Category — Editor’s Notes
Threatened with extinction: The idyllic family farm
Our food, and what we can do about it
CNF Editor’s Introductory Notes:
Rebecca Young’s take on the current food production processes in the United States, and her personal quest to become informed about them and to make daily life choices based on that information, is a quest that many of us share. As Young writes, “I am not a scientist or a philosopher or a defined activist of the environment or animals. I am a conscientious consumer trying to educate herself. As such, I am working out a more coherent philosophy for myself about food.” While not strictly a literary piece, Young’s work fits in the non-fiction tradition represented by writers like Michael Polan and Barbara Kingsolver who have written convincingly and lyrically about our food and where it comes from and what the implications of our food practices are — for ourselves, for the environment, and for the animals we eat. Young’s piece represents her attempt to work out a “coherent philosophy,” and she takes us through the steps she has followed in doing so. Her sources, and the way she does this work, stand as a point of departure for the philosophies each of us must craft for ourselves. I have chosen to include Young’s list of sources so that readers wanting more information can go to the sources themselves.
— Leslie Heywood, CNF editor
I had to meet McLovin. Hearing about his affectionate antics for weeks had finally prompted the road trip to Bethel, NY. At Fairytale Farm, McLovin had earned quite a reputation and a fan club committed to telling his story. When I arrived, he welcomed me — this inquisitive intruder — with enthusiastic greeting. If a companion animal is part of your family, you know the greeting I mean: the ooh, where have you been, what’s that new smell, let’s play forever kind. I kneeled for a proper hello, committed already to learning what he offered.
This turkey had been purchased as a chick to be raised for Thanksgiving dinner. As I observed his behavior over the days of my visit, I learned why Jennifer, a hobby farmer of produce and poultry, had befriended him instead. McLovin had insisted on gaining her attentions. From the moment she stepped outside each day, he would follow her about her chores, content to amble along and watch. Occasionally, like a dog or a cat, he would rub against her leg or push his head into her hand, urging a pause in her work to give him some love. If Jennifer wasn’t around, McLovin was known to stroll up the hill and visit neighbors — ironically, the family of a retired NYC butcher — out working in their yard. That’s how this turkey earned his name — and his life.
At the time of my visit to Fairytale Farm, I was engaged in personal research about animals we raise for food. My ultimate personal conclusions about eating meat are my own, and I do not ask you to share them. Your participation in the context with which I frame the decision process is what I ask in this paper. Before we go further, I should mention that I am not a scientist or a philosopher or a defined activist of the environment or animals. I am a conscientious consumer trying to educate herself. As such, I am working out a more coherent philosophy for myself about food. As Donna Harraway, professor in the History of Consciousness department at the University of California, remarks in When Species Meet, “outside Eden, eating means also killing, directly or indirectly, and killing well is an obligation akin to eating well. This applies to a vegan as much as to a human carnivore. The devil is, as usual, in the details” (296). The details, for me, come down to acknowledging and claiming all aspects of the process. This means taking ownership of our choices about eating food with honesty and self-awareness and responsibility.
What I wish to claim here and what I ultimately support represent two distinct food production paradigms occurring in our country: the agribusiness model and the ecological agropastoral model. I propose a shift from current industrial agribusiness practices to a modern approach that thrives on the artistry of responsible farming and food education; this shift is essential to reforming an ethos that has contaminated both our personal and social health.
What is our currently prevailing ethos? Relatively inexpensive, amazingly varied, and unbelievably abundant commodities exist for the typical American consumer. Food is cheap and plentiful. Advanced medical technologies and drugs are available for practically all ailments. In any media we desire, entertainment and information are immediately accessible. For a price, everything is ready and convenient: we are shamelessly spoiled. And the price of this luxury is detachment — consumers are so flooded by what we can have that we’ve lost sight of what we should have, or of what having means. We need to come to terms with and claim responsibility for our wonderful smorgasbord. In the United States we are losing control of our basic health care because we more often seek the remedy to illness rather than the means to health and well-being. Perhaps we’ve lost the knowledge to do so in our astonishing detachment from food sources and production methods. We do not need to know the nutrient value of our food because we can easily access what we need in conveniently packaged supplements. We no longer understand the function of the vitamin or mineral our body craves but we know where we can purchase it. Proponents of the current industrial paradigm call this progress. What we as a culture must acknowledge before we can change, is that America’s dominating large scale agricultural models for plant and animal based food sources have purposefully and successfully distanced consumers from the realities of their processes. Although we listen as they proudly tout the solution to the world’s food problems, the cure for hunger, the cushion for a population rapidly rising, we must also claim their consequences. Our reality is that these systems offer primarily chimerical solutions while existing under an industrial paradigm that condones systematic destruction of the natural environment and the rampant abuse of sentient beings that inhabit it. In truth, their version of progress comes with a price: the sacrifice of morality, decency, and sustainability.
The instructive nature of literature, as is often the case, frames this “price” best. Margaret Atwood’s cautionary tale Oryx and Crake presents a dystopian future built on a paradigm we recognize and practice today. Atwood’s vision of mindless consumption detached from individual responsibility exposes a frightening ultimate reality. Protagonist Jimmy finds himself alone, the only human survivor in a world that has been destroyed by human exceptionalism — a belief that supports unlimited human entitlement due to the unique moral and cognitive capacities characterizing the species. This world — eerily similar to our own — offers a pill or treatment solution for every problem. Satisfying human demand in their society leads to indiscriminate bioengineering of animals to support medical, nutritional, and emotional needs. We should recognize our own conscience in Atwood’s protagonist as he faces the consequences of a food system that mirrors our CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations):
At the bonfire Jimmy was anxious about the animals, because they were being burned and surely that would hurt them. No, his father told him. The animals were dead. They were like steaks and sausages, only they still had their skins on.
And their heads, thought Jimmy. Steaks didn’t have heads. The heads made a difference: he thought he could see the animals looking reproachfully out of their burning eyes. In some way all of this — the bonfire, the charred smell, but most of all the lit-up, suffering animals — was his fault, because he’d done nothing to rescue them. (18)
In fact, these animals are being destroyed because a threatening disease has infected the species (a very real threat to our own factory farms). Jimmy is a child and certainly not directly responsible. Nevertheless, by recognizing his role in the system that necessitated this slaughter, Jimmy feels guilty. His part is the same as yours and mine —consumer. Behind our smorgasbord of food and medicine and entertainment burns a bonfire of victims: animal, human, and environmental.
What follows from Jimmy’s recognition of this complicity is a story of humanity’s undoing. Now called Snowman, he is a human living among the Children of Crake who inhabit our devastated world. Crake, Jimmy’s once best friend responsible for his current fate, genetically engineered these “children” to survive in the aftermath of the human extinction he initiates. Snowman, who survived because Crake secretly selected him as their protector, is both annoyed and sympathetic toward their ignorant innocence. In the exposition of the novel, they are described as inquisitively presenting him with items they have collected: “‘Oh Snowman, what have we found?’ They lift out the objects, hold them up as if offering them for sale: a hubcap, a piano key, a chunk of pale-green pop bottle smoothed by the ocean. A plastic BlyssPluss container, empty; a ChickieNobs Bucket O’Nubbins, ditto” (7). Snowman’s response informs us of their complicated antecedents: “Snowman feels like weeping. What can he tell them? There’s no way of explaining to them what these curious items are, or were. But surely they’ve guessed what he’ll say, because it’s always the same. ‘These are things from before’” (7). The not-so-innocent items within their detritus illustrate ultimate outcomes of commodity-driven lifestyle, indicating that Snowman’s world is a futuristic vision of the reality toward which we are approaching.
One facet of this reality is the fast growing world-wide demand for meat. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) supply the majority of neatly packaged, affordably priced beef, veal, poultry, and pork in the United States. As the name implies, CAFOs are not traditional farms where animals enjoy pasture, fresh air, and animal companionship; they are factories, huge concrete and metal structures that confine thousands of animals at a time for the purpose of feeding and growing them as fast as possible and in as cheap a way as possible. Some capitalists might call this genius and, from a financial perspective, it may seem so. Ethologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall in Harvest for Hope describes them as farms of misery, relating the food production paradigm they represent to vending machines: “The Industrial model of factory farming simply doesn’t find it efficient or profitable to consider animals as sentient beings. Instead they are treated as mere machines, turning feed into meat or milk or eggs” (69). As animal scientist Temple Grandin reminds us in Animals Make Us Human, we “have to recognize that an animal is a conscious being that has feelings” (166). But our sensibilities cringe, so the live animal in our minds is forgotten as clean cellophane packets are casually tossed into our carts. We pile meat, not flesh, onto our plate.
Imagine the reality animals face in a factory setting that prohibits them from knowing grass or sunlight, fresh air or leisure. In Animals Make Us Human, Grandin bases her discussion of animal welfare and well-being on neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s work on core emotions and primary process systems (which he identifies in all capital letters). These systems are the same in humans and animals; Grandin explains them in effort to describe the behavior and emotions of animals we keep as pets, visit at zoos, raise for food. In her commentary on farms and slaughterhouses, she focuses on the importance of environment and the consequences for animals not permitted to perform their natural behaviors. She says “the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible, and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary” (3). Animals, like us, are motivated by SEEKING and PLAY; a proper environment, therefore, means that the pig should be offered stimulating toys and puzzles that entertain and challenge, cows should be given space to graze and be part of a herd, chickens and turkeys need earth in which to forage. None of this natural behavior is possible in factory farm conditions; instead, the animals endure PANIC and FEAR because of restrictive confinement, excessive crowding, and excruciating boredom (Grandin).
Another reality of factory farming is callous human behavior. Myriad cases document cruel abuse toward animals raised unnaturally in factory settings, often mirroring the horrible work conditions employees themselves suffer. In Animals In Translation, Grandin explains the cause of electric prod abuse in moving animals to slaughter: “Handing stockpeople an electric prod to carry around goes against everything scientists know about positive and negative reinforcement. . . . Every time a stockperson shocks an animal that’s not moving, something bad (a balking animal) goes away (the animal starts moving). The more a worker uses the prod, the more he will be reinforced for using the prod, and so his use of the prod escalates” (192). In one example of this tendency, Grandin describes how “workers had about a hundred pigs piled up squeeching and flipping over. Electric prods were being thrown into the squealing pile-up like harpoons, retrieved with an attached wire, and thrown again” (193). Public awareness of industry abuses, prompted by outrage at images of downed animals being dragged or electrically-prodded to the kill floor, has led to recent legal changes. Similarly, minimal improvements have been implemented due to several animal activist organizations’ exposure of cruel confinement systems for pregnant sows, veal calves, and chickens. However, the abuses that go undiscovered—abuses that are industry standards—are most disturbing. Take, for example, the report described in sanctuary founder Gene Baur’s book Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food: “. . . two employees quit their jobs at Smithfield’s Circle Four farm in Utah and related what they had seen there to the Salt Lake Tribune. The paper quoted the pair as saying that ‘if a piglet did not weigh at least five pounds after a week, it got ‘knocked,’ a euphemism for ‘beaten to death.’ . . .’ The most common ‘knocking’ method was to grab the animal by its hind legs and slam it into a wall or concrete floor” (133). The fate of baby chicks is very similar and for spent laying hens, Grandin describes shameful common kill practices: “Some of the farms were just throwing the hens, when they were old ladies, into the dumpster alive. Others get rid of their spent hens by sucking them up in a vacuum truck that is used to clean sewers” (211). These are not isolated examples but common practices perpetuated in the name of profit. Consider this final point from Grandin’s lifetime of work in the industry: “My last recommendation is that farms and slaughter plants should have glass walls. I tell executives, ‘There’s this wonderful technology you can use to improve animal welfare. It’s called glass. It’s called webcam.’ People need to see what’s happening on farms and inside plants” (228). Grandin argues for a more humane, symbiotic relationship with the animals we raise for food; she is not suggesting we adopt vegetarian diets. She supposes that there is a way to raise animals for meat that honors the emotions and behaviors science proves they have. Current practice is the industry’s response to a growing demand for meat. Treating animals like machines makes corporations rich and provides consumers with cheap meat. The unacknowledged price—the price confirmed and documented by numerous reputable sources—is much higher and I have to wonder if it is our lack of awareness to blame or the conscious, collective effort to ignore it.
The impact of factory farming on the environment and your health is alarming. In Jonathan Safran Foer’s memoir Eating Animals, this popular novelist describes the practical problem of factory farming apart from its aesthetics. As you might imagine, these “farms” are well-hidden for a reason — we sensitive types would probably never eat meat again if we had even a glimpse inside one of these operations. What they cannot hide, however, is the waste produced — waste that overwhelms and threatens our environment. As Foer explains:
The problem is quite simple: massive amounts of shit. So much shit, so poorly managed, that it seeps into rivers, lakes, and oceans — killing wildlife and polluting air, water, and land in ways devastating to human health. Today a typical pig factory farm will produce 7.2 million pounds of manure annually, a typical broiler facility will produce 6.6 million pounds, and a typical cattle feedlot 344 million pounds. . . . All told, farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population— roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage. (174)
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Despite well-documented health and environmental impact, the industry continues to be irresponsible in its management of waste. Imagine one of these operations in your own neighborhood. Until the industry can no longer reap profit from its methods, they will proclaim CAFOs as sustainable and safe. Consumers enjoy the economic benefit at grocery stores but only delay the ultimate cost of conscience, health, and ecosystem.
Considering the hidden costs of meat consumption, what if we all became vegetarians? We cannot turn to produce to clear our conscience and improve our health and habitat; abstaining from meat only means support of another harmful industry. Since shifting to monocultures in this country, we have relied on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep up with production demands. If you’ve ever tended a vegetable or flower garden, you may be familiar with the happy results these toxins can provide, toxins to the tune of “three million tons” that have been inflicted on the earth (Goodall 41). Relying on monoculture and poison to grow our foods has obvious consequences, but most consider it progress because it allows farmers to focus on particular crops and yield high production. In fact, because this system is not natural for the environment, it leads to harmful dependence on a few main crops and depletes the natural nutrients of soil. Reliance on basic varieties of plants that grow well drives this model at the expense of losing varieties that are not immediately gainful. The result, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, is that “America’s principal crops are impressively uniform, and impressively vulnerable” (qtd. in Goodall 40). Without variety, we are susceptible to permanently losing particular seeds if they are not resistant to changing weather patterns or insects. Another variety of a crop, for example, may not grow as fast now but may fare better under future conditions than the crops we purposely limit ourselves to; because we are not valuing these other varieties, they are disappearing for good (Goodall). As with factory farm waste, the poisons required for current production rates within the monoculture system significantly affect the health of humans and animals as well as the environment. An alarming fact is that “farm chemicals kill off as many as 67 million American birds each year” (Goodall 42). If this does not alert your regard for bird species or the environment, consider the statistic in terms of what it might mean for human health.
The effects of pesticides and fertilizers are more difficult to document in humans because they occur over a longer period of time, yet chemical pesticide exposure has been linked to “various forms of cancer, as well as Parkinson’s disease, miscarriages, and birth defects” (Goodall 42). Negative effects on cognitive processes, particularly in children, have also been documented including “poorer memory skills and stamina,” tendencies toward “physical aggression and angry outbursts” and “less sociable and creative” play (43). Although journalist Tom Standage discusses the benefits of chemicals in the ironically termed “green revolution,” of the 1960s and 1970s, he also acknowledges in An Edible History of Humanity the price humans have paid for higher crop yields due to artificial fertilizers and pesticides: “According to the World Health Organization, pesticides cause around one million cases of acute unintentional poisoning a year and are also involved in around two million suicide attempts, leading to some 220,000 deaths a year” (230). Fertilizers and pesticides have had their place in our agricultural history. Indeed they have contributed to higher produce production in many parts of the world. However, we are now more aware of the long term effects of these short term gains. As with any public health issue, when we have the knowledge and data necessary to reevaluate our processes, survival obligates us to do so. The research is overwhelmingly available but no one should have to convince you that poison in our food might be a bad thing; would you knowingly ingest even a teaspoon of the stuff?
Directly or indirectly we are responsible for the food system because, like it or not, we are its patrons. It is a simple connection, really: buying equals culpability. If we don’t want to find ourselves as Atwood’s Snowman did, helplessly thinking back on our own complicity, we must reform attitudes driving the current industrial food model in this country. A transformative ideological shift can be accomplished in two bold steps: First, as a nation we must give farmers a make-over. Essentially, this means valuing farmers (and not corporations) for the important position they hold as stewards of our environment and providers of our food. Second, we must reestablish for our youth the physical connection between land and food as well as animals and food through targeted education programs. That’s it. What seems boldly radical is basic and essential. In light of what we now know about factory farming and chemically manipulated land and food, maintaining the status quo is radically irresponsible.
Reinventing the farmer means just that; we are not returning to traditional farming practices as a way to combat industrial ones. Obviously, we must do more than suggest going backwards if we hope to compete with current production. This reinvention, however, starts with farmers who recognize the potential of the natural environment to sustain itself and produce food without toxins. It starts with farmers who recognize the inherent threat of current practices to our personal health, the health of our environment, and the welfare of our animals. Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface, Incorporated’s “Farm of Many Faces” in Swoope, Virginia, is one such farmer. He introduces his most recent book, The Sheer Ecstasy of being a Lunatic Farmer, with this important call to action:
As the industrial food system lashes back with innuendo and pseudo-science against the ecologically based food system, I think it behooves all of us to examine the differences between these two camps. People wonder how I can be such a happy farmer. The stereo-typical, unhappy farmer unfortunately is true much of the time. I hope this book will put in clear detail the depth and breadth of the difference between the chemical/industrial/ global approach and the local/biological/ecological approach. (xvi)
Throughout this book that reads like a best-selling page turner, Salatin documents the ways we can heal land devastated by generations of improper farming practices and use ecologically-friendly, sustainable methods to grow an abundance of natural food and raise happier, healthier animals (who do not require abusive regimes of antibiotics, as in the factory system). He promotes his farming model which thrives on the interaction of plant and animal species to nurture production while making a profit. Yes, a profit. Apparently farmers like him can live off the land and still sleep at night. They can bring integrity to farming.
Importantly, they can also reintroduce this country’s animals to pasture. As I said, I am not a farmer so I will not attempt to explain Salatin’s processes in this short space. Put simply and briefly, the system of farming at Polyface relies on the symbiotic relationship between land and animals. Each animal on the farm benefits from the land and from each other; in turn, the soil and grass benefit from the cyclical pasturing of animals raised: cows, chickens, and pigs in this case. Ultimately, humans — who have cared for the land and animals or supported those who do — benefit in the form of healthily, environ-mentally and humanely produced food (Salatin). As I read about these idyllic and quite natural relationships, I wondered if this system could sustain current demands for food, specifically meat. As Salatin asserts, the answer is yes:
Everyone needs to understand that radiating out from every single confinement animal operation, whether it be poultry, pork, beef, dairy, or guinea pig, an entire unseen land base supports it. You don’t see the corn fields. You don’t see the corporate offices. You don’t see the manure hauling trucks and the acres on which the manure is spread. Our pasture based model actually takes less land than the industrial model. (41)
In the memoir Righteous Pork: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, environmental activist and former attorney Nicolette Hahn Niman confirms this in her description of Iowan hog farmer Paul Willis:
. . . Paul has eagerly sought the latest research on the care and feeding of pigs. But he was never interested in putting them in metal buildings or funneling their manure into cesspools. His animals have always lived on pasture, eaten a drug-free daily ration, and have never spent time in metal crates. Paul grew his own feed corn and soy, rotating his pigs and crops yearly on various fields, which benefitted from the nutrients in the pig manure. Paul’s decision to stick with the traditional methods of raising pigs has allowed him to keep his costs low and be profitable. He never had to take out the large loans needed by confinement operators for capital-intensive structures. (120)
Now a cattle rancher married to Bill Niman, owner of the famous “all natural meat” Niman Ranch, Nicolette also has asserted the viability of living off the land’s natural resources:
. . . Other than that bit of hay, our cattle live entirely off this land. They simply eat the vegetation that occurs here naturally. We do no plowing, planting, irrigating, or harvesting. We use no fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. Our only manipulation of the land is the way we manage the grazing of our cattle and some limited, targeted mowing. The cattle drink water that comes from our reservoir, which is a catch basin for rainwater we collect and store year-round. (170)
Part of the problem is that farmers like this are not popular with predominant agribusiness. Threats to profitability, they are often shunned by corporations and made out to be “lunatics” (hence the title of Salatin’s book). How did we get to a place in our society where people who respect the land and its creatures are seen as lunatics and corporations that comprehensively destroy every living thing they touch are financially supported by the general populace?
In The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, philosopher Peter Singer and writer Jim Mason explore underlying issues of the eating habits we have created. In their complex review of food and ethics, these environmental and animal advocates question the ideologies that drive consumption and ask probing questions about past, present, and future practices. One of their closing arguments considers the philosophical argument over meat consumption and our sense of entitlement regarding it:
It might be argued that food from animals is a central part of the standard Western diet, and important, if not always central, to what people eat in many other cultures as well. Because animal products are so significant to us, and because we could not buy them as cheaply as we can now without factory farming, factory farming is justifiable despite the suffering it inflicts on animals. But when cultural practices are harmful, they should not be allowed to go unchallenged. (244)
For example, Frank Reese, the “first and only rancher authorized by the USDA to call his birds ‘heritage’” (qtd. in Foer 234), is perhaps the last poultry farmer raising turkeys that have not been genetically modified to grow bigger and faster. He speaks out strongly against “unchallenged” practices in our system and makes clear our consumer responsibility: “Most of the folks who buy my turkeys are not rich by any means; they’re struggling on fixed incomes. But they’re willing to pay the real price. And to those who say it’s just too much to pay for a turkey, I always say to them, ‘Don’t eat turkey.’ It’s possible you can’t afford to care, but it’s certain you can’t afford not to care” (qtd. in Foer). Cheap meat for human consumption does not justify the suffering of sentient beings. Acknowledging this truth requires that we transform current culture that supports it by making more informed choices.
As Salatin explores in a chapter called “Relationships,” there is a fundamental reason why we should care about choices regarding the origin of our food: “When people know their farmer, they connect viscerally with what is before them on the plate. After all, dining is a fairly intimate experience. Next to the act of marriage, eating is one of the more intimate things we do as humans. We take in this food, right into our bodies, and it becomes us. Flesh. Blood. Being. Mind” (253). His point is well-taken on multiple levels. Knowing our farmer attributes a recognition and respect of the important role they play in our lives. We should care about how they feed us. We appreciate their work by valuing the food we purchase and paying a fair price for it. How wonderful it would be if through “our” farmer we supported local agriculture, humane, and environmental consciousness all at once. This food, as Salatin points out, “becomes us.” It becomes us in a way that defines our physical, social and moral health. It defines us perhaps more than any other choice we make. Salatin’s sentiment echoes important conclusions in Donna Harraway’s When Species Meet: “there is no way to eat and not to kill, no way to eat and not become with other mortal beings to whom we are accountable, no way to pretend innocence and transcendence or a final peace” (295). Wherever or however we view ourselves in the chain of being, we cannot deny our fundamental responsibility to protect the welfare of each other, of other species, and of the environment.
Elevating agropastoral farming to a respected profession demands that we also reeducate youth about food issues, our second bold step. In Why Our Health Matters: A Vision Of Medicine That Can Transform Our Future, Andrew Weil, M.D., reports that “America’s obesity rate is the worst in the world and is almost universally believed to be a major predictor of future illness, particularly diseases that are most difficult and costly to manage: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer” (15). Weil makes an interesting comparison of American crowds in images of the 1930s and 1940s to now. Despite limited knowledge of nutrition, people simply weren’t fat then. There are obviously several possible reasons for this, but a glaring factor of guilt lies squarely on our dinner plate (if dinner plate is even a term we readily use in this fast-food grab and go culture).
As Weil notes:
The most significant change in our eating patterns since World War II is our greatly increased consumption of the processed, refined, and manufactured food that has displaced whole, natural food in our diet. . . . Instead [families] mostly buy and consume manufactured food, much of it made with ingredients that are new to human diets, such as highly refined vegetable oils and starches, high-fructose corn syrup, and innumerable additives. Modern food technology has drastically altered the foods that nature provides, all too often reducing their nutritive qualities and increasing their potential for harm. (154)
Incidentally, we need not rely only on images from history. If you’ve ever traveled abroad (and I mean pretty much anywhere outside the U.S.), you’re sure to have noticed a distinct lack of fatness. Indeed, I’d venture to guess that most obesity you did witness presented itself in the form of American travelers. It’s quite embarrassing and not a little shameful considering one avowed goal of big industry: to fight hunger and poverty.
This leads us to transforming America’s understanding about food. In particular, we must promote an improved food production paradigm by fostering food awareness among our youth. This effort must include information specific to nutrition and health as well as ecological and animal welfare issues. In the chapter “Called Home” of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life author Barbara Kingsolver considers how agricultural knowledge has essentially disappeared from our culture, noting that “we also have largely convinced ourselves it wasn’t too important. Consider how Americans might respond to a proposal that agriculture was to become a mandatory subject in all schools, alongside reading and mathematics” (9). This is a fair question which reveals the priorities of our culture. In our effort to move from rural, labor-dependent agricultural models, we have lost very basic knowledge about food production. Worse, we have lost respect for those who seek it.
On reflection of Kingsolver’s question about agricultural education, I cannot think of a more pertinent subject for our youth to study. Certainly we are not all going to be farmers, but agricultural education would inform our daily eating decisions—arguably our most important ones. As pointed out in Why Our Health Matters, other countries are way ahead of us on this. Weil notes that “Germany, for one, is starting a $47 million dollar program to encourage healthy eating, including improvements in school lunches, and is urging makers of unhealthy foods to curtail marketing to children, in part because studies indicate that banning fast-food advertising to children could reduce the number of overweight kids by as much as 18 percent” (193). With public funding cuts to schools all over our country, physical education courses are rapidly dropping from school programs. A mandatory course of study in food nutrition could help curtail the consequences of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle by improving awareness about healthful food and lifestyle choices. In the introduction of Jamie’s Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals, author and chef Jamie Oliver gives us an excellent reason why we should get involved with his movement — Pass It On — and begin sharing healthy recipes and nutrition information with each other:
The reality is that we are in the midst of one of the worst food-related epidemics that this country has seen. And I can assure you it’s not through lack of food this time, but because we’re consuming far too much of the wrong stuff. According to the Institute of Food Technologists, Americans spent more money on fast food in 2007 than they did on education. We’re not talking about gourmet French cheese and expensive cuts of meat here. . . we’re talking about French fries, pizzas, burgers, and other food that is absolute garbage. (14)
Nothing could be more relevant than an educational program that empowers Americans to eat well. Nothing could be as impressive as children who believe that, as Alice Waters— famed creator of California’s Chez Panisse — asserts, “How we eat can change the world” (qtd. in McNamee xiv).
The ecological impact of food choices should be a focus of such education and would therefore include information about local, humane, and organic food movements. Al Gore’s conclusions in Earth in the Balance: Ecology And The Human Spirit reinforce Salatin’s and Harraway’s points about relationship to our choices and indicate the importance of understanding these relationships — in this case, to food, animals, health, and environment:
I believe also that — for all of us — there is an often poorly understood link between ethical choices that seem quite small in scale and those whose apparent consequences are very large, and that a conscious effort to adhere to just principles in all our choices — however small — is a choice in favor of justice in the world. . . . Both in our personal lives and in our political decisions, we have an ethical duty to pay attention, resist distraction, be honest with one another and accept responsibility for what we do — whether as individuals or together. (368)
Imagine a mandatory education course specifically designed to inform students about the ecological and health choices they make every day. Imagine age-specific programs that empower children and teenagers to make better decisions for themselves, their community, and their environment. Even more exciting, imagine an education that invites stakeholders from individual communities—from farmers to chefs to scientists, engineers, and health professionals — to participate in the development of programs specifically targeted at ecological sustainability methods for their own community issues. I want to take these courses. I want to understand how my choices affect the location I call home, and to appreciate how those choices translate for the environment as a whole.
Through education we must redefine farming as a professional career so that young people see value in pursuing it. According to researchers reporting on The Role of Economists in Animal Law, “There is increasing urgency to chart a new course. Our energy, water, and climate resources are undergoing dramatic changes that, in the judgment of the Commissioners, will require agriculture to transition to much more biologically diverse systems, organized into biological synergies that exchange energy, improve soil quality, and conserve water and other resources” (23).
In other words, our new education program should and must encourage the type of farming Joel Salatin, Paul Willis, Bill Niman, and Frank Reese practice and advocate. I’m not suggesting their methods are perfect; indeed, there are criticisms to be made of each. They face enormous obstacles in fighting industry practices, and we can learn from both their missteps and successes. To support them, we can develop education reform that inspires innovation. Our communities need educated, thoughtful people who understand the complexities of modern ecological farming practices.
Another crucial aspect of education reform will be the hands-on application of skills that support modern ecological practices. As a community service, this program would involve students in efforts that support local food production (food preparation where or when production may not be possible). A student’s participation would be driven both by personal interest and available community resources. For example, students might help to raise and harvest crops or learn the basics of farm animal care. They might work with nutritionists to determine healthy meals that rely on local food sources or learn to cook with area chefs willing to promote healthy food options. Students could study with scientists to determine environmental impacts of food production in their area or consider the efficacy and economy of local farms; they might be asked to develop recommendations for sustainability or profitability. Still others might become involved with marketing of local food sources or nutrition information. Working together based on talent and interest, students would share knowledge and experience of various food-related issues. Community members and area businesses would benefit from student services and would be contributing in meaningful ways to education.
Perhaps the most beneficial outcome of these partnerships and long term educational goals will be the improvement of social communities. Through cooperation with each other, reconnecting to our food sources — land and animal — will impact the way we interact with one another in very positive ways. In Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, documentary writer and producer Meg Daley Olmert explores the history and biology of human and animal interactions as well as the evolutionary and social benefits that came of them. In reference to agropastoral practices of the past, she notes that “the care of plants and animals once caused us to settle down, learn to live together, and think of ourselves as caretakers and citizens. For twelve thousand years, we sacrificed self-interests to the care of each other, our crops, and our animals” (198). In a society where “self-interests” have become paramount, we ought to take note of the cultural changes that allowed this shift in priorities from social to individual welfare. As Olmert explains, the reality of this transformation can be found in our unprecedented abandonment of animal agriculture:
In 1920 a third of all Americans—32 million of us—still farmed the land. By 1950 that number had slipped to 23 million. Forty years later it was down to 4.6 million—less than two percent—and a third of those farmers didn’t even live on the land they were farming. By 1993 farmers were so rare that the United States Census Bureau stopped counting. The family farm was extinct. (198)
With this extinction we sacrificed not only agricultural knowledge but also the bonds created through farming with animals and each other. Industrial factory farmers cannot bond with their thousands of confined animals. And indeed, working conditions more often promote hostilities between employees rather than cooperation. In her book Olmert asks important questions about humans trying to live without animals and points to serious implications in the loss of our bonds with them. I suggest that it is even more dangerously complex: we are not only trying to live without animals, we are trying to live within a system that marks animals as unfeeling machines. We may not agree with this philosophy, but when we fail to consider consequences our food choices create, it is the one we support.
A return to more traditional land and animal care practices indicates positive outcomes for individuals and society as a whole. Exploring the consequences of America’s farming transformation, psychiatrist Aaron Katcher fears that “we broke the bond with animals that had helped to make us civilized human beings. Katcher sees the fallout from this sudden interspecies divorce every day in children who are too wild to participate in polite society” (qtd. in Olmert 180). His research about children with ADHD, the most common behavioral disorder in America, promotes the success of animal therapy in place of drugs to treat the condition (181). In Animals In Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, scientist Temple Grandin asserts biological similarities shared by humans and animals as explanation for various behaviors (ours and theirs). As part of a fascinating discussion about the co-evolution of wolves and humans, Grandin refers to research scientist Robert K. Wayne who explores social behaviors humans learned by interacting with wolves. Unlike early humans, wolves “had complex social structures” and “loyal same-sex and non-kin friendships” (304). As Grandin concludes, “all animals make us human” (306). Biological and evolutionary evidence suggests the wisdom of our continuing to learn from them.
Horticulturalist Charles Lewis’ work revealed similar cooperative benefits through “the palliative and socializing effect of tending plants” (Olmert 153). As Olmert describes in Made for Each Other: “In the 1960s [he] used it to ignite a sense of community in the midst of poverty and rubble. He helped clear patches of NYC’s Spanish Harlem to create neighborhood gardens. In precincts rife with crime, the police were amazed when these gardens were respected and allowed to grow. They were even more amazed to learn the vandals had become guardians of these tiny Edens” (153). Interestingly, his work in Chicago demonstrated the aesthetic concern adopted by people caring for these neighborhood gardens. As a result of their project, building appearance improved as people painted and cleaned surrounding areas: “Lewis concluded that gardens make good neighbors. Growing beautiful and delicious things where nothing existed before brings people together and gives them a sense of control in their lives” (153). Imagine the combined result, therefore, of school to community programs that encourage student involvement with both animals and the land. Imagine the bonds developing between young people who feel a sense of accomplishment for improving the way their community interacts with each other and contributing to better food production and preparation practices. Feel their sense of pride for educating others based on these experiences.
As ethologist Marc Bekoff asserts in The Emotional Lives of Animals, “the phenomenon to which “morality” refers is a wide-ranging biological necessity for social living. Just as emotions are a gift of our ancestors, so too are the basic ingredients of morality: namely, cooperation, empathy, fairness, justice, and trust” (87-88). To acknowledge and claim food choices, Americans must come to terms with what we take for granted. We must understand the moral issues that underpin our everyday choices concerning what we put on our grocery lists and what we put in our mouths. We must recognize the complexity of consequences that exist behind these decisions, decide to what extent we are responsible, and act to affect positive change. The outcome, if we don’t, might remind of us of Jimmy’s reality soon before humanity is destroyed in Oryx and Crake: “Next they went to NeoAgriculturals. AgriCouture was its nickname among the students. They had to put on biosuits before they entered the facility, and scrub their hands and wear nose-cone filters, because what they were about to see hadn’t been bioform-proofed, or not completely” (202). Ironically, this is pretty much what it takes to visit one of today’s CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). We know what happens to the animals of Jimmy’s youth but the animals he visits in this description are not really animals at all. They are chickens (remember the ChickieNobs Bucket the children of Crake find?), but in Jimmy’s adult world, chickens have been engineered to grow popular food parts without developing into a whole chicken. This eliminates controversy over animal emotions since, as Jimmy is told, chickens with no heads cannot think or feel. In our world, we’ve successfully engineered what scientists call the “Enviropig” because the waste of our pork consumption is too much for the environment to handle. In our world, we’ve created turkeys like McLovin, who happened to find sanctuary at Fairytale Farm. In the industry, under our support, this would have been his fate:
Today’s domesticated turkeys are anatomically manipulated to be so heavy and large-breasted, because breast meat is the most desirable and therefore commands the best price, that they are now incapable of breeding naturally. Practically all of the turkeys raised commercially in the United States are the result of artificial insemination (AI). Their abnormally configured bodies, as well as their intensive confinement, result in health problems, including painful leg and joint disorders, lameness, heart disease, and weakened immune systems. (Unnatural Breeding Techniques and Results in Modern Turkey Production)
If we permit this because we want more breast meat, are we really so different from Atwood’s description of a culture that breeds chickens with no heads? After a brief but beloved presence on Jennifer’s farm, McLovin died because his body and heart could not support his unnatural weight gain. Is this what we want?
Bekoff’s concluding argument advocates our improved treatment of animals, sentient beings that deserve our compassion and protection: “We know that the results of scientific research (all those facts) should influence how we act in the world; otherwise science becomes a meaningless exercise. And we also know animals feel emotions and suffer at our hands, and they do so globally. Ethics, with a capital E, needs to have a place in our ongoing deliberations about how we interact with other animals” (135). Our environmental and social well-being, as well as our individual health, deserves the same deliberations. I argue that we become a culture that validates ethical and ecological farming and supports, through education reform, a youth prepared to confront our current food crises.
It really is as simple as that. And everywhere animals like McLovin, cognizant and full of feeling from the day they are born, will thank you.
About the author:
Rebecca Young is a native of Sullivan County, a stronghold of the local food movement in the heart of the Catskills. She currently resides in Elmira, New York, and is an International Baccalaureate Language A (English) instructor and examiner. As a teacher, her interests include education reform that fosters individual responsibility and promotes social activism. She is pursuing a PhD in World Literature studies at Binghamton University.
Sources for Further Reading:
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. United States of America, 2003. Print.
Bauer, Gene. Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008. Print.
Bekoff, Marc. The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy—and Why They Matter. Novato: New World Library, 2007. Print.
Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources. Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States. The National Academies Press. Web. 5/1/11.
Dougherty, Charlotte P., Sarah Henricks Holtz, Joseph C. Reinert, Lily Panyacosit, Daniel A. Axelrad, and Tracey J. Woodruff. Dietary Exposures to Food Contaminants across the United States. Environmental Research Section A 84, 170}185 (2000). Web. 5.1.11.
Fearing, Jennifer and Martin, Robert and Newman, Mathew. The Role of Economists in Animal Law: A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2009. Web. 5.1.11.
Foer, Jonathan Safran. Eating Animals. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009. Print.
Gay, Kathlyn. Superfood or Superthreat: The Issue of Genetically Engineered Food. Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2008. Print.
Goodall, Jane. Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating. New York: Warner Wellness, 2005. Print.
Gore, Al. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. New York: Rodale, Inc., 2006. Print.
Grandin, Temple. Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. New York: Houghton Miffline Harcourt, 2009. Print.
Grandin, Temple and Johnson, Catherine. Animals In Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.
Harraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007. Print.
McNamee, Thomas. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. Print.
Niman, Nicolette Hahn. Righteous Porkchop: Finding A Life And Good Food Beyond Factory Farms. New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2009. Print.
Oliver, Jamie. Jamie’s Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals. New York: Hyperion, 2009. Print.
Olmert, Meg Daley. Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond. Da Capo Press, 2009. Print.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Print.
Research Reports: Unnatural Breeding Techniques and Results in Modern Turkey Production. Farm Sanctuary. Web. 5/1/11.
Salatin, Joel. The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2010. Print.
Singer, Peter and Mason, Jim. The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choice Matter. USA: Rodale, Inc. 2006. Print.
Standage, Tom. An Edible History of Humanity. New York: Walker & Company, 2009. Print.
Weil, Andrew, M.D. Why Our Health Matters: A Vision of Medicine That Can Transform Our Future. Hudson Street Press, 2009. Print.
Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff and McCarthy, Susan. When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. New York: Dell Publishing, 1995.
Salatin, Joel. You Can Farm: The Entrepreneur’s Guide To Start and Succeed in a Farming Enterprise. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea, 1998.
Panksepp, Jaak. Affective Consciousness: Core Emotional Feelings in Animals and Humans. Science Direct, 2005.
June 28, 2011 2 Comments
Michael Parish’s series of vignettes on our strange contemporary relationship to the natural world — and the way our daily consumption habits and practices transform it and ourselves — provide a bit of a Brechtian alienation effect that lets us stand back and see ourselves in action. The everyday activities of work, eating, and landscaping are shown in a kaleidoscope that the quirky narrative voice guides us through our activities and makes them momentarily strange — and therefore able to think about doing them differently.
— Leslie Heywood, Creative Nonfiction Editor
By Michael Parish
To picnic is to party, in a field, in the woods, under the sun. Bring a blanket, some wine and cheese, and don’t forget the bread that crunches like the sound of leaves when we break it. Picnicking combines two of the simplest pleasures in life, being outside and eating, and though I’d like to partake in both everyday, most days, I have to go to work.
I sit at a desk in a room that has no windows. As I program, my mind runs the same track over and over again like a toy train racing around a Christmas tree. If the time is 11:34, I think 7:34; I add eight hours because in eight hours I am guaranteed not to be at work; I will be at the supermarket or eating dinner or out on my porch reading the book I have been reading.
During lunch, I sit in my car with the windows down; it is impossible to find a place near work to eat at outside. The nearest “natural space” is a playground/park with a backstop and a soccer field where in place of the grass, something else exists. The stuff is like a carpet, like the floor of every miniature golf hole that’s ever been putted on, and sometimes, I squat and move a flat palm across the top of it, trying to figure out what astroturf smells like.
It doesn’t smell like a picnic, I can tell you that.
The all-you-can-eat buffet is a simple solution to a complex problem. It would seem like providing a person with an almost unlimited amount of food choices come mealtime would make things easier when trying to solve the Western dilemma of eating three meals a day and deciding what exactly those meals should be. But this is precisely why buffets do not work: special occasions aside, eating should never be treated merely as an excuse to stuff our faces, and food should not be treated as an abundant, homogeneous commodity that can be purchased for a flat price (say, $9.99 per person). Yet so many of us fork over our ten bucks so that we can eat until we are unable to move. When we eat at buffets, we sacrifice sound food choices for the sake of convenience.
Treating food as an unlimited resource breaks down our connection to its provenance and production. At a buffet, our knowledge of how the food underneath all of the red heat lamps got there is limited to an occasional glimpse of the dolly heaping with trays that is periodically trucked from the kitchen to the food bar. The country of origin, the specific variety of the fruits, vegetables and meats that comprise the ingredients , the date the food was harvested and who did the picking, when exactly it arrived in the kitchen of the restaurant, and how many times it was processed before it arrived in our mouths, are all details that are rendered invisible through their anonymous presentation.
To most buffet enthusiasts, none of these details matter. All that is important is 1) being hungry, 2) eating as much food as possible to ensure you get your money’s worth, and 3) being hungry. In America, the one price, all-you-can-eat buffet seems like a setup, a con or trick combining one of our basic needs (the need to eat) along with our thrifty, “consumer values” (the hunger for a bargain). We’re duped into overeating because we can’t resist a bargain.
At an all-you-can-eat buffet, faced with mounds of fried and fast foods, the feeling that pervades the atmosphere is that food can be wasted without consequence, either by sampling small portions of every entree and trashing the leftovers or by eating healthy portions of everything in sight. The first is downright wasteful – throwing away good food simply because it is extra – while the second is a bit more covert. The two main reasons to eat are for energy and pleasure, and the best method usually involves finding the most agreeable way of combining the two. To force yourself to eat so much that you feel like you’ll lose it in the backseat on the car ride home is just excessive. It’s also insulting to your internal organs, to farmers, to plants and animals, to people waking up in other parts of the world who worry not about eating, but about whether they’ll live through another day.
I’m not saying when we get together with friends for a potluck or a holiday that it’s wrong to enjoy ourselves. Such events celebrate life and the joys of eating and, every once in a while, there is something very satisfying about overstuffing yourself. But most of us attend buffets without considering the huge amount of labor that goes into amassing such a bounty of goodies. If we had to grow, harvest and prepare all of the food, would we ever come up with the idea of putting together a buffet ourselves?
Perhaps I have been a bit harsh in my assessment of buffets, but the following anecdote may help illuminate why. When I lived in Albany, my friends and I frequented the lunch buffets at the Indian restaurants downtown when we wanted a break from eating on campus. There were times when we ate so much that I thought I would never eat again. We would leave the restaurant and walk a few steps to the park and beach ourselves on its knolls like whales, our bloated stomachs becoming sunburned in the afternoon sun. As we gradually passed out, people dropped change on us, mistaking us for derelicts because we were muttering obscenities to ourselves and farting loudly in public, drunk from having eaten too much food, rolling around in the grass, pressing our faces into the earth, our brains eventually induced into a coma state because it was the only way to save us, system capacity breached, system failure, system shutdown. And there were weekends where we never learned any lesson, waking up on Sunday morning bright-eyed and recovered, ready and willing to do the same thing to ourselves that afternoon.
If our Rome ever falls, it wouldn’t surprise me if the all-you-can-eat buffet has something to do with it.
On Walks and Walking
Leisure walking, perhaps the simplest and most enjoyable activity known to man, is becoming extinct. Humans have walked since long before they were called Homo sapiens; anthropologists thank evolutionary ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, for foraying into bipedalism. As the earth flew around the sun, we became a race of runners, (pun intended), who chased down prey at a steady pace over the course of many days, tiring it to the point of defeat and exhaustion.
Today, due in large part to our big brains, we no longer have to run after anything. When we do see people running, usually from the air-conditioned cockpits of automobiles, it strikes us odd why anyone would willingly put themselves through that.
But forget running. Most people don’t even seem to walk anymore. We’ve become a culture of sitters.
With a laptop computer and a helpful relative ready to fetch the occasional meal, splash of water, bedpan, etc., it is possible for one to lounge in bed all day and still participate in the 9 to 5 workweek. A respectable standing in social circles can also be maintained from the bedroom command center, and up to the second local and global news is always on tap. Movies, music, shopping, dating. All can be delivered instantly. Why go anywhere if it can all come to us?
The world we now experience is one experienced by proxy. It is an endless stream of images and information, floating past our eyes and unable to be accessed without the aid of a computer. It is a world we cannot touch and the world we seem truly invested in. We are literally detached from it yet call ourselves “connected.”
One wonders, then, how to get closer, how to get inside the machine. Advances in computer generated images could possibly dictate the future of the human relationship with computers. The only question that remains is: how many terabytes will you take up?
What makes walking so appealing is that it is something that can be done now. One has everything they need from the moment they push themselves up from the carpet as a baby. There is no need for special devices; one’s own sense of accomplishment comes from oneself. And just like runners, who run to achieve the euphoric rush known as runner’s high, walkers, too, benefit from endorphins flooding against the blood-brain barrier.
There are some that say walking is boring. To this I say there are a lot of boring people out there, ready to let the world be imagined for them. The world is always outside, waiting to be explored.
So start walking. Any direction will do. Look around, listen. Feel the rhythm of footsteps, watch the thoughts come and go. Focus on every breath, for in every breath lies the secret to discovering the world anew.
In the modern world, convenience is king. Often, the quickest, cheapest and easiest way of getting something done is the most used, sought after and marketable. Humans are inherently short-term thinkers; having evolved from a hunter-gatherer mentality, we only realized the benefit of planning ahead when we started planting our own food some 9,000+ years ago. Prior to that shift, a lifestyle of living on the run had been wired in us for millions.
We engage in convenient behavior because it satisfies our immediate needs. Rather than take some time to cook our own meals, it’s a lot faster to hit the drive-thru at any burger joint, the awnings of which are red and yellow because those colors induce hunger. When convenience is on the line, it starts to seem like the whole world plays on our instincts and desires, inviting us to spend our money and consume.
While some decisions we make on a daily basis, such as ones about what to eat, are convenient on the short-term, many bring unexpected consequences. For instance, during the early 20th century, a pair of scientists discovered a way to synthetically produce nitrogen as a means of creating explosives. The Haber-Bosch process, as it has come to be known, has proved to be a decisive creation; in addition to its wartime uses, the process can also be used to fix large amounts of nitrogen, an important element in plant growth, into the soil. Basically, the same stuff we once used to make gunpowder is the same stuff now used to fertilize crops. As a result, the human population on earth since World War II has skyrocketed.
While the immediate result of using synthetic fertilizers is beneficial, (more plants = more food = more people), these fertilizers actively destroy the environment. Decades of concentrating such a powerful substance over the same area wears soil out. The Midwest, home to some of the best topsoil the world has ever known, is in the middle of one of the biggest wash-aways due to erosion, effectively dumping its fertility into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Nitrogen fertilizers, while convenient on the short-term, are changing physical aspects of the environment that can never be recreated. The toss up is that right now we are experiencing food booms and an increase in population, but somewhere down the road, someone is going to face the adverse effects.
Of course, this is only one example of convenience. There are many aspects of convenient technology that benefit mankind. Air travel, cars, fast food, microwaves, computers, cell phones, GPS, the Internet: all of these things make modern living a breeze. But each do come with hidden costs that aren’t always considered on the short-term.
The question of whether life gets better with increased convenience is a sticky one. It matters during what time period the word “better” is defined in and whose life is being taken into consideration. If one day, convenient aspects of our lives were suddenly to disappear, I’d like to know I’d be okay living in a world without them.
What the hell is a lawn, anyway? Who came up with this notion of having millions of tiny blades of grass surrounding one’s domicile? What does it do? Surely, it must serve a purpose. Or do lawns just “look nice”?
It turns out that modern lawns originated with our Medieval brethren of the 14th century. Castles were the epicenter of feudal life and for good reason. They were a controlled structure that could keep who you wanted in and who you didn’t want out. Lawns aided in this purpose.
Imagine a castle. In your imagination, what is the castle surrounded by? What does the landscape look like? Most likely, there may be a few streams and some happy little trees, but what you’re probably seeing the most of is a field of green.
That’s right. Castles were home to the largest front, side and back yards known to man. The reason? To keep on the lookout for invaders.
It’s pretty easy to spot an approaching army of thousands of marching men if all they’re marching across is grass. Flash forward to a few thousand years later. Though the scale has changed, the layout has pretty much stayed the same.
The mailman is really our only potential adversary: Jehovah’s witnesses are pushovers. Imagine having a front yard that was completely wooded, that was so dark on a sunny day that when you looked into the trees, you saw nothing but black. Anything could pop out: a cool breeze or the sound of crinkling leaves. While most of today’s visitors are harmless, if anyone appeared on your doorstep out of a darkness like that, they’d probably scare the shit out of you.
Lawns are another one of these outdated practices/activities that humans still participate in despite having any good reason. Sure, some people derive pleasure out of lawn care, but the whole idea of what lawns are has become completely convoluted. Some use a lawn’s health as a status symbol; they hire troves of Hispanics to do all their hard work. The landscaper armies must really be raking it in.
Lawns are one of nature’s last hold outs. It’s as if we’re paying homage to Pan by worshipping a patch of grass. Keeping a lawn trim and proper is the goal to be achieved, as well as very, very green. I find it interesting how right angles don’t exist in nature, but that’s all we humans tend to make, perfect squares or rectangles or rhombuses to showcase our appreciation of grass.
If I’m ever lucky enough to own my own house, I’m going to let the grass grow wild. I want it so tall and thick and nappy that animals and small children get lost in it. Once in a while, I’ll get out the scythe and do some pruning, (to work out my arms, mostly); let the tumble weeds roam the neighborhood as they might. Or maybe I’ll just light my lawn on fire every couple of months, like the blazes of the great Midwestern prairie during electrical storms, tell the neighborhood kids ghost stories around it and roast marshmallows on it with them at night.
Garbage is everything and nothing at all. Everywhere we look, garbage can be found, in our streets, in our homes, in our hearts. Thoughts can be garbage and nearly everything we touch will some day become it, thrown out by ourselves or trashed by somebody else, maybe on a Monday, Tuesday or Thursday morning.
In nature, there’s no such thing as garbage. There are cycles of growth and decay and the two are not separated. But in fall, some people maniacally rake leaves, bundle them in black plastic and toss them on the curb. Tossing black plastic on the curb is the international sign for garbage, and like magic, this black plastic disappears.
While perfectly manicured lawns “look nice,” what would be best for lawns would be to let the leaves disintegrate and recycle back into the soil. Recycling exists in nature, but as far as making something disappear completely, that’s simply impossible.
New York City alone produces 24 million pounds of garbage each day and all that garbage needs to go somewhere. Most of it is shipped out on cargo trains and buried in Ohio or Pennsylvania or some other less populated state willing to store it.
In a lot of ways, garbage is like memories we don’t want to keep. Garbage is like a past we can’t forget. Garbage is what you get when you need a new cell phone every month and garbage is what I will get if this essay becomes anymore cynical.
Our sense of worth gets distorted when we view everything as garbage. We can never really value anything. Rather than try and make and buy products that will last, we are content with buying the cheapest pieces of garbage on the market and then throwing them out and replacing them with more cheap garbage after they become what they inevitably were in the first place: garbage. Garbage, garbage, garbage.
Some of the things on the curb are garbage: stuffed animal race car chairs for children, plastic dartboards, furniture once the wood finishing strips peel off to reveal the pressboard underneath, light gray and squarish computer mice from the 1990s, the headphones that you use for free on an airplane, microwave cookbooks and ab rollers, just to name a few. But some things, like old fans and lamps and other household appliances, can easily be recycled back into their constituent parts.
One idea would be to pass a law that requires everything that a company makes, once it’s past its prime and ready to be thrown into the trash, to be returned to the company for a specified amount of cash or for a voucher good toward another item made by the same company. The companies themselves would be responsible for taking apart and reusing what they created and would be required to accept all returns. If products were made and disposed of like that, there’d probably be a lot better products out there and a lot less garbage.
What happens when one item turns into a massive amount of garbage instantaneously, when one technology supersedes another, like the millions of VHS players sitting in hot attics this very moment?
Garbage is something we will always create but never something we will want to keep. The only keeping involved is in keeping it far, far away.
 Can you believe that despite the existence of several varieties of chicken, most of us have only eaten one nameless variety? Further, the average piece of processed chicken is probably the product of dozens of different birds and therefore, simply calling it “chicken” is more accurate than specifics (which we probably don’t want to get into in the first place).
About the author:
Mike Parish, a graduate of Binghamton University, gets his car crashed into in Queens, NY. His first chapbook of short fiction, You Can Finish This Later, is available through On Lives Press.
December 23, 2010 1 Comment
A Note from the CNF editor on March-April contributions:
This edition of Ragazine features the work of poet and ecocritic J.D. Scraffenberger, whose piece “My Few Experiences of Mountains” reflects upon the different psychological states conjured by different geographies, and the way those geographies reflect our relationships and life patterns. For Schraffenberger, a mountain is a vertiginous place that reminds us of our own precarious positionalities, the fragile surfaces of our lives that can turn and dash us down at any moment, a place of extremes that invokes the similar possibilities of our emotional makeups. Getting older, now settling in with his own family, he finds the rolling plains of Iowa a better fit, where “we see things coming, we brace ourselves, we get ready. Iowa is a place untroubled by mountain wilds, where no one seems to panic and it’s easy to be in love, where the deep quiet at night is only matched by how calm and far away the horizon convenes with its sky.”
In “The Wrong Season for Survival,” Mark Montgomery, a poet and creative non-fiction writer, similarly explores the emotional extremes of place with a tale of his survivalist father, who drags his children and friends into the California wilds on a he-man quest of self-reliance in the 1970s, inspired by Euell Gibbons and the later twentieth-century version of environmentalism. In his story we see the limits of a quixotic quest for self-reliance, and an eerie foreshadowing of some of the struggles that await us if the dovetailing crises of climate catastrophe and peak oil manage to topple our twenty-first century technological prowess and send us all “into the wild” without a Walmart in sight. Taken together, Schraffenberger and Montgomery provide a reflection on landscapes that terrify, inspire, and sustain us, leaving each to calculate and settle in to his or her own circadian and other kinds of rhythms with an ear always turned toward whatever blindsiding changes might come.
A Note from the CNF editor on January’s contributions:
A native of the Southwest, Jose Rodriguez’s “Burning Garbage” explores the theme of American consumerism from the outside—the perspective of a young child born in what in a material sense would be construed as poverty in Mexico, but whose migration to Texas brings a sense of deprivation of another sort. The categorical arrangement of people according to status, with distinct valuation being assigned according to what one has or doesn’t have, is bewildering to Rodriguez’s amazing narrator, who nonetheless appreciates whatever small beauty comes his way. Finding pleasure in a toy car wheel he plucks from a heap of burning garbage, lyrically reflecting on the existence of spaces like garages and furniture like sofas, the story provides a whole new perspective on what most of us take to be commonplace.
Reflecting on our situatedness in relation to the natural world in a different way, James Guignard’s “What Would Rachel Carson Do?” takes place during a long bike ride in which the narrator imaginatively converses with Carson and David Gessner, author of Sick of Nature and Return of the Osprey. Guignard uses his response to the nature around him and his imagined conversation with these two luminaries of environmentalism to try to figure out what his position as an English professor who teaches environmental literature might really mean and what its possibilities are. The dialogue vividly articulates some of the current themes of and stereotypes about what it means to be an environmentalist and have a relationship to nature in the twenty-first century, presenting these ideas with rare humor and verve. Taken together, Rodriguez’s and Guignard’s stories allow us to think about place, our location in the world and our responses to that world, in highly original ways. Enjoy!
April 19, 2010 Comments Off on Leslie Heywood — CNF Editor’s Notes