I originally published this post in the fall of 2014. It seems fitting to share it again with the beautiful and grand finale of Downton Abbey on Sunday.
I’m admittedly proud to say that I started watching “Downton Abbey” in January 2011 (#onthebandwagonbeforeitwascool). It has everything I enjoy in a miniseries– deep characters, stunning costumes and a breathtaking setting, rich dialogue, the very British upstairs/downstairs dynamic and an exploration of social issues in daily life. What I love most about “Downton Abbey” is that it is a collection of smaller stories. Stories of a diverse group of people negotiating how to live and make decisions in an ever changing world.
The stories resonate with me because they are mine, and I’m guessing they echo yours. Carson’s pursuit of perfectionism and order. Mary’s struggle with infertility, then grief over losing Matthew. Robert’s deep connection with his home and heritage. Branson’s tension of empathizing with two ways of life and figuring out how to live in both worlds.
“Downton Abbey” (despite its current soap opera leanings) is compelling because the stories demonstrate choices and their consequences. This is part of the reason stories are so powerful. They help us understand what our beliefs look like in real life and give us the tools to live out those convictions in our own stories. The stories of “Downton Abbey” have shown me many valuable lessons, three of which have important applications to food and agriculture.
Reformation trumps revolution
One of my favorite characters from season one is Isobel Crawley. Isobel is an astute, self-made woman who has concerns about the status quo of early 20th-century England. She is frustrated by sharp class differences, the lack of innovation and an unwillingness to sacrifice lifestyle for the common good. Instead of pushing for a revolution (like Branson), she quietly reforms her sphere of influence through example, respect and countless conversations. When Matthew and Isobel arrive at Downton Abbey, Matthew calls the lifestyle ridiculous. Isobel strikes the balance of respecting and valuing the good of their deeply-held way of life while holding true to her core beliefs. And when the time comes to introduce change, Isobel’s voice is heard and acted on.
So it is with our food and agriculture. We all have opinions about food and agriculture and what should/shouldn’t change. We can choose what we do with our views. We can make a lot of noise and promote ourselves and our views and polarize the conversations. Or we can follow Isobel’s example and quietly but strongly work toward what we think is right through word and deed while valuing those who don’t share our views and respecting what they do well.
Our work and our identities are tightly woven
One of my favorite scenes in the first season of Downton Abbey is when Molesley is trying to help Matthew select his clothes and Matthew scoffs at his work as a valet, a job Molesley enjoys and prides himself in doing well. “It seems a very silly occupation for a grown man,” Matthew tells him. Eventually, Matthew asks Robert if he can dismiss Molesley because he is “superfluous.” Robert asks if it’s fair to deny Molesley work that he enjoys doing and if Matthew has the right to decide who should do what job.
“We all have different parts to play, Matthew, and we must all be allowed to play them,” he explains.
And so it is with agriculture and food. We say we value different perspectives, then we scoff or ridicule others’ ways of working and living. We demean them and their way of viewing the world. The farmers who treat their animals with antibiotics. The moms who exclusively buy organic. The sales people who market fertilizers and pesticides. The farmers who sell all their produce at Farmers Markets. “We don’t need them,” we say of one particular group, depending on what side we find ourselves. Amid our diversity, we must be allowed to exercise our differences and respect those unlike us. We should look for the beauty and strength that is born out of that diversity. As Downton progresses, Matthew comes to appreciate and benefit from Molesley’s knowledge of and insight into the lifestyle Matthew is called to. We would be wise to be like Matthew.
People matter, not labels
One of my favorite scenes in season 4 of “Downton Abbey” involves the evolving Branson and his respect for all people. Branson goes out with an educated young woman from the village who holds the gentry in mild contempt. She stereotypes them, discounts their way of life but doesn’t actually know them. She explains she doesn’t like their type. Branson understands her way of thinking well because she is a mirror of his old self. He responds simply– he doesn’t believe in types, but in people.
And so it with agriculture and food. We too easily stereotype those who live and believe differently than we do. We see farmers who plant GMOs, use pesticides and fertilizers and buy seeds from companies like Monsanto. We see moms who are dairy-free by choice, buy pastured eggs and go to the farmers’ markets every week for their produce. Although the members of these types may appear identical, the homogeneity doesn’t exist past the surface. Dive below the labels, and there is a diverse group of people May we learn to look past the types we’ve constructed and see people with unique stories, passions, cares and concerns, just as Branson learned to do.
Stories change us and strengthen our beliefs. Although “Downton Abbey” may not have much in common with agriculture, the show’s stories have helped me become a more sagacious consumer of food and contributor to the conversation on agriculture.