college raising awareness and money for famine relief, I would stay the course for the next 50 years. Sometimes I found my way with ease from port to port and project to project, and other times I became hopelessly lost in a fogbank of words, ideas, and problems with no apparent causes. I would learn early that situations I thought were obvious and clear-cut often were not.

Take famine, a problem with an obvious and immediate solution. People are hungry and there’s no food. Get money, buy food, and give it to them. While my early instincts were correct – shock followed by an urgent need to respond – my analysis of the situation was faulty. The cause of the famine was political; a raging civil war fueled in part by tribalism, the vestiges of colonial oppression, and economic interests often centered around oil had left millions of innocent people cut off from food. This analysis would be reinforced many years later after reading Tombstone by Yang Jisheng who chronicled the politically inspired 1958-62 Chinese famine in which 30 million people perished.

Not only would more thoughtful analyses alter my response to food problems over the course of my career, they would also alter the language, terms, and ensuing organizational factions (see my book Stand Together or Starve Alone). Famine would later give way and diverge at the domestic U.S. level to hunger, then food insecurity, food banking, emergency food, community food security, obesity, food deserts and access, and variations on food, social, and racial justice and equity. Each iteration came to me with its own learning curve, some steeper than others depending on how long I had been immersed in earlier iterations.

In my more open-minded moments, I would try to view the rapidly changing food movement landscape as a continuous learning opportunity. But in reality, experience was always my guide. Like the spider in the Walt Whitman poem that explores its “vacant vast surrounding” by casting out filaments to find its way one strand at a time, I was marking a path across

…measureless oceans of space,

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the

            spheres to connect them,

Till the bridge you will need be form’d…

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere….

My learning was always inductive, a web of dots assembled one at a time until a grand mosaic started to emerge. It didn’t mean that the food movement wasn’t always lobbing theories my way – often with so little in the way of experiential underpinnings that they were of dubious value. These included shimmering concepts, often sporting an academic gloss, that wowed you for a while but would ultimately leave you empty and yearning for a juicy cheeseburger. And then there were those concepts that arrived with no sense of history, no reference to what preceded them, bearing facts that were often distorted.

A recently discovered Wikipedia entry concerning the food justice movement is one illustration of historical distortion cloaked in half-truths. It reads, “The modern Food Justice movement grew out of the Community Food Security Coalition in 1996. [I]t was composed entirely of white Americans, and accepted little input from residents of the food insecure areas [it] was trying to support. It emphasized the consumption of local fresh fruits and vegetables, and removed race from the conversation.”

The first part of the statement is largely correct, though lacking in at least 30 years of historical context like anti-hunger work and community gardening which preceded CFSC. The references with respect to race, however, are blatantly false. I worry like everyone else today that we simply don’t understand the power of our words, those spoken and unspoken, truthful or not, to send the world off its rails. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire,” reads the Letter of James 3 (New Testament). And when today’s harsh words and distortions use the internet as their accelerant, a conflagration can easily ensue.

As I have grappled with evolving concepts like food justice and tried to gaze at life through today’s ubiquitous “equity lens,” I remind myself that each generation has “its own way of walkin’, its own way of talkin’.” The filaments they cast and the bridges they build will look differently from the ones I slogged across. Their own constellation of thoughts, experiences, and even voices distilled from the academy will enable them to navigate their own seas.

But I did learn one new thing this summer coincident to my 50th anniversary. I cast my filament onto the shores of southeast Alaska where I spent time researching Sitka’s food system. During the course of many interviews I was advised by both the Native Alaskans and non-Native to heed the wisdom of the Tlingit elders.  This was not some weird voodoo thing that Anglo’s like me view with quiet skepticism, but a form of traditional local knowledge that draws its strength from a spiritual connection to the natural world. It also rests upon the simple power of observations toted up over one’s lifetime and passed on to the next generation and the next.  For them, the immediate context was this year’s declining salmon and herring runs which were the worst in the elders’ memories, memories that collectively spanned hundreds of years. For the Native Alaskans who depend on these traditional foods, the consequences are potentially dire; for the rest of us their observations suggest that climate change and overfishing may take us all down the road to ruin. Now that I’m technically an elder, or at least elderly, I can empathize with the need to respect that wisdom.

Finding the things that matter has been a beautiful journey. Understanding their meanings is a lifetime pursuit.