*Story Source: “Why the Sky Is Far Away,” from The Barefoot Book of Earth Tales

It’s harvest time, and the markets are piled high with early apples and late tomatoes. This bounty is too easy to take for granted. Every afternoon, I unpack my children’s lunch tiffins and throw out partially eaten sandwiches and untouched, cut fruit. I salvage what I can, but much lands in the garbage. On their father’s side, my children are a single generation away from poverty and hunger: their paternal grandmother was pushed out of bread lines in Hungary in the aftermath of WWII. She worked on a communal farm from an early age and labored to grow enough food to survive. She cringes every time she sees me scrape leftovers into the waste bin.

The Bounty Always at Our Fingertips

In our culture of consumption and disconnectedness from the earth, I find it difficult to create an awareness, for myself and for my kids, about the energy that goes into the production of food.  Of course, the problem is not just food, it’s also stuff, all that stuff that comes out of and goes back into the earth. I’d like to learn to compost and plant a garden to teach my children to appreciate the earth’s yield. Since I’m a Jersey girl more comfortable with my hands in a sale rack than in the soil, it’s going to take some serious preparation. In the meantime, I can try to model consumer restraint (especially by staying away from my beloved Target), and I can share myths and stories that create an awareness that the earth’s abundance is finite and exhaustible.

I found a gem on this subject in The Barefoot Book of Earth Tales, a collection I recently picked up in Watchung Booksellers. “Why the Sky is Far Away,” lyrically retold by writer Dawn Casey and vividly illustrated by Anne Wilson, begins like this:

“In the beginning, the sky was close to the earth. So close you could reach up and touch it. And you could eat it! In those days, people always had enough to eat, without ever having to work for it. . . .Whenever anybody was hungry, they just reached up and tore off a piece of sky. ”

Then the people get greedy and start tearing away huge patches of sky, leaving them to rot. Father Sky warns the people not to waste his gift, and at first they heed his warning. But a festival day comes along, and a woman of enormous appetite named Osato drinks too much palm wine and loses herself in a food reverie (like me in Whole Foods). She pulls down huge swaths of sky. One of the things I love about this telling is that Casey describes all the fabulous ways the sky can taste, like “spicy, sky stew,” “honey sunsets,” “citrus storms,” “golden paw paw and coconut milk.” The reader’s mouth waters along with Osato’s as she gorges herself.

When Osato realizes she has taken more than she can eat, she begs her family and neighbors to consume what she cannot, but everyone is too full from the feast. They groan and hold their stomachs as they try to force down the excess Osato has ripped from the firmament. In the end they leave over, “just a bit of waste.” True to his word, Father sky lets out an enormous sigh as he lifts himself away from the earth and away from the reach of humans forever.

The people know hunger for the first time. Osato wails, and Mother Earth calms her with a gentle promise: “I can feed you. But you will have to work for your living. You will have to learn to plow the fields and sow seeds and harvest crops. . . Take only what you need, and I will give it gladly.” The story equates food with labor, which is an idea I’ve been trying to get my kids to grasp for a long time. It also reinforces that we have a responsibility to the earth, which provides us with LIFE. It reminds us that any one of us could go hungry someday.

In a way, this folk tale has accomplished what steady nudging could not with my kids. As we read this story, we all rolled our eyes and laughed at Osato, even as we identified with her. I’m going to try to pack and buy a little less.  I’ll try to keep Osato on my mind as I stroll through store aisles, salivating.

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