Thursday, March 27, 2008


It was heartening to watch the trailer for The Greenhorns, a documentary film about young people in my generation reclaiming control of our country's foodways through their own small farms. I think it's a good thing that at the same time urban agriculture is starting to take hold, another new ruralism is also growing.

I noticed something in watching the trailer, though. These wonderful young people are so strong, so ambitious, so conscientious, and so...white. I think there was one person of color featured among the many in those few minutes.

Maybe it's because I grew up where I did, in a county where African Americans are the majority (example: at the public middle school I attended, out of 806 students total, there are currently 75 white students--my elementary and high schools were a bit more demographically "even" but still not predominately white). So maybe, when other people might take it for granted, I sometimes notice when the "minorities" (a relative term) are absent--from a restaurant, a church, a school, a film or a social movement.

It's difficult for me to weigh in on this topic without feeling like too much of a nice white lady. I don't really feel like it's my job as a white person to go around proclaiming where people of color's interests ought to lie. Something's wrong with that picture. But I feel like something is also wrong with the picture of the new rural America that I'm seeing--where privileged and socially conscious young white folks can move out to a piece of land somewhere and have the resources to start up, and somehow people of color are always thought of as "urban." African Americans and Latinos have their roots in the land as much as whites do, but one issue is that the rural agricultural legacy for many, at least for the past couple of centuries, is intertwined with one of oppression and imposed poverty. It quickly becomes a more complex subject.

I suppose the greater issue at hand is that farming is seen as either a) something people do who can't do anything better or b) something white people can afford to do for fun because they think it's neat. And really those are both huge myths. I think if more people saw farmers as the proud, self-sufficient, hard-working, intelligent and creative people portrayed in films like The Greenhorns, more people--of all races--would view farming as the admirable, respectable, and even desirable line of work that it is.

And I guess there's a limit to what I can do from my position of privilege. I am glad that I notice when people are invisible, but what next? Besides blogging?

Edit: It's not just me. A recent New York Times article on young farmers was found to contain a significant amount of Stuff White People Like.


Monday, March 24, 2008

summer dreams

I can tell other people to "live in the moment" all I want, but it's hard for me to take my own advice sometimes.

We've reached that point in our lives wherein spontaneity has lost its place in favor of planning ahead. Not always. Spontaneity isn't dead. But it's gotten to the point where it doesn't make sense to leave everything to the last minute, nor is it really considerate of the other people in our I've been having to think about the summer a lot.

Today I'm filling out my FAFSA (late). That's something that has to be done months ahead of the fall semester. I haven't picked my fall courses yet, but I have to soon. I'm already registered for my summer class.

And there's so much else going on in the summer...joining the pool, going to the beach, working in the garden, summer chorus, bike riding, not to mention Khymi living with us for an extended period of time, which will involve day camps, swim team, Girl Scout camp, and who knows what else.

Needless to say, my current agenda of writing midterm papers, getting ready for a big conference and waiting for the last frost is kind of lame. It's even too cold to sit on the porch today. My birthday is in May, and usually the weather is beautiful and warm, but it's also inevitably right when everyone's freaking out about finals. Including me.

I can't wait until summer!


Monday, March 17, 2008

seven years

someone in the Small Red House just had a birthday. well, not "just" exactly: a full weekend of gigs kept a certain parent from hitting the blogs for a full two days after the Ides of March this year. and not "in the SRH" exactly either: she's was at her mama's for her actual birthdate this year, so the Small Red House will mark the occasion next weekend. apparently, scallops and linguine are to be on the menu, but the jury's still out on dessert, although her stepmom and i have a sneaking suspicion it'll involve hamantaschen one way or another.

yes indeedy.
seven long years.
seven tall years.
seven gummy, toothy, toothless, and now even a little toothy-again years.
seven years of Snugli and stroller, car seat and booster, streamers and training wheels, playgrounds and farm, sneakers but mostly sandals and "Princess Shoes".
seven years of one cuddly, careworn "jam-jams" after another in endless succession.
seven years with two families through eight houses (or more?) in four states - small wonder she's so fascinated by geography!
seven years of car rides, bike rides, scooter rides, car rides, shoulder rides, wave-riding, car rides, ice skates, metro rides, car rides, strolls, even a flight or two. and lest we forget, car rides.
seven years of laughing, farming, singing (whether or not anyone is listening), doctor-ing, bossing, hugging, de-tangling, chatting. and now reading!
a few (unforgettable) years of diapers, a few years of crawling, many years of steps and runs and leaps, and seven altogether of dancing.
seven years of jamming with dad, cooking with dad, walking with dad, joking with dad, reading with dad (from english to german to english again), tickling with dad, all-around hanging with dad. all that and more with dad, and all the same (I'm sure) and more with mama.

piled together thus, all these parts of speech come in a bunch, as if the past were ready-made. to tell the full story of how this baby became a toddler, became a child and now a girl, would require an ode, which i fear would bore all but myself. (not to mention the impropriety of posting someone else's tale on the public Intarwebz.) suffice it to say, we've all grown a lot in the last seven years. she's done it in the most recognizable ways, but through those remarkable changes, i mark my own growth and that of all those around her. she's taught me a lot about living, and i stagger at the amount in store.

with all that schmaltz, let me say:

happy birthday, khymi, my firstborn daughter. may every seven years be as full of joy, love, and learning as these past. l'chaim and cead mile failte, küçük hanım.


Monday, March 10, 2008

want vs. need

A few hours after my last post, I came across this paragraph in an essay by Wendell Berry:

It is plain to me that the line ought to be drawn without fail wherever it can be drawn easily. And it ought to be easy (though many do not find it so) to refuse to buy what one does not need. If you are already solving your problem with the equipment you have—a pencil, say—why solve it with something more expensive and more damaging? If you don’t have a problem, why pay for a solution? If you love the freedom and elegance of simple tools, why encumber yourself with something complicated?

Berry is discussing technology in general--part of his response as to why he refuses to buy a computer (*cough*), but the same might be applied to our technologically-affected food. For some, the line may be drawn at not eating animals at all, affirming that one doesn't need meat to thrive anyway, so why go through something that is morally troubling? I suppose what I meant as a result is that the introduction of another complicated set of products might not really solve anything, either.

What jumped out at me the most was the sentence, "And it ought to be easy (though many do not find it so) to refuse to buy what one does not need." No, many do not find it so easy not to buy things. It actually seems to be really difficult for most people. This article in the Post last week was the first high-profile (albeit unnecessarily snarky) statement that finally brought some attention to the real bottom line: "green consumption" is a contradiction. Maybe we could call it "greener consumption," in the way that some folks prefer to make a distinction between "safe sex" and "safer sex".

My mom has been working for the last few months on the concept of "green fashion," and everyone who's interviewed her is interested, first and foremost, on what to buy. No one wants to hear that we've got a ton of surplus clothes in this country and the "greenest" place to get clothes is the thrift store, a yard sale, or your friend's closet. The "greenest" wedding is the one in which you don't replace all your mismatched (but perfectly functional) dishes, sheets and towels with new, coordinating ones from your registry just because you can. No one wants to hear that it might be a good idea to look for timeless "investment" clothing that will last you for the next twenty years--want it to last longer? Learn to mend clothes instead of throwing them away when they're worn. In many ways, "green fashion" is also an oxymoron, because fashion is, sometimes by its very definition, ever-changing, temporary and disposable.

It will take quite a cultural paradigm shift for people to really only buy what they need. Look around and you'll see we're not even close.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

food: where to draw the line?

I got a little turned around in circles when I read this post (and subsequent comment thread) over at The Good Human, one of the enviro-blogs I like to read (I have a feeling we'll have to start categorizing our blogroll soon, but later for that).

I was a vegetarian (no meat, including fish) for five years, which is kind of a long time considering that's about a fifth of my total time on this planet. The reasons I would give for my decision changed over time: at first, it was because I felt uneasy about eating animals in general, and later, it more because I felt guilty eating an animal I knew I could not bring myself to personally kill if given the chance. During this time, I ate my fair share of meat substitutes, from Boca Burgers to seitan to veggie sausage and bacon to Quorn. I felt much better knowing that no animals died in the process of making this food.

In retrospect, though, I realized that what made me feel strange about being a meat-eater was not necessarily the meat itself, but my significant removal from its production. The mystery of the meat industry was enough to make me think that I was better off just not eating it at all. But after I had thought about it, the contents of those veggie alternatives were just as mysterious. Sure, no dead animals. But what is all that stuff?

Let's take one of my favorites, Morningstar Farms Veggie Sausage Patties. I loved these things. They contain no fewer than 36 ingredients:


Does anyone know what most of these things are? I don't. But I'll bet you most of it is made from a) corn or b) soy. Two crops that have taken over America's midwestern landscape on an unbelievable scale. We rode from Charleston, WV to Portland, OR on the train this past summer and those two crops are pretty much all we saw from our window anytime we'd go through a farming area. And when you come right down to it, the oil-based monoculture that keeps the corn industry booming isn't so eco- (or animal-) friendly, either.

Another problem with my time as a vegetarian was that I spent more of my money and my diet on these fake meats than was really necessary. One can technically be a vegetarian and still get by eating very few actual vegetables. Even apart from the processed soy products (which tend to be on the pricey side), as a college student, I could eat pasta or ramen noodles, and even though I wasn't eating meat, I wasn't exactly being healthy. I was consuming artificially cheap, government-subsidized "food" one way or the other. And I sure as hell wasn't supporting small business (guess who owns wacky ol' "alternative" veggie brand Morningstar Farms? Oh, just a little billion-dollar operation by the name of Kellogg).

I guess my point here is that meat is a red herring (as it were). Sure, the meat industry is pretty scary, and not eating meat ensures that you won't be taking part. But avoiding meat doesn't mean you're avoiding the disadvantages of industrialized food. As we all saw in 2006, you can just as easily get E. coli from organic spinach as from ground beef.

Jacob's parents have a subsistence farm in rural West Virginia. Besides a large vegetable garden, berry bushes and fruit trees, they raise chickens for meat and eggs, and my father- and brother-in-law hunt deer in the fall. The chickens live happy lives, eating a combination of feed grain and ground vegetation, and the deer...well, the deer are wild, and that's about as free-range as you can get. With virtually no natural predators, they are prone to overpopulation. As an indirect result, about 15,000 deer are hit by cars every year in West Virginia. Given that, which is better--a rotting deer carcass on the side of the road (that may have also just totaled someone's car), or a source of lean and nutritious meat, wild-roaming from the day it was born, free of antibiotics, pesticides and contaminants?

This doesn't mean I'm enthusiastic about hanging around at their place when butchering is going on. I'm still pretty squeamish about these things. But it does mean I have an appreciation for what goes into that chicken and deer meat, and I have the same appreciation for the small-scale farmers who sell the meat at the farmers' market. It is more expensive, but I am willing to pay them fairly for their work when I can. We consider it a treat in our house. Most days we are just as happy to eat a real vegetarian diet--whole beans, eggs, some tofu, lots of vegetables and whole grains. We're not purists, but we'd like to be at the point where heavily processed food of any kind (meat or veggie) is the exception, not the rule.


Wednesday, March 5, 2008



Sunday, March 2, 2008

waiting for spring


i read a book

I like to start books. I don't like to finish them. It's because I'm not so great at managing time, because I'm not a quick reader, and because a lot of my reading time is usually devoted to textbooks (which take even longer to read than regular ones).

But the other day I finished a book:

Jacob has been dutifully working his way through Michael Pollan's entire catalogue, but all I'd read were some of Pollan's articles for the New York Times. This book is an entertaining read, and it incorporates some of the material from the NYT articles and from Pollan's past books to support his argument that our culture's obsession with nutrition is what is really keeping us from being healthy.

By breaking foods down into nutrients, Pollan says, we value only those tiny and poorly-understood pieces instead of the food itself. It's not yogurt that's good for you; it's calcium. It's not carrots that are good for you, it's beta-carotene. So go ahead and isolate some calcium and some beta-carotene and put it in Gatorade and you'll be fine. Or something. The point, though, is that humans as a species had a generally healthy diet, and their eating habits generally didn't kill them, up until the past century or so when we decided to start messing with food and trying to synthesize it. And there was really nothing wrong with that yogurt or that carrot in the first place.

I've always thought I had a decent diet, but it wasn't until recently that I started paying more attention to what other people eat and what is really available to us as consumers. Most recently I didn't bring enough for lunch one day at school, and I decided to go look in the vending machine. Out of all the edible food-like items in the machine, I found one thing (trail mix) that wasn't mostly processed corn and soy in one form or another. I was pretty surprised that I had never noticed before. This book explains why it is that what's most available is all corn and soy, and why that's not so great.

If you eat, and you live in the United States (or Canada, or any of the countries rapidly assuming our food habits), you might want to check out In Defense of Food.

If you don't have time, you could just watch this interview with Michael Pollan from the CBC show The Hour. It sums up the general message pretty well.