When it comes to sustainability, the path forward might mean looking back

In a square patch of dirt in my childhood backyard in California, my dad decided to plant a little piece of Mexico. There weren’t but a half dozen rows of white corn, but he tended to those stalks the same way he cared for the tiny jungle of potted plants he lined up around our patio: methodically and with care. “Around and around,” he’d remind me as I guided the hose from plant to plant, trying not to drown the mix of citrus trees, hibiscus plants, ferns, and other species that my dad grew as part of his landscaping business. It was one of my least favorite daily chores, but now I realize how my father used those moments to pass on small lessons about how to care for the world around us.

My dad worked as a gardener for Santa Barbara’s well-to-do, and my sisters and I helped him with tasks like weeding and raking after school and on weekends. It was a purposeful decision by my parents to instill a work ethic in us. In Mexico City during the 1960s, my dad owned a small chain of tortilla mills that he supplied with corn he bought directly from local farmers in the states surrounding the country’s capital.