Tuesday, April 22, 2008
I read her biography, and discovered that she's another arrogant, cranky middle-aged writer (we should start a club!), but one long-published, with an interesting rep, and recipient of an OBE (now I'm really impressed). I read an excerpt from the new book--which is now on my to-buy list--and then wandered over to her essays, where I hit on "Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings." This, of course, raises a bright flag, because this is the organization William Morris founded in 1877 to prevent the wholesale tearing down of historically important buildings, and/or their cheap and nasty "restoration" or "modernization." Lo and behold, Winterson had purchased an eighteenth-century derelict in Jack The Ripper territory and restored it, complete with a ground-floor shop that now houses a Continental deli run by chef Harvey Cabaniss (of whom I had already heard). Moving on to an essay called "Good Housekeeping" I came across this gem:
We are eating too much and we are paying too little for our food. . . . My philosophy is to eat modestly and buy the best you can afford. In our crazy world a chicken costs less than a cinema ticket. Our obsession with cheap food has destabilised farming throughout the world, polluted our soils, driven small producers and small shops into the ground, allowed the supermarkets to monopolise our lives, and made us fat.
Had I "met" Jeanette Winterson before I had finished More News From Nowhere, I'd have pinched her for a character.
In an essay about Philip Pullman, author of the series His Dark Materials, she describes Pullman's attitude toward modern education:
For Pullman, the obsession with invented standards, pointless testing, endless form-filling and a moribund National Curriculum are killing the joy of learning, and driving the best teachers out of the system. 'I used to teach the things that excited me', he says, 'and when the teacher is excited, so are the children. What do we want to do? Stuff them with facts or open their minds?'
Had I read The Golden Compass (or, as it's called in the UK, The Northern Lights) and met Pullman before MNFN, he'd be in there, too. As it is, I've only read the one book, and seen the disappointing film based on it, but I'm already a lifelong fan.
Both of these writers share my disdain for two important constituents of "plutopia" (my new name for the greed-based economy in which the West now wallows. It's not wholly dystopic--yet--but our attitudes toward both food and education are symptoms of increasing intellectual and ethical impoverishment, portending further ill for the future). Our lack of education--of desire (in terms of what and how we eat), and of the mind (in terms of how we teach our young)--have helped to build plutopia, and only by addressing these failures can we hope to replace it with anything that even vaguely resembles a world in which everyone can be accommodated in some measure of fairness, justice, and peace.
Only by adjusting our own perceptions of "need" vs. "want" can we begin to understand the true nature of poverty. And I am getting sick to death of pundits who describe anyone who lacks electricity as "living in abject poverty." (For my perspective on the larger questions, see "Rethinking What it Means to be Wealthy" and "Rethinking What It Means to be Poor.") The line usually runs something like "They're so poor they don't even have electricity"--as if this particular technology is necessary to the very notion of civilization. But it's not. It's perfectly possible for people to work the land, provide sufficient food and clothing for themselves, and dwell in thriving communities without ever having seen a light bulb!
Although knowledge of electrical principles has been around since antiquity, and had come under serious study by the eighteenth century (remember Mr. Franklin's kite and key experiments), it wasn't until the nineteenth century that it became practical to bring electricity into commercial and domestic use. It may be "necessary" to modern life--hence the science fiction scenario of an electromagnetic pulse as the threshold of disaster--but it is certainly not necessary to life itself, nor even to "civilized" life. Plenty of civilization happened before the nineteenth century. Of course, that's also when things started falling apart, what with the industrial revolution, Blake's "dark Satanic mills," Ruskin's hated locomotive, and the end of pastoral life as we knew it.
But few people even know these things these days, because we're so intent on stuffing our children's heads full of factoids we can measure on standardized "assessment tools" that only test what they can memorize--not their ability to think, interpret, translate, imagine, create, or use what they've learned. "Irrelevant" information isn't taught because it doesn't fall into the current catchment basin of what education "experts" think kids need to know. Knowledge doesn't actually happen until the child has managed to integrate information into some kind of cultural context--so most of the information they commit to memory only long enough to spit it back on the exam is useless anyway. And of course the reason they need to know anything at all is in order to be successful in the marketplace.
We in the US complain bitterly and loudly about the price of gasoline and food, both of which cost more in the rest of the West than they do here. But if we truly understood what's involved--if we were better educated about economic realities instead of having been spoon-fed the pabulum we get predigested into sound bites from media sources--we'd be complaining that they cost too little. The true cost, in lives and life ways, is profoundly higher than most of us realize--or want to realize. But plutopia has taught us to think only in terms of monetary cost, and even the word economy doesn't mean what it once did, since it's now synonymous with "market economy" and any other use of the term is suspect.
I'd really like to spend Earth Day in my "nowhere"--without electricity or formal education. But since I can't, I'll keep prowling through Winterson's lively website, and dig into the second segment of Pullman's series (The Subtle Knife). I'll spend a couple of hours this morning in my little carbon sink, amidst the wild grasses and the primroses, and hope that the birdsong drowns out the traffic from the highway. There I can celebrate a smaller footprint, and be grateful for what I don't have.
Addendum (7 May 2008): This month's Orion Magazine contains an excellent and highly relevant article, "The Gospel of Consumption, and the Better Future We Left Behind." I'm encouraged both by the content of the article, and by the discussion that follows.
Photo: A lovely carbon sink at a bend in the Owens River, near Lone Pine, California.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
She was the single artificer of the world
in which she sang.
--Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order in Key West"
Every now and then I'm bothered by my apparent inability to create any kind of truly ordered environment. My house, my yard, my desk, my "office" (it's actually called a "workroom" because it's a room where about a dozen instructors attempt to get work done)--none of the spaces within I live are particularly ordered. That is, there's no real regularity about them, other than their physical boundaries (walls, a fence--of sorts, sidewalks, alleys). Patterns, especially in the back half of the house property, are difficult to distinguish, and there doesn't seem to be much of anything that's actually planned.
I did think I was going to dig up a nice neat rectangle in which to grow veg, and that I would also create a more or less formal herb garden in a square outlined by a concrete sidewalk. Last year we used brick from an existing path (which had once led to a now-dismantled, corrugated fiberglass-enclosed compost bin, but over which a Rose of Sharon bush had grown, so that only short dogs could actually walk on it to the bin) to create a patio space for a fire pit and/or table and chairs. But at the moment, the only real structure is that patio and the concrete walk. The herbs have gone in rather haphazardly, and a couple of tomato cages (made from recycled grid-wire) stand at the ready (in case I actually acquire tomato plants to place in them). Two supports from the old summer house stand in the eastern corners, one for a squash plant, another for who knows what. Later in the season, assuming that I eventually get most of the space planted with something, it'll probably look really nice; at the moment, it's pretty much just bare and scraggly. The "before" picture is featured in my last post. I'll update it when I've got this week's herbs installed.
When I first moved into this house, eight years ago, the southwest corner of the property was bordered by luscious blackberry bushes and some grapes, but the entire area was otherwise bare, except for poles and grid wire that had been used for growing beans. The earth had been nuked with every pesticide imaginable, it seems, because there were no bugs that summer, save for a few mosquitoes. No butterflies visited, no fireflies, and there were no earthworms for several years. I planted herbs, and a few flowers, but nature pretty much had her way--planting wild primroses, sunflowers, pokeweed, Texas dandelions, and even a basketflower or two. Every year more wildness happened, and I kept planning to till an open space for planting. Tomatoes went in back there, and peppers, and more herbs, but few of those survive today: oregano, one patch of chives, germander, and Mexican mint marigold. The rest is wild grass and baby trees, with honeysuckle growing up them. No order. Perhaps pattern--but indiscernible to me.
Just this week it occurred to me that what I have growing in that little .25 acre plot is my own personal carbon sink! By letting nature take its course, I'm actually helping to offset my own carbon expenses by growing a carbon-dioxide-sucking area that will consume more C02 than it emits--and perhaps absorb some of the hot air that gets spewed on this blog . . .
So the Accidental Garden is turning out to have a purpose, if not a pattern--and has inspired me to let it develop into its own little wildlife habitat, by interfering as little as possible (I do have to trim the wild grapes out of the burr oak if I want it to survive--and it's a great tree), by letting things take their course, and relegating path-building to the dogs. Over the summer, I'll try to produce a species map on which to log what's happening, but gradually, I think, I'll move out all of the purpose-planted flora and just see what happens. I will probably leave a chair or two in there, for sitting and contemplating what I (and Mom Nature) have wrought, because it has the makings of a sanctuary. At least until some bureaucrat from the city comes by and makes me chop everything down because I'm violating some bloody code of civilized behavior.
My lack of order, it seems, is also being visually rewarded. The wild gladiolus "forest" is in bloom, and just yesterday afternoon I discovered a patch of blue-eyed grass in the front yard, tucked in under a pecan tree. New mullein florets are springing up in gangs near the irises (which have bloomed profusely despite my efforts to let them die off). Iris species, except for the wild flags one finds in mountain meadows and other wilderness areas, are the bulldogs of the flower world. They're presently so completely engineered that no matter how charming (and both bulldogs and irises are charming), one feels guilty about having them. I'm not particularly fond of mine (irises, that is; I've loved my bulldogs) because they're a constant reminder of the previous property owner, who had no particular love for anything wild--except for the maniac squirrels that populate the neighborhood. And they're about as wild as the iris garden: completely fostered by human existence. But now even the front border, which has been neglected almost completely since last spring, is putting forth blossoms of the hot colors (reds, yellows, oranges) planted there. If it weren't for all the peeling paint and the unmown lawn (to be remedied tomorrow), the place would look practically civilized.
But my real goal seems to be to mitigate the effects of civilization, not to propagate them, so what goes in front this year will be as many native plants and odd-ball, water-thrifty additions as I can locate. This should help throw a bit of disorder into the mix, and help balance the porch-rail painting operation that began this morning, when I started scraping off the three layers of previous colors (including turquoise, of all things) in preparation for sanding and priming. I hope that's not too orderly of me, but it's really designed to keep entropy at bay, and keep the house from falling down around our ears.
My apologies to Wallace Stevens for my cavalier modification of his title. I am, alas, far from the sea, and don't sing all that well any more. But I'm frequently reminded of this poem when I'm out there, in my world--the one over which I have little control, and little ability to bend to my will, but which seems, nonetheless, to be the product of my own making.
Top photo: My grandmother's metate, with yesterday's rain reflecting a leafing-out pecan tree.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
It made sense to me that if one of the things that helped us define ourselves was our use of tools (for everything from hunting and preparing our food to expressing ourselves in art and music), then we ought to be able to examine critically the uses we make of these tools, and to assess their impact not only on ourselves, but on our fellow beings--animal, vegetable, and even mineral. When I first started looking around at the developing fields of technology assessment, environmental ethics (now more broadly characterized as environmental philosophy), and other branches of philosophy (mostly pragmatism and the Continental tradition), I wondered why there wasn't a more coordinated effort to study questions that seemed to be on everyone's minds: what are we doing to ourselves?
Some folks were, in fact, writing about this very question, and I discovered them when I started thinking seriously about what human beings were up to. Continental philosophy had, in fact, produced one of the most enduring critiques in 1954, when Martin Heidegger published his essay "The Question Concerning Technology." Even earlier, Karl Marx, John Dewey, Lewis Mumford, and William Morris (among many others) had written about technology in philosophical terms. The idea of questioning technology, I discovered, had been around since the Greeks. I wasn't exactly on to something new.
Nonetheless, pursuing the subject led me deeply into Morris and his work on the technologies of art and design, and on the social and political aspects of active critique. Some folks, it seemed, hadn't just written about this stuff--they went out and tried to whack people on the side of the head to try to get them to think about where all these new machines (steam engines, power looms) were leading us. Hence the notion of sabotage (and the rather odd choice of image to illustrate this post), perhaps related to the development of the Luddite movement during the Industrial Revolution.
Of course, terms like "sabotage" and "Luddite" carry primarily negative connotations these days, but their origins lay in the act of criticizing technologies--not in terrorism or the refusal to immediately adopt every damned toy that comes on the market. My question is this: How much different might the world be today if we actually stopped to think about new tools, and took a bit of time to imagine where they might lead?
I'm absolutely convinced that the manifold problems associated with the internet, for example, would not have arisen if we hadn't all jumped higgeldy piggeldy onto the bandwagon, brandishing our cherished American gospel of individualism and waving our technical superiority, trying to convince the rest of the world that if it wants to join the future, it had better become like us. Only it's not just us--it's the entire West (trying to be like us--or perhaps trying to convince themselves that they were like us before we were). The impact of computer technology alone, from manufacture to use, on the rest of the world has created such rapid and rampant change that nobody has a choice about it any more. Traditional tribal peoples all over the globe are (thanks to Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child initiative) being introduced to the internet, and their children are being seduced by technology in the name of "progress" and "modernity" and the inevitability of globalization. The real crime here is that nobody asked them if they wanted it. We in the West are all for freedom of choice (walk down the supermarket cereal aisle to see where that's led us), but only when it comes to "choosing" which brand of computer to buy--not choosing whether or not to buy them in the first place.
The irony of the market, of course, is that choice exists only in the beginning. The "winning" technology eventually takes over (VHS beats out Betamax; DVDs beat out VHS; Blue Ray beats out HD DVD), and then those of us who bought into the "wrong" technology are left with stacks of obsolete, expensive crap that the conscientious person has to agonize over what to do with, and those who don't give a damn simply dump into the landfill.
I held out on using a cellular telephone for much longer than most (although I did own one briefly, about ten years ago, while my mother was still alive and under my care). It was only my daughter's emergency surgery a couple of months ago, and the ensuing difficulty of trying to contact me, that I finally acquiesced. And I didn't just buy a little pay-as-you-go model as I had originally planned. I bought an iPhone, because this way I could convince myself that I wasn't buying a phone--I was buying a little tiny laptop. In fact, most of what I use it for is checking e-mail, so it doesn't seem quite so much like selling out.
But of course I have sold out. I became a techno-whore when I bought that Commodore 64 back in the eighties and stopped writing my essays out by hand and then typing them on an electric typewriter. I was convinced, like Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly, and the rest of the Whole Earth crowd on The Well (which I never did join, however) that the internet was going to bind people together and make the world a better place. Our optimism was a bit over-frought, as Lee Siegel has rather succinctly pointed out in his new book, Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. If only we had thought it through a bit more carefully.
Now, I have to admit that there are things about the internet that I love. I truly enjoy writing this blog, and doing so actually forces me to think more carefully about the world and what's going on in it. It allowed me to publish my book without having to sell myself or pander to the whims of the book trade. I've also made some good friends that I'd never have even come in contact with without the rapid development of internet communication devices and programs. Best of all, I enjoyed a long and lively correspondence with my father in the years before he died, which would certainly never have happened otherwise because I'm so lousy with the phone and so bad at getting around to writing letters.
But this is only one technology, really, as all-encompassing and pervasive as it is. We don't tend to think seriously about the consequences of anything we do: cloning, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, nuclear power (well, that does cause some contemplation, thanks to Chernobyl). Unless we endure some whacking great disaster related to one or all of the above, we're not even likely to discuss potential problems before they're already out of our hands entirely. Anyone who does ask questions is an alarmist, or worse: a Luddite.
In her sort-of utopian novel, Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Leguin describes technology as "morally dangerous." The computers are all located somewhere in a city, most people live in low-impact rural enclaves, and even solar-powered electricity is looked upon with suspicion. As she explains in an appendix on practices, the "arts of the uses of the energies of sun, wind, water, electricity, and the combinations of things to make other things are all practices of exchange. They want vigilance and clarity of mind, a bright imagination, modesty, attention to detail and to implication, strength, and courage" (479). Imagine how different the world would be if we became equally mindful about the technologies we now so thoughtlessly pursue, oblivious as we are to the varieties of potential--not just the prophesied advantages.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, I'm still alive and able to wallow in my low-fi Luddism. I'm fully aware that were I to move to the valley in my own utopia, I'd last a couple of years at best, because I'm so dependent on the drugs that mitigate my unfortunate combination of genes (and my sedentary way of life, pounding away at a computer keyboard rather than charging around the garden as I should be doing). But that doesn't mean that it's a useless exercise, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing much more thinking about technological consequences, much more frequently.
To some extent, we are. The back-to-the-land movement that came out of the sixties has become more sophisticated and has begun to focus on permaculture and sustainability. "Green" blogs and websites abound (some are noted in my sidebar entries). People are more interested in the quality of their food, and the market is responding, at least on a small scale. But I did discover, while conducting a bit of background research for this blog, one ominous sign. The U. S. Government office of technology assessment has closed. I'm not sure whether it ever accomplished anything anyway, but if we're officially closing up shop in this regard, it makes one wonder whether Our Guys in Washington have permanently given up thinking about consequences, or whether it's just a temporary blip. It'll be interesting to see what happens after November.
We should not, however, need a government agency to do our thinking for us. We really need to be asking questions ourselves, every time we make a purchase, especially of the latest high-tech gadget. What went into its making? Did any being or environment suffer or die as a result of its manufacture? Will this object (or complex of objects) truly enhance my life? How will it affect my relationships with my family and friends? My ecological footprint? How long will it last? Does it have the potential to cause social or environmental harm? Do I really need it? It wouldn't hurt to treat any technology we adopt as if it were potentially dangerous not only to our physical selves, but to our moral being.
Heidegger himself put it best, at the end of "The Question Concerning Technology": "The closer we come to the danger, the more brightly do the ways into the saving power begin to shine and the more questioning we become. For questioning is the piety of thought."
Photo: Panthouse's own clogs (modified), from Wikimedia Commons.
Citation: Ursula K. Leguin, Always Coming Home. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
I did manage to spend the better part of Friday and Saturday working on the sodden plot for the potager, and I got some yellow squash and a tomato in. I’m not sure how either will do, because I’m not sure about the amount of sun, but I’ll put in a couple more tomatoes in test plots elsewhere, and some beans. The rest will pretty much be herbs, all of which are still sitting on the table out back, waiting to be transplanted.
Two observations: color in my garden works on a complimentary schedule. It happens elsewhere, too, such as when the bluebonnets and the Indian paintbrush bloom together. In my yard the yellows and purples come out in tandem: Carolina Jessamine, mullein, yellow oxalis (or sorrel, I think), dandelions together with grape hyacinth, ajuga, henbit, and some little purply lily-like things that come and go so quickly (and there are so few of them) that I never remember to look them up or get a picture. In Chicago I could always count on the violets to be first up (the season starts much later up there), but then the pattern would be similar.
The other thing I noticed this weekend is that accidental gardens promote accidents. Before the heavy rains of last week, my husband had started tilling (with a “garden weasel”) the plot I’m using for the new herb garden. He was stopped by the deluge, which turns out to be a good thing, because (in the meantime) I picked up a copy of the latest Mother Earth News, with a nifty article about low-maintenance gardens. Lee Reich offers eleven tips for starting a new garden, and the very first one is “Minimize soil disturbance; always try to preserve the natural layering of the soil.” Hot dog! A really good reason not to till up the whole area—just what needs disturbing to allow planting. The rest can be covered with mulch to make pathways. Another idea was to plant the food garden as close as possible to the house. Well, now I'll be able to step out of the back door and practically fall into my dinner.
I then proceeded to use two of the corners from the old “summerhouse” to support the yellow squash and tomato plants I’d bought from Whole Foods last week. I put the one for the squash in the corner of the potager, and the other outside of it, open to the late afternoon sun (I hope; the pecans haven’t leafed out yet, so it’s hard to tell). There goes the plan for a veg garden outside the concrete sidewalk area. I can’t seem to get away from wanting to sit there in comfy lawn chairs, instead of tearing it up to plant things in neat little rows. Pots of herbs surround that support, which (again, I hope) will sport a nice big patio tomato plant as time goes on. Photos will be posted as soon as everything settles in.
So the new plan is to visit a couple of nurseries this week and pick out stuff on a whim. And then to plant it where it “wants” to get planted. We’ll see. Beginning-of-quarter planning interferes, but if Spring Fever proceeds apace (and if the weather holds), I’ll be getting up earlier and gardening before I go down to Dallas to teach.
One more thing: I’m developing some “rules” for aging (modeled on the “rules” for technological development with which I regale my students). The first of Uhlmeyer’s Rules For Becoming an Old Bat is “Old people shouldn’t get sunburned.”
Idiot that I am, I forgot to use sunscreen on my shins. I usually cover up pretty well otherwise, with a long-sleeved shirt, hat, socks, shoes, and gloves. But I had on pedal pushers (Capri pants, I suppose, is the more up-to-date term), and my shins got too much sun. Now, Rafael Nadal (how's that for a cheap plug for the U. S. Open?) wears these pants to play tennis in (“pirate pants” my tennis-coach husband calls them), and he looks pretty good. But old folks don’t tan like that. As a result, I have splotchy red shins between my white sock line and the equally white line where my pants stopped. Next time, longer pants.
Finally, in my never-ending search for blog fodder, I picked up a couple of books during Border’s educator appreciation weekend (25% off almost everything). Book-shopping is another reason I didn’t get as much done in the garden as I wanted. Anyway, look forward to ruminations involving Kurt Vonnegut’s Armageddon In Retrospect (a collection of unpublished stuff, gathered by his son Mark), Lee Siegal’s Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, Jeffrey D. Sach’s Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s global warming trilogy.
It’s going to be an interesting Spring.
Photos: Yellow Carolina Jessamine and purple wisteria; the bare potager.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
The first of these is Arthur C. Clarke, almost every book of whose I’ve read one or more times in my life. He epitomized the scientist-science fiction writers I admire most—those who can use what they know about how the universe works to posit truths about those who populate it. Although he lived to be ninety years old and wrote more than most people could in several lifetimes, I will miss him sorely. My memorial offering: two good obituaries (one from the New York Times, and one from Space.com) and Clarke himself via YouTube, from an interview last December.
The second is Robert Fagles, emeritus professor of Classics at Princeton, translator extraordinaire, channeler of Homer and (more recently) Virgil, and someone who could read Greek iambic hexameter aloud with the voice of an angel. His versions of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid should be on the required lists of all English-speaking schools in the world. Through them children would learn about honor, loyalty, and the frailties of humankind, and about both the glory and the folly of conflict. Having worked on my own translation of the Odyssey (in order to keep up my Greek chops) for the last twenty five years, I can attest to the difficulty of rendering Homer’s transcendent language into equivalently powerful English, but Fagles did it with both of Homer’s works. He translated plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus into resonant commentaries on the nature of tragedy. And then he blessed us, only two years ago, with the best translation of the Aeneid I’ve ever read (and I’ve read many). The last time my husband and I drove from Texas to California, we listened to Fagles's translation of the Odyssey, read by Ian McKellan, and it transformed the landscape of the trip. Robert Fagles died last week at only 74. Here’s a nice obit in the New York Times, and a wonderful audio recording of a talk on Homer at Princeton.
Both of these men helped color my view of utopia: Clarke with his apparently irrepressible belief in the positive outcome of human exploration, especially into space, and Fagels with his eloquent translation of Homer's Odyssey, and particularly the story of the Phaeacians. My heartfelt thanks to them both, for their many and enduring gifts.Photos: Arthur C. Clarke by Mamyjomarash, Wikipedia Commons. Robert Fagles by Denise Applewhite, Princeton University.