I remember hiking in 90-degree heat on a dusty but paved road, past fields of fruit trees and vegetable plants. Suddenly, my father-in-law pointed and said in Bulgarian that we should turn into a thicket. That was his plot of land, which was his mother’s plot before him, he explained.
We tiptoed past berry bushes and through a stand of fruit trees to a wide expanse of earth full of tomato and pepper plants. It looked in disarray. There were no neat rows of plants. Rather, they were scattered about, with beanstalks looping throughout. The garden was jungle-like, as were all the family plots that extended for miles across the valley.
It was the summer of 1992, and the place was Razhdavitsa, a village of 259 residents in southern Bulgaria that was first settled in the 1500s. My wife’s family has had a white stucco cottage there for at least a century — but probably long before that. My wife’s dad and mom, who died in 2000 and 2014, respectively, lived most of the time in an apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital of 1.2 million, two hours northeast of the village. Razhdavitsa, though, was ancestral land — and a primary source of sustenance.
My father-in-law spent long weekends tending to his three gardens, each at different points around the village, returning to Sofia with large sacks of fruits and vegetables, which he and my mother-in-law canned for winter.
I met and married my wife while serving in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria from 1991 to 1993. Razhdavitsa is one of the most serene places I have been, with a certain gritty beauty. Essentially it’s one giant farm to feed a hundred or so families, each with their own little gardens handed down from generation to generation.
Wildflowers grow abundantly amid the fields. No one would dare pull them out. They attract bees, which pollinate the fruit trees and provide honey. Many Bulgarians pay homage to the Greek Orthodox patron saint of beekeepers, St. Haralambos. Yes, in Bulgaria, bees are sacred creatures.
When I first arrived there, I was shocked by the country’s centuries-old tradition of family farming in small garden plots. Most people, it seemed, had at least one, whether they lived in a city or in the country. So when democratic revolutions swept across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early ’90s, causing widespread food shortages, Bulgarians weren’t worried about starving. They grew their own food, as they long had.
I grew up in Yaphank, in eastern Long Island, next to a cabbage farm. For miles, all you saw were the little green orbs, planted in perfect rows, surrounded only by brown earth, with nary a weed in sight — and no bees. The farm screamed American efficiency, with crops controlled by a steady diet of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers.
For my five decades on this planet, that was my image of the American farm — sterile, devoid of biodiversity. That all changed, I’m thankful to say, when I volunteered on June 27 with five fellow Herald staffers at a two-acre farm in Brentwood cultivated by Island Harvest, a nonprofit that feeds tens of thousands of food-insecure Long Islanders. The farm helps provide nourishment for 6,000 to 8,000 people.
The Island Harvest farm sits on a 28-acre parcel owned by the Sisters of St. Joseph, with multiple small plots that are leased to non-profit and for-profit organic farmers. It was the first place in this country to remind me of Razhdavitsa, with all manner of vegetables growing in every direction. There were straight rows of plants, yes, but there were also wildflowers and bees and weeds, which formed borders between the plots.
We spread compost — the product of decayed leaves — around two long rows of tomato plants to fertilize the soil. This is an organic farm; no synthetic anything is allowed.
One of our guides was Bonny Morlak, 54, who was born and raised in Germany and lived in Australia for 23 years — including three years outdoors in a rainforest — before immigrating to the U.S. to open the tech startup www.Tiltsta.com. Our other guide was Bunny Yan, who grew up in Patterson, N.J., and now lives in New York City, where she manages her own website, www.leftsideoffashion.com. They both volunteer at the Island Harvest farm with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a nonprofit that connects people who want to work the land with farmers in need of a hand. Volunteers receive room and board in exchange for their labor.
The Island Harvest farm is a peaceful place. There is the faint sound of traffic from nearby thoroughfares. Otherwise, you hear only birds chirping and cackling. Trees surround the farm on three sides. To the northeast are the towering, off-white structures of the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent.
If you have a chance, spend a morning volunteering at the farm. You will understand better, if only on a basic level, how humans should connect with the land.
For more, go to www.IslandHarvest.org.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.