On a recent Saturday morning, Bowdoin professors of chemistry, English, biology and sociology gathered at the newly renovated 52 Harpswell residence hall to give short talks on gardening and organic food. Bowdoin’s newest organic garden plot is located in the dorm’s back yard.
Ian Kline ’15, with assistance from garden manager Sara Cawthon, organized the event to demonstrate the complex role that food and gardening plays in our society. “I put the event together with the goal of showing how you can view a garden in so many ways, not just scientifically, but through sociology, art and economics,” he said.
In her presentation “Soils as the Nutrient Bank for Food,” Professor of Chemistry Dharni Vasudevan discussed the role that soils plays in plant growth. Quoting D.D. Richter, she defined soil as “the biologically excited layer of the earth’s crest,” and explained how harvesting plants strips away organic matter from the soil, forcing farmers and gardeners to replace organic biomass and nutrients with fertilizer, legumes or compost.
Terri Nickel, a research associate in the English department, discussed gardens in Western literature from the Bible through the 20th century. Eden, she said, is where the garden first appeared in our literary tradition as a symbol for the ideal and as a site from which to launch narratives. Nickle also explored the complexities and contradictions of the garden in John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron. These narratives use the garden, she said, to question whether “the ideal exists on its own or [if] it has to be cultivated; and if it has to be cultivated, is it even ideal?”
In his presentation on “The Two Faces of Microbial Life in the Garden and Kitchen,” Professor of Biology Barry Logan discussed the impact of microbes for crop growth and our health. He focused on both the positive and the negative impacts of microbes: On the one hand, pathogenic bacteria is responsible for the 2011 outbreak of listeriosis, a fatal outbreak borne by cantaloupes. Yet he also emphasized how microbes have an “intricate relationship with crop plant and are essential to plant growth.”
Fungi, in particular, is vital to some plants, because they can colonize plant roots and create an “intimate symbiotic relationship” with their host. The metabolism of the colonizing fungus acquires nutrients better than the plant, a relationship that Logan compared to a homeowner who hires carpenters or roofers. “I can’t roof so I hand off the job to a specialist,” he said.
Professor of Sociology Nancy Riley spoke about how food insecurity in the United States is growing alongside other social inequality issues. She described areas in the country that are virtually “food deserts” because no convenient store exists where families can buy healthy food. “Racial and class dimension structure the country in all kinds of ways and certainly food insecurity,” she said. She also addressed the failure of the U.S. government to create programs and subsidies that dilute the impact of food insecurity, and said she believes the solution is to support communities to develop the kind of food sources they want.