Thursday, June 26, 2014

Summer Is Icumen In

Rather than celebrating the coming of this particular season with Medieval rapture, I'm tempted to substitute Ezra Pound's snitty little salute to winter ("Lhud sing goddam!") in place of "Lhud sing cuccu!" This is, after all, Texas, and it's only by the grace of some current climatic weirdness that we're not slow-cooking in our own juices already.

I'm generally a bit ambivalent about summer anyway, because I fully realize that what's actually happening is that the daylight hours are now beginning their long decline toward the winter solstice,  the "darkest evening of the year," and the end of my 67th--even though I'm "only" 66 (and a half) at the moment.

Until I read Akiko Busch's op-ed post in the New York Times last Friday (The Solstice Blues), I thought I was alone in not necessarily seeing this moment as some grand seasonal celebratory event:

The moment the sun reaches its farthest point north of the Equator today is the moment the light starts to fade, waning more each day for the following six months. If the summer solstice doesn’t signal the arrival of winter, surely it heralds the gradual lessening of light, and with that, often, an incremental decline in disposition. 

In North Texas, the end of June is usually marked by the onset of 100-degree days; but this year we've been treated to a bit of rain and temperatures hovering around 90 during daylight hours and low enough at night to sleep without air conditioning. Even the dogs don't seem all that uncomfortable with the humidity--although we do tend to hole up in a small room with a window unit to watch TV in the late afternoon/evening, by which time the house has heated up enough to make the humid air a bit heavy.  Still, by bedtime, it's tolerable again; with a breeze it's even better, because the bedroom has windows on three sides.

When I was looking for an image to illustrate this post, I had wheat in mind for several reasons. For one, a search for "summer" on Wikimedia Commons inevitably produces photos of wheat. In addition, I'm working on a new philosophical perspectives course called "Food and Culture," and my first lecture involves the early history of human victuals--inevitably involving the ancestors of modern wheat. Since a later topic in the course will consider food and art (or food in art), I snapped up the Carl Larsson painting (which I've probably used before) because it touches on both, and because his stuff always makes me think of utopia.

The Food and Culture course has been (ahem) cooking in my brain for several years, but it was only recently that I realized I could teach it without having to go through the bureaucratic effort involved in getting a new course accepted.  Years ago, when I helped design the general studies offerings for our baccalaureate program, I pinched an idea from SUNY Stony Brook and crafted a course called "Philosophical Perspectives," thinking that whatever philosophical types we might hire could then teach what they knew, from within whatever intellectual context they were trained.  I've taught several topics under this catch-all rubric (The Arts and Crafts Movement, Pioneers of Modern Design, and Technology and Utopia), and it finally occurred to me last quarter that Food and Culture could easily fit under the umbrella.

As it turns out, I'm only catching up with a trend that's been evolving since the '90s, and even in the immediate region there's a Philosophy of Food project developing out of the University of North Texas. What this means is that although I'm not exactly on the cutting edge of things, I can take advantage of the work people are already doing in order to locate resources for my students (30 as of the last time I checked). It also means that thinking about food and its cultural meanings is being taken more seriously than it was at first. In a Chronicle of Higher Education article I had saved from 1999, it was clear that the scholarly value of food-studies was somewhat suspect. Since then, however, a looming variety of food crises (scarcity, waste, obesity, malnutrition, and myriad others) has forced folks to start talking about the many ramifications of food consumption, including the effects of global climate change on the future of food.

William Morris's effort to move the education of desire into the center of our consciousness about how we live (and how we might live) fits squarely into the aims of my course: to get students to start thinking about the difference between need and want, and how understanding that difference can inform sustainable futures.  I'm not sure how this lot will respond to having to read and write and think about something most of them don't consider except at mealtime. But there's some potential here to poke a stick into complacency.  Since most of those enrolled are in a culinary management program, the results could be quite interesting.

We will, of course, be suffering through the worst part of this region's summer weather. But we'll be doing so within an overly air-conditioned classroom, sucking down cold bottled water, iced tea, diet sodas, and energy drinks--matters I'll have to design another course to deal with.

Image credit: Carl Larsson (1853-1919),  Summer (date unknown). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Niklas Nordblad.