Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Changing Climates, Deep Doo Doo, and Pickles

This will be a long post, but I've got a lot to get off my chest, and it's my 100th for the Farm, so I'm indulging myself. And because of the impending ice storm, I've got the afternoon off--which may seem ironic, given the subject at hand, but at the moment the weather's behaving appropriately for the season.

The news about the future of our planet, despite the generally upbeat tone of political news at the moment, seems to be getting grimmer and grimmer. Bill McKibben's latest piece for Foreign Policy "Think Again: Climate Change" (reprinted in the Dallas Morning News on Sunday, the 25th, as "Past the Boiling Point") reminds us that it's already too late for some remedies, and is rapidly getting to be too late for many others.

What we generally see in response to what seems to be a growing body of agreement is either band-aid approaches (Ten Ways You Can Help Save The Earth) that include recycling all of the unnecessary packaging on the stuff we buy that we don't really need, or abject denial (as I read in local blogger Denise McNamara's recent post "Dallas Morning News: Burn After Reading"): "there are multitudes of scientists who disagree, and as earth prepares to enter a period of solar maximum, the consensus is that man does not cause climate change; the sun does. Oh, and right now the earth is experiencing global cooling" she claims, despite evidence to the contrary. See, for example, the consensus list posted on LogicalScience, or the article in Science (Dec. 2004), or Joseph Romm's critique of the opposition, "The Cold Truth About Climate Change" in Salon.com from a year ago. Just today, Jim Giles writes in New Scientist that "Human emissions could bring 'irreversible' climate chaos."

As anyone who's studied geology can tell you, climates do in fact fluctuate like crazy (although change usually takes place over millennia). Yes, we do experience periods of heating and cooling and interglaciation. And other factors, like earth's wobbly axis, can cause things to change more quickly, as they did back in the Mesolithic to generate the dessication of the Sahara region. But even somebody who's never taken a geology, biology, or physics class in his or her life should be able to see that something's going on, and we are in fact blowing all manner of particulate matter into the atmosphere at an unprecedented (at least before the Industrial Revolution) rate. There's a simple equation in play here: more people + more stuff = more emissions. The upshot is crappy air that can't be taken care of by bio-absorption because more people and more stuff are in part the result of cutting down our own built-in bio-filters: forests all over the world. And, of course, the few glaciers left are melting apace.

The exact consequences and even the exact mechanisms aren't perfectly understood because there are simply so many factors involved that the computer models can't keep up with them, and we sure as hell don't have the experience to help us figure out processes occurring too quickly to test or predict with any real facility.

So what's a conscientious, non-denier to do? I mean, if you're already doing all ten of the "simple" things you can do to save the earth, what's next? Or if you've been a tree-hugger since your hippie days, what else can you embrace? Especially when you throw in the current economic crisis, lost jobs, and the prospect of worsening economic conditions before they get better (we hope--remember?). Every new thing we don't buy, every workman we don't hire, every meal we eat in, every television show we don't watch impacts the economy. The old one, that is.

If we're going to do anything about climate change, it seems to be intricately connected (as all systems are) with consequences somewhere else along the line. In the end, I think this calls for some radical rethinking of the economy we've been living in for the past fifty years, and perhaps looking backward for some ideas about living well with less.

Of course I'm talking about William Morris. And I'm trying not to be a Luddite. But the man was right; we need to examine philosophically how it is we might live, and take steps to create that world for our children. It means examining the way we live now very critically, especially in terms of quantity versus quality. We get too much information. We drive too fast. We use too much of everything and pay too little for it to sustain the people who make it for us. We know too little about the world, but use too much of it, disregarding the consequences of every liter of gasoline, every kilowatt hour of electricity, every gallon of water we consume.

We also need to re-imagine the concept of work. In addition to considering Morris's distinction between "useful work and useless toil," it would be helpful to examine what "work" has come to mean in the twenty-first century. Howard Gardner's article from 2007, "An Embarrassment of Riches" points out that "The accumulation and cross-generational transmission of wealth in the United States has gone way too far. When a young hedge-fund manager can take home a sum reminiscent of the gross national product of a small country, something is askew. When a self-made entrepreneur can accumulate enough money to, in effect, purchase that country, something is totally out of whack. It’s impossible to deny that market fundamentalism has gone too far." He goes on to suggest limits to personal wealth, which would, of course, cause volcanic eruptions on the right (and probably on the wealthy left as well). But the real impact of his critique lies in the nature of that wealth: the kind of "work" involved in acquiring it.

Why is it that those who do the worst work--the people who pick up after us all, for example (garbage collectors and sorters, maids, busboys, dishwashers, building maintenance people), who do the dirtiest jobs, receive the smallest wages? Why do people who do really important work (like taking care of our children while we're off "working," elementary and secondary educators, caretakers in homes for the elderly) "earn" so much less than guys who sit in plush leather chairs and spend other peoples' money? Why can't a farmer earn a decent living and maintain the family farm without mortgaging him or herself silly in order to stay afloat? I know I've ranted about this before, but it seems all the more relevant now that people who could count on their jobs at places like Home Depot--a company you'd think would be doing fine because people are beginning to opt to do it themselves rather than hire someone to paint their houses and such--are now being laid off.

There does seem to be some hope embedded not only in the new administration, but also in the growing realization of parents in this country that if something doesn't give, those precious little kiddies they've been hovering over are going be stuck in deep shit. And since these kids don't even know much about poop or where it goes or how it's processed (somebody else cleans it up, after all), they're also going to be in a pickle. And they don't know where those come from, either.

When I was writing More News From Nowhere, I wondered about what people would leave out of their new world if they had a chance to start afresh. One of the first things to go, as it turned out, was electricity. The people in the story carefully examined all of the consequences they could think of engendered by the use of a fairly simple technology: everything from sleeping patterns to how much they used their bodies to accomplish tasks.

Now, I doubt seriously that anybody's going to give up their light bulbs any time soon (and what use would there then be for my pretty switchplates?). But thinking and learning about systems and how they interconnect, and how they impact the way we live on the earth is a step toward imagining a different economy.

Why don't we make by hand more of what we truly need? Why do only relatively wealthy people get to afford good, locally-grown produce? Why do we have to use a car to go everywhere? Why do we think we need to be able to stay up all night to work or study or play games? What ever happened to sitting around eating, talking, enjoying the company of friends without going to a noisy bar and watching a big screen TV all at the same time?

Signs of change like the Slow Food movement and Community Supported Agriculture are laudable and offer some reason for optimism. Efforts on the part of the government to retrain workers and keep jobs at home may help, too, but the jobs have to be thoughtfully conceived rather than simply be re-hashed ideas that involve manufacturing more unnecessary commodities.

But I also think that there needs to be a national conversation about what kind of world we should make, as opposed to what kind of world we've become accustomed to. It might begin with thinking about what we would save if we could (or had to) start all over again, and what we can do without. We don't have the option to really throw it all out and begin again, but a thought experiment like this might help us realize something about the value of the world itself, and what our continuing presence here might mean to those who come after us--of all nationalities, ethnicities, and species, not just our own.

One thing that comes to mind, on a practical and individual level, is to look at what we already have in terms of what we think we need. For example, I live in a drafty house that I've done about as much to insulate as I can, and so I keep the thermostat down at 60 degrees and use lap-rugs to stay warm while working or reading or watching the telly. I need another one, because the coziest throw we have isn't really big enough for two of us. I could go out and buy one of those nice fleecy things I saw on a browse through Tuesday Morning not long ago (the second time in recent memory that I'd been in there and not bought a blessed thing). They're cheap (probably cheaper than they should be) at about $20. But they're made out of synthetic fibers (the manufacture of which spewed who knows how many pounds of carbon and other gunk into the air), and it would be, after all, One More Damned Thing.

So today, since I'm pretty much caught up with the week's lectures, I'm going to gather up all the old bits of wool I've had squirreled away in the Museum of Unfinished Projects, and start knitting up a new blankie: hand crafted, possibly pretty (I've got some granny squares already finished and they actually look rather nice; I'll join them up with some strips of knit-one-purl-two and see what happens), and it won't cost me anything I haven't already spent.

I've already started a "finishing up what's in the freezer/larder" project that involves making peasant soups at least once a month using odd bits of veg, rice, pasta, and tinned foods, and an occasional chunk of meat. So far they've been wonderful, and I'm now making room for stocking up on home-made bread and other staples that I can make in batches and then freeze. Come summer, when I should have recovered enough of my stamina to garden energetically, I'll have room on the shelves for jams and chutneys and pickles galore.

Maybe I'll invite some children to help me, so they'll see how it's done.

Images: The charts are from Global Warming Art. Hundreds of high-quality diagrams and charts are available, created by really smart, creative people. The picture of Morris at 53 is from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rolling Up Our Sleeves and Darning the Sheets

The nice picture that appeared on all the news shows and in the paper this morning (not the one I've used above), of Barack Obama sans jacket, calling world leaders from his new office was kind of inspiring. "Get to work," it seems to say. "Now."

So I'm going to go back to preaching about profligacy and superficiality, while I work at trying to find ways in which those of us who live in this still-the-wealthiest-nation-on-earth can live better. Not "better" in the sense of "getting more stuff with less money," but in the sense of "intellectually richer" or "more in tune with the rest of the natural world." That is, when I'm not trying to stockpile enough PowerPoint lectures to get my sub through the Spring quarter.

The Dallas Morning News has started to run a "Dollar Wise" feature in its Guide section, and the January 11 edition ran Nancy Visser's "Confessions of Consumer Dropouts," which (on the surface, anyway) seemed to echo the theme of Judith Levine's book, Not Buying It (about which I wrote back in my December post, "Waste Not"). Visser's pledge is not to not buy anything for a year--it's just to not buy anything new. Well, that's noble enough, I thought. "So, in 2009, we will buy nothing new except food, toiletries, and home-improvement items." This represents the renewal of a vow made in 2007, which resulted in a few changed habits, a raised consumer consciousness, and that "helped define our values." She doesn't explain what that means, but I didn't read the original article (if there was one).

Her advice on how to accomplish these goals comes under a sub-heading, "Consumer Zen." Copywriters really do need to start paying attention to what they say, because what follows has nothing at all to do with Zen.

Visser's rules are simple enough, and laudable for the most part. For example, she points out that when you don't spend time shopping, you have more time for other pursuits--like reading the whole paper instead of just the ads. One really helpful observation is that one can learn to live with what one has; as soon as you stop thinking about buying stuff all the time, you no longer seem to "need" new counter tops, or a new rug. But her pledge to not buy anything new includes some odd subterfuges: like stockpiling toiletries before you begin (she didn't actually do this on purpose; she just took advantage of rebates out of habit and ended up with nearly a years' supply of deodorant and such). If you're like me--someone who refuses to buy shampoo laden with questionable chemicals--you don't get rebate coupons. It occurs to me to suggest that if you're not spending all that time shopping for rebatable cosmetics, you could probably make your own out of really simple, safe, organic ingredients.

And here's a hint for her: a one-time purchase of a washable furnace filter will save you from having to replace them. Forever. And it's possible to find recycled tile for the entry hall (according to Visser, "used tile isn't an option." Why not?). If you want to save money on that sort of thing, shop salvage yards and your nearest Habitat for Humanity Re-store.

My point here is not that there's anything nefarious going on; it's just that there's no Zen. The reasons for not buying new things should be bound to the same reasons as for not buying more stuff at all. Only buy what you need. And when you do so, think of the consequences. Sometimes it's better to buy new: like purchasing a low-emissions car that gets better fuel economy instead of an old gas guzzling fume-spewer. When you have to buy new bedding, as Zisser insists she must ("No used bedding for us!"), save up for high-quality, organically-grown, fair-trade bedsheets that will last a lifetime. Personally, I relish sleeping on the few pillow cases I still have that were lovingly embroidered by my great grandmother, and quite a number of people seem to be happy to purchase "antique" linens (as long, I guess, as they're from France, where the heirlooms of countless French farm wives are being sold off to the great glee of English and American high-end consumers). And whatever happened to darning the sheets (even if you don't have Roman slaves to do it*)?

Real economy isn't just about saving money or uncluttering our lives. It's about rethinking how we live. The new President touched on this in is inaugural address, when he noted the following:

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

The hard choices will involve the Big Items like what kinds of automobiles we manufacture, what kinds of fuels we use, how we treat our croplands (and what we grow), how we treat our poor and our sick, and what becomes of our immigrants.

But the choices also include how we live. Nancy Visser's effort at getting a handle on how she spends her money is commendable in many respects; but like many such efforts, it doesn't really address the fundamental question of need versus want. She admits to coveting new stuff, and expresses the following hope: "May the recession end before we have to swear off used stuff, too."

Yes, Mr. President; we do have some hard choices to make. And we need some education of desire to help us make them.

*This is an obscure reference that only fans of the old BBC comedy, Up Pompeii!! will get; the protagonist-slave, Lurcio, complains about most of his tasks--including darning the sheets.

Image credit: Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Laundress, 1735. Owned by the Hermitage, available at Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

One Giant Weep for Mankind

Well, maybe not so much. But it's certainly been an emotional morning. I decided to watch today's inaugural ceremonies with my laptop in front of me, and this is what came out:

As cranky as I can get about all manner of events, I am a real sop for historical events.

When the Berlin Wall came down, I called my children in from their bedrooms to watch the exuberant crowds on TV, wielding sledgehammers, picks, and even their bare hands. Tears rolled down my cheeks as the chorale from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, "Ode to Joy," was played over and over.

I cry when I vote. I've mentioned before that ever since I can remember, the act of voting has choked me up, to the extent that poll watchers regularly hug me and assure me that I'm not the only one.

I guess I'm not. Last night when I was watching the MSNBC news shows, I noticed how frequently Keith Olbermann (an even crankier person than I am) and Rachel Maddow found themselves becoming verklempt over the significance of what would take place the next morning.

This morning.

As I type, it's 9:30 EST, and the crowds around the inauguration venue are already almost at capacity. Although the colors of faces vary as they always do, it's amazing and wonderful to see how many African Americans have made their way from all over the country to witness this singular moment. It's even more poignant because it takes place only one day after the Martin Luther King national holiday, when we were reminded that Dr. King was only four years off when he predicted a Black president within forty years.

The people who seem least fazed by all the hoopla are the Obamas themselves: elegant, cool, composed--presidential. It will be interesting to note if a tear escapes either of them during the swearing in. And the rituals begin: the trip to the church, the arrival at the White House for coffee with the Bushes, and then the trip to the Capitol for the swearing in ceremony.

Newsfolk are positively giddy. After all, "If you're a civics dork," says Rachel Maddow, "this is bigger than Christmas." That's probably understating things a bit, because even those who don't get excited by many occasions (like my Beloved Spouse) will be watching the ceremony with their students and absorbing the moment. I doubt if a more appropriate point could be made to a class full of social and political philosophy students than to see the first Black president inaugurated on their first day of class. I'd be interested to learn how many of them weep through it all, because the intensity of the moment is always enhanced by fellow-feeling.

Of course, the opposite could happen. My husband's college is located in a Republican bastion, and this generation seems to be more sentimental about celebrities than about polititians. Even my own children, coerced into watching the Berlin Wall tumble down all those years ago (has it really been twenty years?), saw little to fuss about. They hadn't been around when it was built, though, and had little sense of its significance to the Cold War (they had never had to "duck and cover"). On the other hand, few of today's kids have been completely untouched by the Iraq war or the failing economy, so perhaps they will participate in the sense of promise being displayed on the Mall in Washington.

More than one person has mentioned the distance we have all traveled from the time when white people owned black people, when slaves were transported in the holds of ships during the Middle Passage, and when we allowed people of color to serve in the armed forces, but didn't allow them to hold office, or even vote. This moment doesn't belong to a race, it belongs to human beings who, by electing this one man in this one country to this one office, have finally come of age. We've grown up symbolically, even though it might still be generations before its full impact takes effect.

As Barack Obama appears through the door (it's after noon, so he's already officially the President), the effect is pretty spectacular. Flags wave, chants of "O-ba-ma" erupt, and cameras pan over millions of smiling faces. Obama himself seems nonplussed, and everyone's probably wondering (as the Newsies all are) what he's thinking.

Aretha Franklin gets up to sing "My Country Tis of Thee," which I find amusing, because its tune is "God Save the Queen." At least it's not "God Bless America" which has become the alternate national anthem since 9/11, but it might better have been "America the Beautiful." Since it's Aretha, though, she makes it swing. I didn't get weepy here, but might later when the Navy Sea Chanters sing the "Star Spangled Banner."

Before the actual oath we get a variation of Aaron Copland's variation of the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," arranged by Star Wars Boy, John Williams, and performed sweetly and lovingly by Itzak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Gabriela Montoya, and Anthony McGill. The quartet is as multi-racial as the audience and the new administration.

And here it is: a bit of a muff (Obama seemed to know the text better than Chief Justice Roberts did), but an oath nonetheless, and as predicted, tears everywhere (except on the podium).

Good speech, too. It didn't make me blubber, but it did give me hope, and I think children in the future will memorize it if the promise this presidency engenders comes to fruition. I can go back to work now, having spent the morning well, and witnessed an historic moment with fewer tears than expected. Maybe that's a good sign--that I haven't been overcome with sentimentality but rather with sobriety. Reverend Lowery's image of transforming tanks into tractors was a great parting shot. Amen, indeed.

Image credit: Since there weren't any photos to upload, I thought a shot of Lincoln's inauguration would be appropriate: "Abraham Lincoln's first inauguration which took place in Washington, DC. Lincoln stands underneath the covering at the center of the photograph. The scaffolding at upper right was being used in construction of the Capitol dome." Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Old Gumbie Cat

The actual time and place at which human beings domesticated cats seems to be in dispute, but pictures of cats appear in Egypt in the Bronze Age, and a burial on Cyprus suggests that cats may have found a place among Neolithic populations--not as early as domesticated dogs, but certainly early on in the process of civilizing ourselves.

The relationship between humans and pets is complex, and we often prefer one species over another for a variety of reasons. Dogs are more companionable by reputation, and cats more aloof, but neither stereotype fits every breed of dog or cat, or any individual animal, for that matter. Take, for example, Biscuit--the affable, large tabby who more or less came with our house when we moved in eight plus years ago.

When I first saw him (and thinking that he might be a pregnant female), these lines from Old Possum occurred to me:

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots.
All day she sits upon the stair or on the steps or on the mat:

She sits and sits and sits and sits - and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!


I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots.
All day she sits beside the hearth or in the sun or on my hat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits - and that's what makes a Gumbie Cat!

At the time we had a passel of cats we had rescued from our old rented house in Dallas, as well as a couple of "leftover" pets from my children's younger years--cats they grew up with--and the cat Beloved Spouse and I acquired as a companion for his English Bulldog, Zack when we were living in Chicago. Zack was no longer with us, but we had happily adopted another Bulldog from a friend, whose father had died and whose mother wanted to travel. There were seven animals all together. After all, we had a half acre and a much bigger house, so why not: plenty of room for everyone.

The cats all stayed indoors, so when we worked outside, the only pet who joined us was the dog--until Biscuit (originally "owned" by a couple with a large property just up the street) decided he liked us better, and began to spend most of his time lounging on our cars, or keeping the dog company in the back yard. Worried about his well-being as winter set in, we installed a cat door into the shed, and made him a bed where he clearly spent most of his nights. Every morning, however, he appeared at the back door, just in time for breakfast.

From his girth it was apparent that we weren't the only people in the neighborhood who fed him. But we were the ones who provided the good stuff and ended up taking him to the vet, so, after two of the other cats had died, Biscuit became an indoor-outdoor cat, and an official member of the family (with the blessing of his previous clan). Then, after we lost the Bulldog to cancer and acquired a couple of mutt puppies, Biscuit helped to bring 'em up; he was the only cat who could really hold his own against their exuberance, and didn't mind sharing space with them--although he no longer spent any time in the back yard where the dogs seemed to confuse him with the squirrels.

For the rest of his life, Biscuit would see us off to school and greet us when we returned. He knocked politely on the door to be let in, and waited patiently next to it to be let out. When I worked on the front border he'd come and bask in the sun next to me, or sit on the porch rail to survey his domain. If I went out at night to watch the moon, he'd come along and gaze upward as if he understood what I was doing and took as much pleasure in it as I did.

He kept the shed relatively vermin free, until he got too lazy (and too well fed on pricey holistic cat food) to run after them. They practically had to sacrifice themselves at his feet for him to take the bait, but more than once we had to bury what was left over from an evening's work. Indoors, he especially loved to sit on our laps when we watched movies, attending to the action until he fell asleep, purring loudly.

During these last two weeks, however, his apparently early exposure to to FIV (the cat-version of AIDS) caught up with him, and he began to lose his vigor. He still liked company, and still purred with pleasure when petted, but it was clear that something was wrong. When we took him to the vet this morning we found out just how much had stopped working, and how much he must have been hurting, and decided it was time to say goodbye. He kept purring until the end, and looked rather elegant when he died, as if he were lounging on a cushion in a bordello.

Animals of all sorts, and pets especially, are part of what makes this world pleasurable. We enjoy their company, and learn from them. We admire their grace, or their demeanor, or even their suspicion. All dogs, said Plato, are philosophers. They, like Odysseus's Argo, know who their friends are. Cats share this quality to some extent, although they tend to bestow their friendship somewhat more selectively.

Next week another little cedar box will join those containing the ashes of Biscuit's predecessors. But as much as we've loved the cats who've come before, there really is something special about one who domesticates the humans of his choice, and makes them his friends. No questions asked.

The image from T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats is from Wikipedia--which includes the text of the poems. The opening image was taken two years ago, on the driveway where Biscuit would present his belly for a rub, by way of greeting.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Growing Our Own

As usual, a couple of timely coincidences has prompted another post. This time, we're back to food.

I was grazing through the Orion update I get periodically, where a short piece by Jason Peters about ecological illiteracy points out that ignorance about our almost complete dependence on oil is going to affect us profoundly, and not all that far in the future.

Then, Geoff Isaac on his It Came from the Kitchen blog pointed me to Mark Kinder's article for BBC News, which essentially illustrates the problems that derive from being culturally stupid about how we do things: Food Needs 'Fundamental Rethink.'

The main point Peters makes is that we're so uneducated about the consequences of our oil-addiction that we operate under a quasi-religious faith in the economy, and that "in an increasingly abstract economy we have simply let ourselves live in a kind of blissful ignorance about oil—how it was formed, what we use it for, how we get it, what and whom we destroy in the process."

Kinder's article focuses on City University of London professor, Tim Lang, who notes that (among other problems with the food supply) "We have an entirely oil-based food economy, and yet oil is running out. The impact of that on agriculture is one of the drivers of the volatility in the world food commodity markets."

I think the whole problem is actually even more insidious than oil-dependence, because it seems to be closely related to a kind of blindness about how much we depend on complex energy sources of all varieties for just about everything we do. For example, people concerned about our reliance on fossil fuels (especially those we obtain at great cost from other countries) tout biofuels like ethanol as solutions. But ethanol itself is just one more energy-intensive way of obtaining fuel, and one whose ramifications include reducing the amount of land that can be used for farming foodstuffs. So even when we're not using oil in every aspect of food production, we're using it as a production model even while we try to wean ourselves from it.

Professor Lang advocates a radical rethinking of the way we view our diets, and how we feed ourselves, and he's one among a large and growing number of people who are actively thinking about how we can change both habits and policies to address the ultimate issue: how do we feed a population nearing 9 billions without destroying the planet in the first place?

Britain, according to the article, is beginning to try to answer the question by establishing a Food Council (of which Lang is a member). This is an encouraging step, and one that needs to be taken in the United States. In fact, Rod Dreher (local Christian conservative blogger and author of Crunchy Cons, both the book and the blog) wrote a Thanksgiving piece for NPR in November, after Barack Obama was elected, and noted the need for change here at home: "We have to quit subsidizing agribusiness. We need policies that encourage the building of local food economies, not ones that depend heavily on fossil fuel transport. We need reform of regulatory codes that purport to protect the public's health, but really shield agribusiness from local competition."

Dreher then makes a rather modest, but interesting proposal to the new President:

May I suggest dinner? Let agribusiness lobbyists feed their faces at The Palm. You break bread at the White House with guests like Wendell Berry, Joel Salatin, Michael Pollan and Will Allen, the urban gardener who just won a MacArthur Foundation grant for teaching inner-city folks how to raise their own food. Lend them your sympathetic ear. And by the way, why not set a good example by planting a kitchen garden on the White House lawn?

He goes on to point out that this is one area where social conservatives like himself and tree-huggers like me can work together: "taking care of the land and building traditional food cultures are areas where conservatives and liberals can not only find common ground, but sow seeds in it that will bear good fruit for us all."

What he doesn't mention here is that the more we all become involved in understanding how and where our food is grown, the more quickly we can ameliorate our environmental illiteracy, and educate our communities and our children about ways to break the cycle of high-tech, fuel-greedy technological food production, and replace them with simpler ways of feeding ourselves before we mess things up so completely that choices no longer exist.

In this regard, I tend to be somewhat sanguine, since evidence that a paradigm shift is imminent seem to be popping up every other second or so. Take, for example, movements like Slow Food and the increase in permaculture practices worldwide.

A quick tootle around the internet provided me the following, and there are myriad more where these came from. Signs that things aren't as bad as they might seem:

The Science Barge is a New York effort to educate people about urban agriculture and sustainability.

The Urban Farm: Growing Food, Having Fun Gardening, Connecting with Nature (Phoenix, Arizona)

Jones Valley Urban Farm (Birmingham, Alabama)

Picardo Farm
(Seattle, Washington)

A CBS report on the urban farming movement, linked on City Farmer News.

The MacArthur Foundation page on honoree Will Allen

Urban Habitat Chicago: Demonstrating the viability of sustainable concepts and practices in urban environments through research, education, and hands-on projects.

A Google search on "urban farm" or "urban agriculture" will lift your spirits, because the links I've listed are only a smidgen of a sample.

Photo credit: The victory gardens at Slow Food Nation by David Silver, from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Desert Love

Rather than spending the evening carousing, Beloved Spouse and I celebrated New Year's Eve snuggled up in front of an amazing film: House of Sand (Casa De Areia), Portugese director Andrucha Waddington's beautifully shot story about three generations of women in northern Brazil.

The setting is utterly unearthly--which makes sense because of the many references to the moon and space exploration scattered throughout. The landscape becomes another character, and that character is The Desert. I've never wanted to visit a place quite so badly after seeing a film, even though films shot in the desert tend to be among my favorites.

According to the "making of" feature on the DVD, the desert location, in Lençóis Maranhenses National Park, actually helped to write the story, which was initially inspired by a snippet of a legend Waddington heard (I forgot where). Desert landscapes can both inspire awe and signify profound isolation and loneliness, as they do here, but I never tire of seeing panoramas of dunes (think of the opening scenes in The English Patient, or some of the magnificent shots in Lawrence of Arabia).

I once thought that the ideal place to live would be in a desert on the edge of the sea, with impossibly high mountains in the background. This film contains two of these elements, and the conjunction of water and sand punctuates its languorous pace (which I know many would find tedious; "too long" is a judgment passed on many of my favorite movies by critics with abysmally short attention spans). I'm reminded of the occasional moments in Death Valley, after abundant spring rains, when the desolation of the sand dunes is framed by seldom-seen fields of wild flowers. The contrast is breathtaking, and only hinted at in photos like the one below.

Alien landscapes abound on this planet: that is, "alien" in the sense of "otherworldly," even though they're very much the product of home planet forces. They're only alien because most people choose not to live in them, or they are so remote and inaccessible that few encounter them. There must be an initial bond, I think, between human beings in the desert in order for them to love it, precisely because it's so difficult to live in. The granite sand in the high desert of the Owens Valley is in my blood, and probably accounts for my affection.

For those of us who find transcendent moments not in the worship of deities but in the very idea that our existence is accidental, the desert--and films that recognize its visual power--serves as a reminder of our sheer luck. We don't live on Tatooine or Arakkis, and so our lives aren't controlled by sand. But we can get an inkling of the fragility of existence by spending some time, even virtually, in one of these places; perhaps if more people were to do so, we could better appreciate this planet's luxurious abundance and variety, which our modern ways of life have threatened so significantly.

Photo credits: "Photo of one of the lakes of the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. This particular lake is close to Lagoa Azul (blue lake)" by Vitor. Dunes at Lençóis Maranhenses by cigh_66. Death Valley Dunes by Urban. All via Wikimedia Commons