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The farmer, the poet, the twins, and their sister


Helen of Troy is well known as the booty over which the Trojan War was waged. This war, despite being stupid, did wonders for the development of Western literature, from Homer to Joyce and beyond. But few people know of Helen’s earlier contribution to history, which is no less significant. In her passive way, Helen set the ball rolling toward an epic new synthesis: the edible philosophy gymnasium.

When she was 12 years old, Helen was abducted by Theseus of Athens, who wanted to ripen her up on his shelf and marry her. Helen’s brothers, Kastor and Polydeukes—aka the Gemini twins—went searching for her. When no Athenian would divulge Helen’s whereabouts, the Gemini twins threatened war on Athens.

Meanwhile, a farmer named Akademos thought, “This is ridiculous. I’m not going to war with Sparta to defend Theseus’ pedophilic tendencies.”

So Akademos divulged Helen’s location, the Gemini twins retrieved their little sister, and war was averted. As a token of appreciation, the Geminis purchased Akademos an olive grove on the outskirts of town.

Years later, Plato set up shop in this olive grove, naming his Academy after Akademos, the peaceful olive farmer. Thus, the origin of the word “academic.” Webster’s defines Plato’s Academy as “the gymnasium where Plato taught.”

I’m happy to report that this concept of the Academy, a multi-use piece of land where food is grown and intellect and body are trained, is alive and well. To see the evidence, fast-forward 2,471 years to the Hobnob Café, Missoula, Mont.

At first glance, it seems like an unruly classroom. But the rowdy crowd sits in front of empty plates, drinking wine. The poet stood before long tables packed shoulder to shoulder with townsfolk. They wanted food. They were happy to see each other, and they didn’t really quiet down for the poet to start reading. He started reading anyway.

With verses about mud in your toes, bowls of food, seasons, grain elevators, sheep, babies and fornicating beetles, the poet’s words tumbled through the ebb and flow of the din, resonating in the empty spaces where the rumble stalled. Some people cupped their ears to hear better, others bowed their heads in concentration. “What are we doing with our lives?” he asked against the unrelenting chatter, not raising his voice. “I’ll take this farming life any time,” he said. “Anytime.”

Servers entered the room carrying large bowls of potatoes rubbed in olive oil, and then tossed in a mixture of dried basil and rosemary. The herbed potatoes were then roasted, and then they were fried, and then they were topped with cheese and baked again. Two thick soups were served: lamb/venison stew and winter squash with greens.

All ingredients, except the salt and the olive oil, came from our valley.

This was the simple-yet-hearty menu of the Wintergreeens feast, where the people had gathered to celebrate and support their farm, the PEAS Farm, where the ideal of Akademos’ grove is alive and well.

The PEAS Farm exists through a partnership between the non-profit Garden City Harvest and the University of Montana. University students work the farm for college credit, and Garden City Harvest disperses the produce to people who have purchased a yearly farm membership.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of pounds of food are given away annually to Missoula organizations that feed the hungry.

In the rows of crops, where any subject is fair game, it is not uncommon for the conversation to reach the crest of intellectual inquiry. The PEAS Farm is where the idealism of youth frolics amidst the grounded reality of farm life, with all of the sacrifice, compromise, tedium and sweat of the real world, as well as the tangible rewards. It’s Akademos’ study gymnasium all over again. And while Akademos’ grove commemorates his gift of peace to Athens, the PEAS Farm is a gift to Missoula that keeps on giving.

A new Garden City Harvest program called Youth Harvest provides “farm therapy” to at-risk youth and juvenile offenders, who work alongside the University students. “At the beginning, some of the kids are there against their will,” says Tim Ballard, director of Youth Harvest. “But pride, and a sense of ownership and belonging develop. By feeding people, they feel like they deserve to be a part of the community.”

I think every town needs a farm like the PEAS Farm, and the success of Wintergreens demonstrates how much Missoula agrees. All 100 tickets were gobbled up three days before the event. And last year, 600 people showed up at a summertime farm party. That’s 1 percent of Missoula, hanging out together on the town farm.

The palpable camaraderie at Wintergreens was born from a shared love of our community and our farm; of shared stories and adventures, because farms are breeding grounds for these things. Ask the poet, he knows. Farms, like wars, create legends.

But personally, I prefer farms. Especially when they double as community-supported edible philosophy gymnasiums.

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