A cantaloupe offered me an epiphany this morning. I confess, this is not my first melon-induced, micro-mystical moment. Years ago, I was browsing the produce in a small farm store–the usual line up of summer squash, sweet corn, zucchinis. Suddenly, a cardboard box on the floor caught my eye. I could just make out four perfect, cool green orbs in the shadows. The silent contours of these melons held the mysteries of gravity, the curvature of planets, the relation of being and nothing. In that moment, the dark, full universe inside the box captivated me.
I hadn’t really known what to make of my reaction to those green globes until my encounter with breakfast today. It served as an “organizing event,” creating a core around which a jumble of impressions suddenly align and new meaning emerges. In a state of early morning bleariness, I had set about opening a fresh Georgia cantaloupe. The knife slipped easily through the ripe sphere. As it reached the opposite side, the halves slid apart slightly, revealing a pale green verge of inner rind and a glimpse of the soft orange flesh it encircled.
As I drew in my breath in appreciation, the melon released its musky, sweet fragrance. Parting the halves to the seed chamber, I marveled both at the plant and the experience of opening it. I felt like a child peering into a newly split geode. How, I wondered, is it possible to feel moved by the sight and scent of a few inches of cantaloupe?
Many explanations are possible. But I’m drawn to focus on our multi-sensory awareness and its link to the spiritual. Or, at the least, to moments of intense appreciation. What if we’ve given this awareness short shrift and are now suffering for it? As organisms, we experience a complex world through a whole body system, even unconsciously. Perhaps especially unconsciously. Melon moments occur when a window of consciousness is thrown open and we are more than usually “present” to our sense processes.
Unfortunately, we do many things to block up the window. When the window is obscured, we live in an impoverished place. Even when oblivious to that the richer world around and inside us, we are always, nonetheless, influenced by feelings of loss at our broken connection. Direct experiences of the natural world are the encounters that clear the window. Many of us have fewer and fewer of these.
It is no coincidence that my epiphany took place in relation to food preparation. In our deep history, much of our time has been spent in close contact with what feeds us. As obvious as that is, we don’t seem to have accounted for this change in our daily habits, as our reliance on purchased and processed food has grown. Subtract the hours spent searching or cultivating, picking, plucking, peeling, and preparing. Substitute ripping open box lids and clicking shut the microwave door. Sure, you’ve been saved sweat, dirt, backwork, and time. But your sense organs are at risk of atrophying.
As a parent I’ve struggled with how to ensure my kids eat whole foods and have a balance of indoor and outdoor time. Watching children navigate a world that seems much more human-made than that of my childhood has made me wonder. Are we all, increasingly, over-stimulated and sensory-deprived? Bombarded by a narrow band of media experiences, while closed off from the more enveloping natural environment?
I write this on the porch, while cicadas build to their chattering climax and go silent. Chickadees scold and crows call. A goldfinch chortles to its mate. Breezes lift the hair on my arms. The sun’s heat shifts intensity with the passing of clouds, and an astonishingly small hummingbird moth works the fronds of the butterfly bush next door. There is a fullness–like the seedy interior of a cantaloupe–that affects the body, mind and spirit in familiar but profound ways. Ways that differ in quality from the fullness, say, of the informational world of the internet.
What if this fullness is necessary to our well-being? What if we modern Americans are simultaneously overfed and undernourished? I recently heard a farmer, an apple grower, speculate that some of our obesity problems might be due to people overeating because they unconsciously crave real nutrition. Except they keep ingesting the very denatured foods that have created the lack. They are starving for the fullness of nature.
What if, like the nutrients stripped from refined food, we also lack the nourishment that comes from processing our own sustenance? Even if you are not a chef or a “foodie,” you can find sensory enjoyment in preparing your food. It is, after all, a substance with which you will have a most intimate relationship.
Imagine if I had merely pulled a tub of pre-cut melon from the refrigerator? I would have missed the balanced heft, the reptile-like skin, sensations which no doubt enhanced the discovery of the cantaloupe’s core. Even when feeling harried in the kitchen, I often find the colors, smells, and consistencies of fresh produce truly pleasurable.
This possibility of pleasure may be hard to imagine if one’s sense organs are already dormant. There are many ways to awaken them—music, movement, touch, art, interacting with other animals, sitting on the porch—but working with food is one of the most basic and consistently available modes. I’d suggest starting right away, with a cantaloupe.