Friday, February 1, 2013

Christmas agrarian reading

This Christmas I got a few good agrarian-themed books, and unlike years past, whose gift books are still languishing on my shelf (sorry, Steve Jobs biography), this year I've verily devoured them.  My mother gave me The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  My cousin gave me a book called Visiting Tom by Michael Perry.

I started tentatively looking at Visiting Tom over the Christmas holiday, while my mom was still in town, and quickly finished it off in my evenings after work.  I didn't know quite what to expect from the book; after reading it, I still don't know!  I enjoyed it a lot, though I can't say if it's a good book.  The author is often too self-conscious, too present in everything.  It's well-written in terms of good descriptions of the Wisconsin countryside and the customs people have and their ways of doing and saying things.  But it doesn't really have a plot--it's more a book of leitmotifs, chief among them the author's attempts to fight bureaucracy in his rural neck of the woods, his reflections on fatherhood and time and loss and death and meaning, thoughts on the importance of place and connection to place, all seen through the lens of regular visits to an old farmer neighbor and handyman.  It made me reflect on how to live a good life, and especially on how to remain calm and keep from becoming totally embittered in the face of unstoppable outside forces and feelings of powerlessness.  A passage where the author gazes at the starlit night sky with his daughters also made me think about how much I would love to be tied to a place where I can watch the change of the starscape and the seasons over the year.  Here in equatorial Colombia we don't have much in the way of seasonal change, and I live in a city (albeit a small one), so light pollution blocks out most of the stars.  Maybe someday my family and I will live somewhere where we can enjoy the quiet wonder of black starry nights.

My cousin has always had excellent taste in gift books for my son, and now I see that this extends to books for me as well.  For someone like me, with my dreams of an agrarian life, my longing for the US and especially rural Wisconsin, and my beliefs on what constitutes the good life and the right way to live and do things, the Visiting Tom book was like pornography, or perhaps like the cheap mystery or romance novels some people indulge in.  Agrarian pulp!

Next up was The Botany of Desire.  I didn't know if I was going to like it--I liked The Omnivore's Dilemma, but I thought this one was going to be more pure biology, botany.  I was happily surprised to find that it was in fact full of sociological and historical insight, right at the interface of plants and domestication and human society.  Right up my alley.  It's rare that I learn a lot of new things from a general audience book about agriculture and agrarian history, because it's basically the field I dedicate myself to, and I've done a lot of deep reading, writing, and contemplating on the subject.  But Pollan really taught me new stuff this time around.  In his treatment of apples, marijuana, and tulips, almost everything was new to me, and even in the section on potatoes there were a few new historical tidbits (though this chapter, being about large-scale modern row-crop agriculture, was more of the simplified breakdown of technical subjects I'd expected the rest of the book to be).

The section on apples focuses on Johnny Appleseed, a historic figure who leapfrogged the westward-expanding wave of 19th-century pioneers, getting first to the remote frontier to plant apple seedlings and have them ready to sell as saplings by the time the settlers arrived.  He believed in open pollination for apples, as opposed to grafting.  The former gives unpredictable, genetically-diverse results, while the latter gives a reliably good apple every time, but with no genetic diversity.  Open pollination is fine for an apple-cider orchard, where eating quality or bitterness don't matter, because everything gets fermented anyway.  But if you want an orchard full of sweet, edible apples, you go with grafting.  It is thanks to Johnny Appleseed that we in the US had the genetic base from which sprung all the classic eating apples.  His apples were mainly for making cider, which was the drink of choice on the frontier, but the occasional sweet-tasting and pretty-looking mutant that would spring up in an orchard became the basis for grafting to make standard eating cultivars.  Anyway, reading about him made me want to maintain wild, ungrafted borders of different fruit trees on my father-in-law's farm, as well as anywhere else I get the opportunity to plant long-term.  I even fantasized about being a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, spreading diverse varieties of apples and other fruits throughout the Boyaca highlands, or maybe even promoting native fruit trees among settlers on the Amazon frontier.

The section on tulips had lots of background information on flowering plants and their reproductive strategy, as well as on standards of beauty.  The potato section had some very succinct, well-done descriptions of the technical details of genetic engineering, as well as the real improvements it has represented in certain aspects of the industrial monoculture farming system.  In particular, I felt that Pollan captured very well the mix of impressive control and relative brute luck embodied in present genetic engineering technology, which consists essentially in blasting plant cells with a given gene thousands of times and hoping that in one of the cells, the gene has gotten stuck where you wanted it to. 

Another interesting reflection that Pollan touched on was the cultural shock when Europeans were faced with, and eventually adopted, the potato as a food crop.  There is a big conceptual divide between cultivating grains and cultivating root crops.  It consists not only in the aesthetic difference of having the harvestable part growing above or below the soil, but also in some practical technical details, and what those mean for a society.  Pollan spends a lot of time discussing the population and wealth implications of having such a high-yielding, low-labor crop as the potato--if a society can suddenly obtain much more food with much less work than before, it is possible that people will become indolent and reproduce irresponsibly (a major concern of 18th and 19th century demographers and political economists in England), or that you'll free up the labor force so as to foster urbanization and thus industrialization (which is what seems to have actually happened in most of northern Europe).

But I also want to dwell on a few points that Pollan touches on less explicitly.  First off, root and tuber crops can usually be harvested and eaten immature or very mature.  Whereas wheat harvested a month too early or a month too late basically gives you 0% of the predicted yield, you can harvest potatoes, or cassava, or yams, or achira either young or old, and still obtain a pretty good proportion of the useable food you'd get by harvesting it at the "right" time.  Conversely, once you harvest most root or tuber crops, you must eat them pretty immediately, or they'll rot (potatoes last longest in storage, but even they must be used within a year and sometimes in much less time).  This is the opposite of grain, which can last for years and years in storage.  Pollan does discuss how this last factor of storeability ties into the "civilized" commodity economy.  Potatoes and other root crops are essentially, archetypically agrarian.  A family can be very close to self-reliant for their food supply if they cultivate root and tuber crops, even if the society around them isn't very complex or well-functioning or urbanized.  They can keep the crop in the ground, and harvest gradually as they need it; if they need food before the crop is ready, they can pull up a few immature potatoes, or a few old stragglers in the ground from last year's crop.  On the other hand, wheat or other grains are storeable, tradeable commodities that favor and almost require the existence of merchants, millers, breadmakers, and other specialists, upon whom the whole society, including the farmer, comes to depend.  So for the industrializing nations of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, wheat was a symbol of civilization, while potatoes could be seen as a sign of backwards, peasant indolence (though as I've remarked, potatoes eventually came to be an important part of the industrialization process).  Pollan also discusses the fact that wheat must be culturally processed to make edible bread, while potatoes just need cooking and are eaten as is.  I understand how in Europe this would be a big contrast, but in the Amazon region (with its de-toxified cassava bread), in the central Andes (with their freeze-dried potato chuño), and in subhumid Africa (with its different flours processed from yams and cassava), roots and tubers do in fact receive lots of processing by human hands.

At any rate, Pollan's reflections on the inherent cultural difference between root crops and grain crops really hit home for me.  Ever since I started learning about and living in and working in the tropics, I've been surprised at the particular way of organizing food and farming.  I could never quite put my finger on what initially seemed so different to me, but I think Pollan has hit on it in large part.  From plantains to breadfruit to arrowroot to arracacha to cubios, the tropics are full of crops that are high in starch, that can be left on the plant or in the ground for a long time as a sort of in situ storage, and that are highly perishable once harvested.  Because these crops demand a different manner of management than the grain crops of temperate zones, the human cultures that have sprung up around them also show certain differences.  Most obviously in the planting, harvest, and preparation of these foods, but also perhaps other differences in attitude, art, and the like also have some base in this different way of conceiving and practicing agriculture.  In any case, Pollan's discussion of the matter helped me to voice and organize thoughts that had long been brewing in my head.

After years of working with small-scale tropical subsistence farmers, I have gotten used to and probably even internalized some of the traits and attitudes inherent to the tropical root crop model of agriculture.  And I think that Colombia is a fascinating mix between the root and grain currents that Pollan identifies.  On the one hand, our farmers tend to have a typical tropical mentality in managing their crops.  Farmers plant many different crops in one field, usually in bunches without strictly-discernible rows.  They use hand tools, often avoid total weed control, and practice a staggered harvest over the season as they need food for each meal.  But on the other hand, Old World bread and rice and milk and livestock are an important part of the peasant and the general food economy.  Most interesting for me is how the Colombian mestizo mind has created really great combinations of Old and New World ideas.  Colombian cuisine includes lots of breads made from corn and root crops.  Normally such breads would be flat and hard, since none of these plants has the gluten that makes wheat bread spongy and fluffy.  But by mixing milk curd into their breads, Colombians seem to have created a gluten substitute.  This leaves Boyaca corn arepas and almojabanas, cassava bread from Cali and the coast, and even experimental arracacha bread, wonderfully airy, as if they were mixed with wheat flour.

The section of The Botany of Desire that left me thinking the most was the part on marijuana.  I have long advocated depenalizing marijuana consumption, not because I think it's harmless but rather because I think that the societal ills engendered by an aggressive drug war are even worse than the stupidity and malaise and self-centered mediocrity that marijuana causes.  At the same time, I don't have much respect for people who use or sell marijuana, because it seems like one more consumer item to get hung up and obsessed about.  Pollan's writing has forced me to reconsider some of my thoughts on this issue.  Above all he makes an eloquent defense of altered consciousness.  All peoples in all times have valued special states of consciousness (whether brought about by intense prayer, fasting, physical exertion, or consumption of psychoactive substances) and the insights they can offer.  Pollan puts such states in terms of the balance between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses.  Apollo stands for order, control, the status quo, while Dionysus is unbridled abandon, communion with nature, the recognition of the limits of human control.  While a purely Apollonian society or person is uninspired, rigid, boring, and even oppressive, pure Dionysus is chaos, recklessness, and violence.  So the key lies in the (tense) balance and give and take between the two forces.  Dionysus's wine can lead to calm, peace, harmony, and profound contemplation, but also to rage, delusions, and irresponsibility. 

I recognize these as truths on an abstract level, but I still can't seem to get personally comfortable with the idea of marijuana or other drug consumption.  Jimi Hendrix or Alan Ginsberg might have had interesting, lucid ideas and contributions thanks to marijuana, but everyone I've ever known  up close just becomes mediocre, hackneyed, and clumsy when under the influence of drugs.  Even Native Americans I've met that regularly use different psychoactive substances as part of their culture just seem hopped up and distracted to me, not in any sort of profound or enlightened or more "culturally authentic" state. 

On top of this, and it's something that Pollan hints at, it's hard to reconcile the supposedly free-thinking, anti-status quo values represented by marijuana consumption, with the big business of totally synthetic, anti-natural growing conditions used to produce highly potent, very expensive marijuana.  In the name of Dionysus, the worst aspects of Apollo are called into play.  I value Pollan's observation that what marijuana has to show us is the possibility to reject or at least reinterpret linear time, group standards, and a hurried, blase attitude, and take joy in the simple marvels that surround us.  If in day-to-day life we must tune out many things in order to keep on-task and to keep from getting overloaded with stimuli, marijuana and other such substances can remind us not to totally tune out the wonder of the world around us.  I like his assertion that perhaps the laughable, overly-sincere observations of someone who is high, aren't really that laughable, but that in fact the color green really is marvellous, or toasters really are amazing, or the fact that everyone speaks a language and can communicate with others really is a small miracle.  But I would offer that psychoactive substances shouldn't be necessary to open our eyes to such observations.  We would all do well not to block out so much of every day's sights and impressions, to take a breath now and again to just appreciate and marvel and wonder!  And this doesn't require the purchase of any illicit substance, just a deep breath and a little bit of time. 

On a side note, I also have considered that marijuana and peyote and ayahuasca (yaje) are maybe more relevant or valid in agrarian, pre-modern societies.  When every day is occupied largely by work that entails long periods of repeating the same motion, and there's no TV or anything to provide pure entertainment, then psychoactive substances could provide variety and insight and stimuli.  But in the 21st century, we are surrounded by gimmicks and bells and whistles.  If you aren't wondrous and entertained in the modern world, then you probably need a lot more than a joint to snap you out of your indifference.

This consideration of altered states and naive wonder also overlaps with another thing I've been reading lately.  For years now, I've been slogging through St. Augustine's Confessions.  I'll pick up the book and read a few chapters on a flight or something, then leave it abandoned for months.  The problem is that it's hard reading--among other things, the translator seems to have tried to preserve the feel of florid, Byzantine Latin in his English rendering.  I've fantasized about learning Latin if for nothing else than to give a more readable, everyday translation of Augustine.  At any rate, I keep with it because it's a good conversion story, remarkably current in its considerations of temptation and distraction and contemplation of the divine.  But much of the book is taken up by ecstatic exhortations and prayers.  Augustine will be telling about his falling in with the Manichean sect, then he breaks into two pages of prayerful laments of his heretical folly, then another two pages of praises to God for having mercy on him and pulling him from his errant ways.  Sometimes these passages hit a chord with me, because he really does have some good insights on grace, free will, and the like, but often reading his sincere monologues with God is much like listening to someone who's high share his "insights" with you.  Obviously Augustine isn't as trite and cliched as the typical partygoing friend under the influence of marijuana, but the sheer wonder and sincerity and unawareness of irony is shared by both.

Speaking of Augustine, it also seems that he finds a sort of timeless ecstasy in the consideration of his sin and folly.  The misery, the self-blame, the abjection of a state of sin and regret, seem also to be capable of removing a person from the everyday routine and drawing attention to the small details of his surroundings, as well as the larger, eternal truths of life.  Especially in the case of Augustine, who isn't too explicit about any boozing or whoring or carousing he might have done, but rather focuses on how hubristic and arrogant he was to have focused on his profession of law and rhetoric, it is hard to relate to his feelings of absolute sinfulness and unworthiness.  On the one hand, I tend toward a very severe, Biblical judgment of other people's shortcomings, but at the same time, when you get to a personal level you see that most people are generally trying to be decent.  So in the past I would read Augustine and think, "What's the big deal?  Don't get so down on yourself."  I know that as a Christian I'm supposed to believe in original sin, and of course the evidence of a flawed nature is all around us, in every war and injustice and petty slight of the world.  But on the other hand, most people you meet don't seem like grave, horrid sinners.  Most people aren't murderers, or rapists, or robbers, or whatever.  All that said, I have recently come to realize that each individual's sins are indeed a big deal, even if they seem small as seen from the outside.  Many people have made some mistake that was so bad that at some point, someone they cared about looked at them with disappointment, or sadness, or even shame.  And if not a loved one, perhaps the very sinner looked at him or herself with disgust and shame.  Within the limited stage of each person's life, perhaps just one such situation is enough to remind him that he is uncontrollably, unquestionably a sinner, clearly capable of doing wrong and hurting others.  While this evil may never manifest itself in grand crimes against humanity, I guess it's what is meant by original sin.  And if we all have this within us, we'd do well not to get too righteous or complacent about how good we are, especially if we are in the habit of noticing flaws in others.  Perhaps the idea of original sin is nothing more than the affirmation that no one person has the right to play God, to play judge, to forget that he or she has also done wrong, and will probably do wrong again in life.

Lastly, I am now almost halfway through Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  It covers much of the same ground as Pollan's Botany of Desire (and The Omnivore's Dilemma, for that matter), but at a much more basic, personal scale.  Initially I felt that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was less expertly written than Pollan's books, and frankly the writing style does sometimes veer into a cloying idiosyncracy I'd entitle "down-home, aw-shucks preciousness".  But now I feel more that Kingsolver is simply aiming at a different goal, and a different audience.  Where Pollan is grand-scale and academic, discussing food and agrarian issues with a historical and sociological focus, Kingsolver is more concerned with the concrete and the household scale.  Her book follows her own family's experience with local food, and her intent is to speak to a more general audience about the importance of, and the practical logistics of, eating local, real, healthy food.  There are recipes, descriptions of everyday agrarian marvels, and explanations of how they got through difficult spells in their commitment to eat only local food.  She, her husband, and her daughter (the book is a team effort) often give technical or sociological explanations of things like genetic engineering or the petroleum energy embodied in the US food supply, but it is at a much more superficial, practical background knowledge level, as opposed to Pollan's intellectual treatises.  For someone like me who is always thinking about food issues, it makes for perhaps less intellectually stimulating reading, but it does give a valuable portrayal of the human face of food issues.  In this respect it is like an artful middle ground between Michael Perry, who is purely personal (with incidental insights into larger issues), and Michael Pollan, who is heavy on impersonal, academic analysis with just a taste of his own experience and human touch.  Kingsolver's book is real and personal, and of course if I or anyone is concerned about food and farming, it is ultimately because we are concerned about people and their well-being.  In this respect Kingsolver gives me a welcome reminder of the reason I'm interested in all this stuff in the first place.

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