Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Writing the Desert

Three years ago, American desert writer Ellen Meloy died at home in Bluff, Utah. She was only 58. By the time I “met” Meloy, when I happened on a copy of The Anthropology of Turquoise at the local Half Price Books, she had already been dead several months. But her impact on my understanding of the world—especially the world of the west where we were both born—has been considerable.

Small coincidences drew me to her work; we were both born in California, at opposite ends of the aqueduct that deposited Owens Valley water into the San Fernando Valley. We were about the same age, and both solstice children (she summer; I winter). But most of all we were both desert rats. Drawn to the stark drama of the landscape, we both felt out of place elsewhere. I still do, of course, here in exile on what’s left of the prairie. But Meloy was the best interpreter of the desert I’d come across since Edward Abbey and Joseph Wood Krutch, and although I’ve read only two of her books (Turquoise, and the last book—published posthumously—Eating Stone) I have thought of her every year since, near the anniversary of her death. I’m saving her other two books, Last Cheater’s Waltz and Raven’s Exile for when I retire and can savor them without distractions. Preferably I’ll take them to Independence, California, and hole up in the Winnedumah Hotel for a couple of weeks to read them on the front porch, or up on the road to Onion Valley.

Every self-respecting, budding environmentalist (including, I think, Meloy) read Edward Abbey in the seventies. Of course, I didn’t really become a budding environmentalist until I moved to Long Island, and spent a few years raising a son in the Pine Barrens, taking courses in regional geology at Stony Brook, and later moving to Texas where I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to learn to love the prairie. Any time I made a trip west, however, I’d bone up on the desert and hoard books like Roadside Geology of Arizona and John MacPhee’s Basin and Range in preparation. So it was that I finally came upon Abbey late, when I read Desert Solitaire in anticipation of a trip home. And thus began my political awakening.

Abbey was only two years older than I am when he died in 1989. Someday I hope to come upon the stone that’s said to mark his grave, out in the Arizona desert somewhere. Before he and Joseph Krutch died, though, the former interviewed the latter, and published it in the collection, One Life At A Time, Please in 1988.

Joseph Wood Krutch, about whom I had once planned to write a master’s thesis, was born on November 25th, 1893. He became a kind of public intellectual who began by writing significant books like The Modern Temper (1929) and then fell in love with the natural world. By the time he died in 1970, he had written books like The Desert Year (1951), The Voice of the Desert (1954), a “biography” of the Grand Canyon (1957), and one of my favorite books, The Gardner’s World, a compendium of garden writing from Homer to modernity. One of the very first bits of nature writing I ever encountered was “The Day of the Peepers” (1949), which was recommended to me in the early seventies by my boss, Daniel J. O’Kane, who was then acting Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Penn. O’Kane is a microbiologist by trade, and had already introduced me to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey—thus fostering an interest that blossomed later when I moved to Long Island and could explore them at will.

One more recommendation: Mary Austin. I once came upon a real estate ad offering for sale the house where Austin lived in Independence, and fantasized about buying it. There’s a honking great huge historical marker outside it now, and it’s sort of possible still to imagine how it looked when she was writing Land of Little Rain (1903)—a book my grandmother nudged in my direction the minute I showed the slightest interest in such things. Austin had married in Bakersfield and moved to Independence, but after the Valley lost the “water wars” to Los Angeles, she moved back over the mountains to Carmel. In the meantime, however, she had written the first and one of the most evocative accounts of the desert and the valley that my family had then only just begun to inhabit.

There are other such writers, of course, and I’ll consider them another time. But for the moment, I’m remembering Ellen Meloy, and others of her ilk who have enriched my reading life immeasurably, and who have significantly deepened my affection for the land of little rain. While I was looking through the books mentioned above, I noticed that my copy of Krutch's The Voice of the Desert was one I had sent my father in 1992, as a Father's Day gift, and in which he had made a number of notations. On the last page he had highlighted the following passage, and I think it makes a fitting end to this post:

Of all answers to the question, "What is a desert good for?" "Contemplation" is perhaps the best.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Once again the coalescence of news items has generated a rant—this time on my old favorite, greed. Part of it has to do with seeing on last night’s news broadcasts huge crowds of people racing into malls and big-box electronics stores (“Buy More” as they call “Best Buy” on my favorite new TV show, Chuck) on Thanksgiving day to get a head start on their Christmas shopping. Then, a report on last night’s local news show about the theft of plasma TVs from a downtown Baptist church and this morning’s item about Oral Roberts’s scion, Richard, and his ousting from Dad’s university brought it all together.

Today’s Dallas Morning News clarified the story about the heist in its article “Thanksgiving thieves rob First Baptist of Dallas.” Not only did the crooks get away with eight (count ‘em) plasma TVs, but they tied up three security guards to do it. Now, my first question ran something like this: why the hell did a Baptist church feel it necessary to buy eight plasma TVs worth (according to the News) $5000? And why does a church need to employ three security guards (to whom they were no doubt—or at least I would hope—paying overtime for working on Thanksgiving)? Good grief.

And then, of course, there’s Richard Roberts. According to the New York Times, Roberts has resigned from the presidency of the university founded by his father Oral amid “allegations of a $39,000 shopping tab at one store for Richard Roberts' wife, Lindsay, a $29,411 Bahamas senior trip on the university jet for one of Roberts' daughters, and a stable of horses for the Roberts children.” His activities have apparently been an object of concern for at least twenty years, and who knows what the tipping point might have been (one too many horsies?).

I’m not picking on evangelicals in particular; these activities are simply a manifestation of an overall phenomenon: the modern (American) propensity for overindulgence. But since they’re supposed to be preaching the gospel of the guy who purportedly said that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven . . . well, I’m certainly not the first person to point out the inconsistency.

But greed manifests itself everywhere, not just in the higher echelons of evangelical churches. Way too big houses, Hummers, giant plasma TVs—all the trappings of North Texas middle class life are essentially wasteful, extravagant symbols of the current idea that more is more, and that if my neighbor has it, I need to get it too.

We simply don’t seem to understand the concept of enough. We always think we need a bigger house, a fancier car, trendier clothes. The sheer excess emitting from the advertising sections of the newspaper is enough to spark communists to riot—if there were any left.

Last night, my husband and I watched the Tim Robbins film, The Cradle Will Rock, about the WPA/Federal Theater Project production of the musical of the same name by Marc Blitzstein in 1937. The film was highly entertaining, and rather poignant in places, but its images of the depression-era lines of folk seeking work melted into the background amid the personal stories of Blitzstein and his actors caught up in the politics of the McCarthy inquisition and anti-Red fever. It’s hard to believe that the film was about a moment in U. S. history that occurred only seventy years ago. It doesn’t seem that long ago to me, even though the events in the film happened ten years before I was born.

It also doesn’t seem that far away when I open my electronic copy of the Times and read about the impact of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in Bob Herbert’s column, “Lost in a Flood of Debt.” Ordinary people, extraordinary events—not exactly the stuff of Greek tragedy, but reminiscent of what preceded the throngs of unemployed people standing in long lines waiting for the remote opportunity to earn a few nickels at odd jobs, or in a theatrical production.

I’ll be lecturing on “art between the wars” this week, and showing Robert Hughes’s film “Streamlines and Breadlines” from his series, American Visions. I’ll have to recommend that students see the Robbins film as well, not only for its amusing portrayal of Diego Rivera and the story of the ill-fated Rockefeller Center mural, but for a sense of the WPA’s importance as a public project focused on the arts and humanities. I doubt if anything of the kind will ever emerge again, because the concept of art as a necessary part of life will have been gobbled up by a focus not on need (art to enrich the soul), but on desire—a wish list of stuff everybody “needs,” like Hummers, huge houses, and plasma TVs in their churches. And whatever you can pick up for cheap if you shop on Thanksgiving day, instead of waiting a whole twenty four hours for the sales frenzy to begin.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Measure for Measure

Human beings seem to like grids. While the earliest models for houses might have been caves, followed by huts made of natural materials—neither of which conform to particularly rigid outlines—it doesn’t seem to have taken long for us to start building rectangular dwellings, especially when we started living in increasingly larger groups. The outlines of the houses at Çatalhöyük (one of the first city-like enclaves), for example, are already rectangular pueblo-like spaces that share common walls, a solution to the problem of living on the arid Konya plain, just as the ancestral Puebloans lived in Chaco Canyon, in the dry San Juan basin in New Mexico.

As I perambulated the Accidental Garden and its surroundings the other day, I was struck by the rigid boundaries set up by the original plat-drawings (the half-acre within the grid that became McKinney), reinforced by the fence builders, and then compounded by whomever was responsible for laying down the railroad ties, landscape-timber borders, and the rectangular space enclosed by a sidewalk just outside the back door. The only curves on the property lead to the alley, just in front of the garage, so that folks can drive in from the street, through the porte-cochere (which I realized only the other day means, literally, “car port”—but sounds so much more elegant if a car is a "coach"), and then exit into the alley to make their retreat from the house.

I had more or less acquiesced to this grid, but am now planning to bust it up on the way to completely rethinking the back yard, and eventually messing about with the front. Even my own drawings (like the silly cartoon of the pecans from my last “effort”) tend to place things within tidy rectangles, so that my new food garden design is angular, and the new herb garden will happen within the sidewalk rectangle I’ve designated for the potager. My Child Groom built a patio from salvaged bricks within that same rectangle (which is, itself, contained within the sidewalks). The only non-angular elements of the back yard are the round copper fire pit, and the path the puppies take when they go screaming out the back door to protect us from the marauding dogs and babies that get walked in the alley behind the house (also part of the city’s grid).

What made me start thinking about wreaking anarchy on at least part of the property was an essay by American Bungalow’s editor, John Brinkman. It’s called “Linear Thinking” and makes note of modern man’s desire for control, evident “in the way he categorizes, organizes and measures everything in his grasp, often through the use of straight lines and rectangles” (issue 56, 1). He likens what he has seen of this country from the air to a library globe, with its meridians lined out carefully (more grids) and color coding to delineate one country from another. Nature, of course, doesn’t follow grids, unless they’re designated by cleavage planes in rocks or other physical necessities. And even flat, sedimentary structures can be bent by metamorphic forces over geologic time—and we can see these graceful undulations exposed in numerous road-cuts throughout the country, where human beings have plowed through hills to make straight, geometrically obedient highways.

Brinkman thinks that there’s something innate that makes us appreciate the order that linearity imposes. “Could it be that this appreciation of definitive, confining lines,” he asks, “is the reason we are drawn to the Craftsman style?” He goes on to wonder if it’s something else (its honesty, instead of its rectilinearity), the connection of human hand and human eye—perhaps (and this is me, not Brinkman) the evidence of human creativity expressed in our ability to tame nature, bend it to our will. I’ve never really understood why I love my house’s Craftsman roots (distorted though they are by a 1922 north Texas mentality), but refuse to worship on the altar of authenticity so often reflected in magazines like American Bungalow and Style 1900. It may simply stem from the fact that I’m uncomfortable with human hubris and our desire to impose our will on everything around us. The most obvious reflection of this ambiguity shows up in my increasingly untamed garden.

During the last two weeks I’ve been lecturing in my art and design history classes about the human predilection for grids—such as in the framework for illuminated manuscripts (delimited with pin pricks and thinly drawn lines) and the foundational grid used by the Cubists on which they re-hung body parts after they’d “dissected” them into fundamental volumes, shapes, and lines. Next week I’ll be talking about Piet Mondrian (to whom I apologize profusely for the above illustration; it’s not the first time I’ve run roughshod over that poor man’s ideas) and his quest for the most fundamental, natural expression of art: in horizontal and vertical lines, primary colors, black, white. Mondrian saw nature in these basic elements, but we see it (or at least my students tend to) as the ultimate expression of human power over nature—the obliteration of the natural world into rigid geometry. Yet we live in houses that are every bit as linear as Broadway Boogie Woogie, and not nearly as playful.

A couple of months ago (September/October 2007), Natural Home magazine featured an astonishing house that is the antithesis of most modern houses. Modeled after a chambered nautilus, the house spirals around a central core: the kitchen—with living areas that seem to grow out of its center. It includes a greenhouse and a green roof, hand-cut stone, handmade glass, and virtually no straight lines. It must have been horrifically expensive to build, but surely a joy to live in. [See the gallery of photos; details are available here.]

I have neither the money nor the inclination these days to build a house. I like living in a recycled house, and have enough trouble trying to do what needs to be done in this one—although I am seriously thinking of using clay paint in some of the rooms to soften some of the angles. We’ll have rely on furnishings for our curves—but even those are few (at the moment I can think of a single round table, and the curved handles on the library steps—but little else). Any move away from angularity will have to take place in the garden, where we can take out the railroad ties and timbers, and let the puppies help us decide where to build paths that curve into the expanding wild bits, the tangled masses of wisteria, and the little round bodies of pecans that still litter the entire yard.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

When's the Stage Coming In?

My great grandparents, Thomas and Esther Tate, ran a stage-coach station out of Big Smokey Valley (Nye County), Nevada, from 1886 to 1901. My grandmother, Clarice Tate, was born there, and that’s where the family lived until they moved to the Owens River Valley in California. Clarice, who lived to be 104, and was pretty lucid until she was 99, was fond of indoctrinating her granddaughter with tales of life in the fin de siècle desert, sans plumbing, electricity, automobiles, and even trains (hence the need for the stage—it ran mail and people to places where trains didn’t go). When they moved west, they rode the narrow gauge “Slim Princess” over the mountains, and I imagine that they arrived through Queen, the station in the Inyos mentioned by Frank Norris in his novel, McTeague (about which I wrote in a section of my master’s thesis, Science and Scientific Models in American Literary Naturalism; the link is to an historic map of the area).

At any rate, Gram lived through the entire twentieth century, and saw every technological change that took place. Somewhere I even have pictures of the family’s first car, taken in a stand of old-growth forest, probably somewhere in Yosemite. In Big Pine, where my father was born, they saw the coming of electricity, indoor plumbing, and all the “mod cons” that eventually showed up in the Valley. I’m pretty sure that my current views about the role of technology in human life were nurtured by my frequent, long conversations with my grandmother about what life was like in the “olden days” (a bit hardscrabble at times, but not unpleasant), and how much she thought we had given up in exchange for efficiency and convenience. After her short-term memory gave out, she spent her remaining years in the remembered places of her childhood, and was know to ask my Dad when he came to visit, “When’s the Stage coming in?” and “Who’s going to be on it?” As the State Historical Marker says, Tate’s Station became a “local social center,” and it must have been pretty exciting for a little girl growing up in a vast expanse of desert.

This latest musing about my grandmother’s life came about as a result of several new connections: the activities of a child in Robert Gardner’s 1973 film, Rivers of Sand, a story by Ursula K. Le Guin (“The Building”), another essay in the latest issue of Orion, by Robert Michael Pyle (“Pulling the Plug”), and the current toy-recall frenzy.

Last night’s Visual Anthropology class watched Gardner’s film, which considers the lifeways of the Hamar people of Southern Ethiopia. At one point, Gardner’s camera lingers on the activities of a child, carefully selecting and placing stones within a circle, which prompted a bemused question from one of the clever folk who populate the class: “Are those the kid’s Star Wars action figures?” Since this student is a fellow science fiction fan, and one who is (as I am) fond of things like Star Wars action figures, I found the comment both pointed and funny.

I was reminded of the film moment and the comment later that night as I was re-reading Le Guin’s story “The Building,” (from Changing Planes) which involves children who build small models of structures with found stones (and later participate in a more organized building of a much larger structure). Twenty-first century Western children, of course, play with blocks (if they’re lucky) or, more likely, “playsets” –models of items from films (such as the Black Pearl playset I was ogling at Costco the other day, briefly fantasizing about swinging around the masts with Johnny Depp) or construction sets of Legos. The company my son works for makes tiny styrene Millennium Falcon models and X-wing fighters (which he designed) for a collectible card game (Star Wars Pocket Models). I’m not knocking these games, because they’re so wonderfully low-tech, or even the idea of the “playset” (because for reasons I don’t really understand, I love small, manageable “worlds” like dollhouses and train sets). But, as I peruse the holiday toy catalogues, it does seem that things are getting out of hand.

In a pinch, and without toy and game companies to insist otherwise (through their advertisers), kids would probably be able to reenact scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean or Return of the Jedi with sticks and pebbles—only we don’t much give them the chance to so any more. Instead, toy designers come up with more and more elaborate ideas that they farm out to Chinese factories where probably-unsuspecting workers spray them with lead-based paints or bizarre chemicals, clog the airwaves with commercials for them during the holiday season, seduce children into wanting them desperately, and then have to recall them when somebody gets around to testing them for harmful content. Sometimes that doesn’t even happen until somebody gets sick (as with “Aqua Dots” the other day). The world seems to become more complicated and less safe by the moment, for reasons that just don’t seem to make sense. The only “reason” people buy this crap for their kids is because toy corporations plow billions of dollars into advertising. The ads are inescapable if you watch children’s television shows, and the kids’ desires are thus formed. Not needs (like simple play): amplified, bare-faced desires, capable of being satiated only by the latest Next Big Thing. Baby greed. [An interesting coincidence that occurred to me as I was editing the first paragraph of this post: The film made from McTeague, produced by Erich von Stroheim, was called, simply, Greed.]

If we really want to grow imaginative, creative, healthy, vigorous, intellectually independent children, we need to minimize the amount of technology and heavily-structured play we expose them to. And we need to begin with the television set, from whence all desire seems to spring. This brings me to Pyles’s Orion essay, about—after not having lived with a television for decades—weaning himself from oppressive technologies in general, and e-mail in particular.

I love the idea of a television-free life. I’ve managed to lower the number of hours I spend in front of the tube somewhat, but I still enjoy watching the few decent SF offerings available on nights when I’m not teaching. Baseball season’s over, so I’ll be reading more, at least until next April. But the TV is still on more than I would like because I share the house with a part-time tennis coach, who uses the Tennis Channel as a learning tool. However, the living room, where I do most of my reading, is far enough from where the TV sits that I don’t even hear it. Pyle only uses his for watching movies—the ideal use of a television set in my book. He also doesn’t have internet service, and goes to a community source to do web searches and check e-mail. The consequences of doing so, however, mean that his "mail" box gets much fuller than mine does, and he’s rather oppressed by the volume. I understand that, because I’ve got four accounts, two of which tend to get very full if don’t check them several times per day. But I can’t give up e-mail because of what I do, and my use of this particular technology stems from my refusal to adopt another: the cellular telephone.

Both Pyle and I find telephones intrusive, but I actually tend to think of them as verging on the demonic. They not only interrupt me at home when I’m busy working (despite being on the “no call” list, solicitors and pollsters manage to find me), but they’re a constant and annoying presence in other areas of my life, even though I don’t own a cell phone myself. My students’ go off in class (despite dire warnings of consequences), people talk on them constantly in the hallways and elevators, and it’s rare to see someone driving a car who doesn’t also have a phone attached to his or her ear. E-mail helps remove me from this maelstrom, and for that I am grateful. But I’m also pining after the good old days—those described by my grandmother, when a letter arriving on the stage was treasured. I am blessed to have had parents and grandparents who wrote frequent letters to me, to and from faraway places, and blessed to have been raised by historians who thought saving those letters was essential. On the other hand, the last few years of my father’s life included a voluminous e-mail correspondence between us, and I have faithfully saved every one; re-reading them brings him right back, makes him present, refreshes memory.

And so, Dear Reader (all one of you), today’s lesson ultimately involves choices. If we decide that technologies can be selected carefully to enhance our lives, I think we can learn to live well with them. Nobody, after all, really wants to give up electricity or indoor plumbing. But I’ve found that I can do without cell phones and even air conditioning during a North Texas summer. And good on Robert Michael Pyle for unplugging from e-mail and re-embracing surface mail. Later today I’m going to write a real letter to an old friend in Buffalo, who sent me one not long ago, and mail it with the great stamps I've got tucked away for just such an occasion. I’m also going to go out to the garage and locate the crate of blocks my kids played with when they were little, and bring them into the house. And I’m going to take another set to a friend’s child tonight when we join them for dinner: small choices, with not much impact on the grand scheme of things. But gestures, symbols—and hopeful ones at that.

Note: The photo of the Nevada State Historical Marker for Tate's Stage is borrowed (until I can find my own shot) from a terrific website with lots of great stuff on Nevada (geo-caching, hiking, rock art). I hope linking her site (and she's got two blogs) will suffice for permission, since I don't plan to use it for long.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

The world will end, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a barrage of pecans. There are so many that I’ll never begin to get them all, and will shortly be conscripting children to go after them. I thought of soliciting unsuspecting trick-or-treaters (all you can haul!), but had to teach that night.

At any rate, in honor of the plenitude, I’ve decided to provide recipes. Pecans and everything. Perhaps even Spam, Spam, Pecans and Spam.

Pecan Pie

Use a pre-baked short crust, or a crumb crust made with gingersnaps and toasted pecans. In a pinch, a whole-wheat pastry crust will do. Then pour in your grandmother's pecan pie recipe, because who am I to mess with somebody else's Texas tradition?

Maple Pecan Cheesecake

Dedicated to my favorite cheesecake baker, Sterling Handrick

Make a gingersnap or graham cracker crumb crust as for pecan pie. Bake and set aside.

Mix 16 oz. of Neufchatel cheese (or combine Neufchatel and fat-free cream cheese to lower the fat load), 2 T cornstarch, ¼ t. salt, 1.5 c. maple syrup (use bulk Grade B from Whole Foods for better flavor), 3 large egg whites, ½ c. toasted chopped pecans. Mix cheeses, salt, and cornstarch at high speed, then gradually add maple syrup. Beat in egg whites last, until just blended. Pour into prepared crust, sprinkle pecans on top. Bake at 525F for 7 minutes, then lower the temp to 200F and bake 45 minutes longer or until set. Let cool, then cover and chill for about 8 hours. (Recipe adapted from Cooking Light.)

Pecan Shortbread

Coarsely chop a half cup of cooled toasted pecans (up to 10 minutes at 350F). Add them to your favorite whole-meal shortbread recipe and proceed as usual. If you don’t have a favorite, here’s one adapted from the Crank’s Recipe Book (Oxford: Alden Press, 1982).

4 oz. butter; 6 oz. wholemeal flour (white whole wheat works well); 2 oz. turbinado or raw sugar. Cut butter into flour, add sugar and pecans and work together. Press into 8” round tin, tidy the edges, and then score into 8 portions. Bake at 300F for about 45 minutes. Cut into pieces while still warm.

Salad with Pecans

Toast a cup (or more) of whole pecans; let cool. Mix a salad of sturdy greens (Romaine, endive), cubed pink lady or other tart-sweet apples (unskinned), green and/or red and/or black seedless grapes and/or dried slightly sweetened cranberries (like Newman's Own). Mix up a raspberry or other fruit vinaigrette and toss salad with enough dressing to suit. Add the pecans and toss lightly again.

Salmon Encrusted with Pecans

Chop a cup and a half of pecans finely; add fresh-ground pepper, lemon zest (about two tablespoons), and about a teaspoon of sea salt. Brush salmon fillets (two to four) with good strong olive oil, and spoon pecan mixture over the fish to cover. Press in lightly. Bake fillets at 400F only until hot all the way through, and pecans are toasted (be careful not to burn the pecans or overcook the fish).

Spam with Pecans and Sliced Peaches

My wonderful stepmother, back in the days when we didn't have much cash, could do more with a can of Spam than anyone but the Python crew. My favorite was Spam sliced (not all the way through; leave about 1/4 inch at the bottom of the loaf between each slice) with peach slices slipped between, and then baked. My variation adds chopped pecans on top before baking at 350F for about 25 minutes. The upscale, ecologically more appropriate version would use organically raised ham and fresh peaches, with a bit of turbinado sugar mixed in with the nuts.

Things We Have Lost

The last two weeks of my Visual Anthropology class have been fraught with lessons about the costs of modernity. And David Brooks’s recent op-ed piece in the Times, “The Outsourced Brain” (reprinted in today’s Dallas Morning News) points to the same problem: technology is quickly taking the place of natural abilities human beings developed over long periods to adapt to their environments.

I’m rather gratified that after watching two of John Marshall’s early films about the !Kung bushfolk in what is now Namibia (The Hunters, from 1958, and N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman from 1978), my students were suitably outraged by the effects of imperialism on the lives and traditions of these people who had lived relatively well for thousands of years in the Kalahari. Studies of the !Kung and related groups are standard fare of introductory anthropology courses, because they represent the possibilities of simpler, vanishing lifeways. Criticism of Marshall’s work abounds, but his record, especially in The Hunters, of his subjects’ hunting skills provides invaluable information about the ability of human beings to use cognitive skills—such as dead reckoning—that are all but lost to us now. In N!ai, Marshall shows us how women use their understanding of their physical world to gather fruits, roots, nuts, and plants that had provided a living diet for their band, which was supplemented by the occasional meat the men supplied. I don’t think that it’s fair to accuse Marshall—as some have—of romanticizing these people, because N!ai herself tells most of the story, and the segment of the film from the seventies is almost gruesome in its depiction of the changes wrought by the coming of the White Man (caps on purpose) and the imposition of a completely alien economy—if it can be called that. Both food-gathering and tracking knowledge among the aboriginal societies of the Kalahari will undoubtedly be lost within a generation.

But these losses are not being suffered just by the indigenous peoples of the world; what few skills remain among the descendants of Europeans in North America are even more rapidly disappearing, and not because anybody’s imposing anything on us. We are choosing, daily, to embrace technologies that, as Brooks notes, have begun to replace various of our cognitive skills: “the magic of the information age” he admits, “is that it allows us to know less.” In his case, the particular technology in question is his Global Positioning System. Whereas the the !Kung hunters of the Kalahari could find their way back from anywhere through their ability to read the landscape, we can now find our way back from anywhere by using a pricey little device with a soothing female “slightly Anglophilic” voice. And I’m pretty sure his wife never has to tell him to pull into a service station to ask directions any more.

We haven’t needed food-locating skills for some time—ever since the dawn of agriculture. Now food-distribution sources are available on practically every street corner, and food comes to us from far and wide. Some of us are, of course, beginning to recognize that the “far and wide” component is adding exponentially to the problem of carbon footprints and global warming, as well as the destruction of indigenous lifeways. Slowly, awareness seems to be growing that the way food is obtained, and what it costs in human terms, is as important as having enough to eat in the first place. We discussed in class last night the fact that even though !Nai’s family has regular access to “mealie meal” (a staple made from a variety of corn), the people see themselves, or at least they did in 1978, as “starving.” Human beings do not, it seems, live by bread alone.

Interestingly enough, the latest issue of Orion Magazine, which just arrived this week, contains two related articles. One, “Don Berto’s Garden,” is about tree gardens in Belize, where Don Berto raises native plants and where the author (David Campbell) and his students go to learn about their uses. This single article offers me more hope than anything I’ve read in recent times that the effects of imperialism might not be permanent. The second is about re-discovering a native North American wild food, “Stalking the Wild Ground Nut,” and seems hopeful about increasing awareness of the value of the most local of food—what grows nearby, naturally.

Suddenly the Accidental Garden is taking on new meaning. The idea of a tree garden is intriguing enough, but the notion of turning a quarter of my small corner of north Texas into a native food plant refuge is even more suggestive. Of course, if I were to manage it properly, the Chinaberry would have to go (not native, though lovely)—unless I could figure out some use for it other than for making grackles drunk. I’m heartened by the fact that I can identify most of the plant species growing there now, and can decide what to keep or remove on the basis of its usefulness (as food, medicine, dyestuff, etc.). I can also put in some new things without feeling guilty—choosing native plants that can work with the hackberries and box elders and the bur oak in some kind of permacultural relationship. Yet another experiment to try.

At least I don't need a GPS system to get around my garden. And now, thanks to my silly map, neither do you (although the Accidental Garden doesn't show on the map). First try with the Wacom--just having fun, folks. I'll get better, I promise. Besides, its supposed to be a cartoon.