Saturday, May 9, 2009

Reasonable Creatures

'There is value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain, and of the fundamental organization of the biota... Civilization has so cluttered the elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry,' (Leopold, A Sand County Almanac).

These days you might be convinced there exists no food chain at all besides the one from the freezer to the microwave to your stomach. But of course taking the time to look beyond the brief time of pseudo-production in the kitchen or the approach to the fast food counter, you will see that not only is the food chain changed in a very unnatural way, so is our cultural relationship to food. The dream of the melting pot has come to fruition and in place of cultural meaning, the food industry has injected a certain Oz-like eating environment where you don't ask whats behind the curtain. But, do we really want to know.

Certainly, if we push ourselves far enough we might rationalize or reason our way to eating the most processed and artificial foods possible. No muss, no fuss, and no questions about the food behind the curtain besides how quickly can I buy it and leave. What difference does the changed in food culture make really? It has certainly made finding food easier. But for all the progress of convenient eating, haven't we sacrificed something? My experience tells me yes. My experience tells me that if we resurrect our most heartening food cultures only at our most prized times of celebration, why not bring them to the table more often? Much like Leopold wrote, we fancy that food alone supports us, forgetting what supports our food: conversation, cultural design. Eating food is not a time to fill your stomach as quickly as possible but an opportunity to share something with others.

So, ask yourself if there exists a fast food culture? What makes leaving the care and comfort of home and company for the individualized serving sizes and squeaky clean table tops of the local burger joint so appealing? Consider how little you know about processed or fast food, and yet you are willing to ingest it. (Considering the protocol of perusing a clothing outlet and the thorough examination of a pair of jeans or sunglasses, we probably spend more time considering our fashion then what we eat.) We rush out to eat food that has no apparent connection to any recognizable food source and have no second thought about it. Or do we? Patrons of a McDonalds or Burger King probably are as satisfied as they care to be after eating. On the other hand though, most of those same patrons have no ability to judge the experience against anything else. I can remember moving through the line of my middle school and high school cafeteria with no reason to think of the other foods I would rather be eating or the other ways I would like to be eating them. The course is laid at our feets to follow: schools feeding thousands of kids everyday, and parents too tired or busy to prepare a meal. And so there emerges a need, a demand, for the gadgets and middlemen to come peddling there convenient merchandise that will make feeding our young people a corporate tradition (whats for breakfast? Kelloggs or Quaker?) rather than a cultural one.

We can reason ourselves into anything. Faced with someone criticizing our diets we will cast them aside with a great moral indignation and will feel righteous for it, but we will never reason ourselves into questioning our culture's obsession with immediate gratification. Next time you are faced with a hot-pocket or a hungry man dinner, reason what came before the packaging and chemical synthesis and reason whether you might not want an alternative. Do not rely on the reasons laid out before you by commercials or experts. Instead use what usually supports your reason: morals and care.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

As lowly as a worm

Today is the second day of constant rain here in the valley of Northern California and it signals perhaps the last rainstorm of the season and a great relief to farmers across the land, especially here on this Kiwi farm. My host here recently said herself that it was almost perfect timing that it would rain just before the trees began pushing flowers and pollinating as it would provide a badly needed bump of energy for these thirsty trees. That is the luck of the orchard here, my luck is a little different but not completely. I get a badly needed rest. Time to repair tired arms and hands that had been working for too many days straight to count on two hands worth of fingers (it seems parallels certainly can transcend species on this little farm) and to read the many books that had been piling at my anxious fingertips.

Interestingly another cross-species parallel occurred to me while reading Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma this rainy morning. Immersed in the book and its tales of food culture and the warriors involved, I happened to glance at the bookmark sticking out from the pages and read the script 'Oroville Bookworm' (a local bookstore) lining the top. I wondered to myself 'what ought I make of this seemingly innocent intersection of nature and human culture?' The Bookworm. I had heard the phrase often through my life (not often referring to me) but had never saw a reason to put much thought to it. But, now sitting here on this farm surrounding by thousands of earthworms in the gardens and fields (hopefully) I felt a greater connection to the imagery produced on this thin and apparently meaningless placeholder. Was there anything to this strange hybrid creature wearing glasses but with the body of a giant green worm? I thought more about it. What is the purpose of a typical earthworm? Well to begin with, as it moves through subsoil it aerates, mixes, and digests organic matter improving soil fertility thus adding a great source of energy for plants to derive energy from. Literally any plant species living surrounded by earthworms is better off because of their presence. Then I began thinking about how an avid reader can act in a similar fashion. Turning seemingly dead ideas into inspirational actions making life a little easier for those around them. Those people invested in actualizing timeless themes can change the world by pushing it to feel things it had forgotten it had access to. Thus, we manifest the instinctual thematic life of an earthworm everyday and I have the bookmark to prove it. Coupled with the intention to improve the lives of those around them anyone wielding a sense of personal moral clarity and a willingness to openly converse with others will help create a culture of tolerance and dialogue which has no enemies besides the book burners.

I find this coincidental mixing of natural lore and culture to be a good foundation for human health. If we all remembered that our ancestors worked with the land to foster a loving environment rather than manipulating it to further efficiency we might all humble our selves to realize we may be no better for the planet than a lowly earthworm.

It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures
-Charles Darwin

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Time to Feel for the Farms

Walking past olive trees you must be careful not to stop paying attention to where you are walking because indulging too much might lead you directly into a limb of the next one. Catching a particular color scheme displayed on forking limbs you will inevitably walk into something big in front of you. So this time I stopped. I stopped in my tracks. Pulling my head high, I followed one of the low lying branches as it snaked through the canopy and protruded on the other side with its silver leaves. (Silver on green with a pattern that convinces you some corporate sports team already stole it, patented it, and has it on display in every sporting goods store in the state.) One giant olive tree standing at least 30 feet took my breath away. Another no more than 15 feet seemed so powerfully confident with its wide trunk, below ground its feet must be planted firmly in the earth; a sentinel to Gaea's Garden. My eyes roam the ground and bodies of these trees for morsels of color to enjoy...
I come back to my senses. Remembering I was doing a job, I resume walking on down this dirt road framed by beautiful dark olive trees, my mind was lingering somewhere in the olive trees. How many years has it looked this way? How many other majestic places exist where nature is given space to make itself a home? The light shines through the canopy and catches my eyes. I wonder how many other farmers walked this same way and felt something similar. I relax my mind and begin working as I had set out to do.
The romanticism of farm life begins and ends with the intimate connection between man and nature and lasts for as long as man cares to please the land that hold his feet. Rationally I believe the separation from nature and the need to embrace it are both plausible human impulses. Why care for nature? How can a human 'care' for nature? But as reasonable as those two ideas are, the reverence for nature and it's pervasive human qualities can appear obvious. Human themes of pain and joy flood these fields every season. Capturing a crop here and there you feel the vulnerability that comes along with caring for a land seemingly founded on human customs, but then again not. Nature is not polite, the land unfolds in a trail of poetry from the crying eyes of God. Inevitably this force transcends time and we can trace it through literature dating throughout human history. Documenting tragedy and delight, we sip wine and savor the tastes of great meats but ought to remember nature can not be bound.
Human history too is full of genuine forces that remain unwavering. Human ambition, for instance, has not changed over the thousands and thousands of years we have been alive. We are asking the same questions as before. I wonder how civility factors in practically--does it imply progress? My wonder stems from the fact that I do work that is little different from the farming work done long, long ago. Or even the pride I feel... is it unique? In other words, have we progressed at all or are we more similar to nature's genuineness than we realize: unwavering. Can we learn from history not to indulge in materialism or to treat our bodies and minds poorly? Is such an exercise futile given our predilection to unending cycles? I do believe though that we can learn (on and individual basis) to diagnose recipes for disasters often manifesting in social anxieties. Our health becomes a question of not just a solitary pain to be treated by drugs but a more holistic look at what is missing in your life. I believe our culture is a map to finding the diets leading to unhealthy lifestyles. Like caring stewards we can creatively analyze warnings of dis-ease and work to alleviate them by finding the natural deficiency.

Our lifestyles are the result of millions of interactions predicated too often on competition. But while in nature competition is only natural, we humans can suffer from excessive amounts. Michael Pollan addresses the issue of biological health in his book Omnivore's Dilemma. Working the land of Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley he heard much of how 'In nature health is the default. Most of the time pests and diseases are just nature's way of telling the farmer he's doing something wrong,' (221). I see a great overlap in philosophies of healthful farming and healthful living. You mighr wonder how such a connnection can be made across species and disciplinces, but I have experienced it myself. Reaching a symbiosis with your environment is essential to clarity. We exist as parts in a whole and if we completely separate ourselves from a complex system we depended on in the past we are invariably sacrificing what might have healed our bodies and minds in a different time.