Local living

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100 mile diet: a year of local eating. Toronto (ON): Vintage Canada Edition. p. 149-252.

Going through the motions. A cardinal sin in my mind. The last half of the 100 mile diet, starts to do this. Instead of it being about Alisa and James’ relationship with the food and the community, it becomes about their relationship.

In particular I didn’t like the end of the October chapter. I really can’t figure out why Alisa would talk about her relationship so negatively in this book (p. 168). Why would you want to air your dirty laundry like that for everybody? I’m sure there is a reason that I am overlooking otherwise it would not have been published. Was it to symbolize the dreariness they felt at that time of year? I do not know, but I didn’t appreciate it.

After reading the first half of the book, many of the people in our class talked about how they disliked James and liked Alisa. I feel the opposite about the situation. I understand that Alisa’s sections made the book more of a complete story (which we love) and she put the book into the context of their lives. However, sometimes she went too far, and it took away from the message of their story and focused too much on her life. For example on page 201 when Alisa is visiting her grandmother. She talks about how they un-enthusiastically watch Seinfeld and her grandmother asks her to take her to Wal-Mart to buy a lamp. It’s not that I don’t love a good story. However, other than this diet, Alisa’s life is fairly plain and it’s not why I was excited to read this book.

The authors do manage to bring up some good points in the latter half of the book though. One of the quotes I do like from Alisa was, “Despite eating more than ever before, our culture may be the only one in human history to value food so little…Among the traditional cultures of the Pacific Northwest, a ‘poor’ person was someone who never troubled to catch his own salmon, but was instead content to eat food produced by others. By measures like these we are nearly all poor.” (p. 160-161) Relating back to the local meal we had with our class, people were buzzing with pride over their food. Every dish had ingredients we could trace back to the places and faces where we found them. Many of the dishes were relatively simple dishes and would not be considered fancy by any stretch of the word. However, the food had some of the fullest flavours I have tasted in quite some time.

My generation has grown up in a time of abundance. We have experienced no great war, famine or natural disaster that has effected shaken the foundation of our daily life. Due to this, we have taken food and water for granted. We have confidence that it will be there tomorrow, and we often have the luxury to choose what we will have. But we don’t see it as a luxury. Our human nature has made it an expectation.

I think back to my Grandma when confronted with this thought. She was a woman who lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression. A Christian woman, The Lord’s Prayer is no doubt something she had said numerous times. “Give us this day our daily bread” it says. There must have been times in her life that she was unimaginably grateful for bread. Bread. Something anyone can cheaply buy right now was a saving grace. That’s so powerful to me. That time just wasn’t all that far away.

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Meet Joel Salatin, Ecologist and Farmer

Pollan M. 2007. Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals. New York (NY): Penguin Publishing.  p. 185- 273.

I was introduced to a new idea today. The grass farmer. At first mention I thought the grass farmer meant that they were growing grass to sell as sod. I was confused. I thought, “Where are you taking us here Pollan?” However, I was sorely mistaken. Grass farming is much more than growing grass. It’s using the grass to grow chickens, pigs, cows and any other animal you want. It’s also using these animals to grow the grass as well. A true symbiosis.

I like the name grass farming. It puts the emphasis on the primary producers as the star of the ranch. Without the grass the farm wouldn’t succeed, and therefore, the cattle ranch wouldn’t either (or any other animal you were trying to raise for that matter). “Grass farmers grow animals-for meat, eggs, milk, and wool-but regard them part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat” (p. 188). When I first started reading this chapter, I got a little excited about this flip-flop view of grass farming and tried to explain the concept to my girlfriend. As I read on, I found this quote to be the most eloquent and succinct way to explain it.

Joel Salatin goes even further. He says, “To be even more accurate, we should call ourselves sun farmers” (p. 188). I like this name as well. It brings images to mind about grasses acting being solar panels. Joel even goes on to refer the grass blades as photovoltaic panels (p. 189). However, after reading this chapter, I think the most accurate definition is ecosystem farmer or even ecosystem manager. This is because the complexity of Joel’s farm is much more than growing grass to feed the animals. At Joel’s farm each animal has a specific role or niche. The grasses job is obviously to grow. But for the grass to grow it also requires the animals and timing. The philosophy is based on the treatise Grass Productivity. The author, André Voisin, found that by applying grazing cattle at the right time the productivity of the pasture increased enormously (p. 188). This is because grass growth is sigmoidal. After grass is grazed, its growth is slow quite slow. However, after it recovers from the trauma of grazing it goes through the “blaze of growth” until about day 14. At day 14 the grass begins to turn woody and is less edible for the cow. So by allowing the cows to eat the grass on day 14, maximum efficiency is achieved, (p. 189) or as Joel calls it, “the optimal grazing rhythm” (p. 191). Joel keeps this rhythm by containing his cattle in portable electric fences, which he moves daily. The cow helps the grass too. The cow spreads and fertilizes the seeds with their manure and their hooves create pockets where water will collect, allowing ideal conditions for seed germination (p. 193).

This system also has another key player, chickens. Joel uses takes the chickens to areas that have been grazed by the cattle 3 days previously. The chickens will feed on the insects that are following the manure as well as the insect larvae and parasites in the manure (p. 211). This provides free food for the chickens, keeps insects at the farm down and disinfects the manure as well. These type of systems Joel calls holons. Using these animals, plants and microbes together at densities below the standard, but growing multiple crops simultaneously allows you to increase the lands overall efficiency. The example Pollan shows is the turkey and grape holon. Joel uses the turkeys in his grape orchard but fills them both to 70 percent the regular standard. The turkeys eat bugs, mow the grass and fertilize the trees (p. 216). By raising these two crops on the same land at 70 percent, in essence you’re getting 140 % efficiency (p. 217).

Joel also uses a huge forest (about 450 acres) which he allows to grow on the north facing slope. By doing this her reduces evaporation in the fields, has an ideal habitat for his pigs and of course grows wood which he uses for fires and compost. It also helps control predators and insects. The forest offers a wide range of biodiversity, so the birds eat the insects and the predators eat other animals in the woods making them less inclined to venture into the pasture to prey on the cattle (p. 224). “By any conventional accounting, the forests here represented a waste of land that could be put to productive use. But if Joel were to cut down the trees to graze more cattle, as any conventional accounting would recommend, the system would no longer be quite as whole or healthy as it is” (p. 224-225).

What really impressed me about Joel is the amount of ecological knowledge he had. He understands that his farm is a part of nature, and is therefore subject to nature’s rules. He knows that every action he takes has a reaction that sometimes can’t be predicted. Just like ecosystems, taking out one piece of the farm can drastically alter the productivity. Joel (with the help of his father) has literally created, and is successfully managing, an ecosystem. The amount of knowledge it takes to do that is truly amazing. By embracing biodiversity and complexity, Joel has created a sustainable, organic that (from what Pollan describes) as an extraordinary product that he can sell to his community. It truly is admirable. A quote that I loved was “the food chain at work in this pasture could not be any shorter or simpler. Especially when I compared it to the food chain passing through the feedlot, with its transcontinental tentacles reaching all the way back to cornfields in Iowa, from there to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico and farter still, to the oil fields in the Persian Gulf that supplied much of the energy to grow the corn” (p. 195). By making a complex system he had made the food web on his farm shorter. By making industrial farming simpler, the effects became farther reaching and more complex. Joel Salatin has made complexity equal simple.

The big idea in this piece is that sustainable and organic farming is possible. However, doing so requires changing our current paradigms about agriculture. To do this we need to be managing systems and not simply growing crops. Unfortunately, the government will be unwilling to help this type of movement as works directly against industry (p. 221). In order to change this system we must take individual responsibility and become conscientious consumers. “An alternative food system is rising up on the margins… It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen” (p. 261).

Drugs and society: higher thinking on why we get high

Pollan, M. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p. 113-179.

Drugs are, and have been a part of culture for centuries (p. 139). Yet with this desire to alter consciousness has come with a social taboo (p. 140). This taboo has inhibited modern western society from having many conversations about what drugs are doing and why we actually do them. In the chapter Intoxication, Pollan attempts to explore these very questions, leading us down an interesting path.

One part I didn’t like about this chapter was the end. I got quite bored and had to ask myself many times, “How high was this guy when he was writing this?”. Pollan gets very abstract and seems to be documenting his own experience with the drug. Generally, Pollan likes to personalize his stories by using other people. Perhaps this was an attempt to personalize the experience to the reader and because altering consciousness is such a personal experience in itself, he had no other way to do this. Unfortunately, I did not connect with this.

Pollan spends a portion of the chapter talking about the war on drugs in America. As Pollan mentions, America jailed absurdly high numbers of people, many for only being involved in marijuana (p. 126). This war on drugs forced the marijuana farmers inside. This move changed the way marijuana was grown and allowed many of the variables to be controlled. “To succeed in North Amierca, cannabis had to do two things: it had to prove it could gratify a human desire so brilliantly that people would take extraordinary risks to cultivate it, and it had to find the right combination of genes to adapt to a most peculiar and thoroughly artificial new environment” (p. 130) I found this quote very powerful, and it was relatable to the introduction of this book where Pollan construes the lines between natural and artificial selection.

Clearly, artificial selection has taken place as cannabis plants are much more potent now than before the war on drugs. By moving these plants indoors and changing the growing conditions, it has produced numerous changes in the plant. The species Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica created hybrids with great vigor and allowed the plant to grow in higher latitudes and have higher THC content (p. 132). The artificial conditions created indoor also allowed growers to manipulate the reproduction and morphology of the plants. By using metal halide lights for 24 hours a day, and then abruptly switching to sodium lights for 12 hours a day, plants would cause blooms from very young plants (p. 135). “I don’t think I’ve ever seen plants that looked more enthusiastic, despite the fact that [the marijuana plants] were being forced to grow in an utterly unnatural [environment]… ‘Happy to oblige!’ the marijuana plants seemed to say (p. 137)”. While reading this, I saw similarities between the Control chapter of this book.

The other question that hasn’t been answered yet is why people would risk so much for a plant? The almighty dollar is one possibility. However, Pollan takes a different angle. He believes humans have an inherent drive to get high, the way by getting high seems secondary (p. 139). Pollan uses examples such as children choking one another, meditation and psychoactives as examples. Much of the rest of the chapter exploring why we have this inherent drive to alter our consciousness. The conclusion that he comes to is that we want to alter our consciousness to escape from the trials of daily life by immersing us in the present moment. Personally, I’m not convinced. I agree with his point that it is a fallacy to assume every behaviour has an evolutionary advantage (p. 141). As many biologists know, if a behaviour does not lead to a change in offspring produced, the behaviour will not be selected for or against. Humans (or animals) may use the drugs infrequently enough, that it does not produce a significant evolutionary loss. In today’s society, even frequent drug users still have kids. One must also take into consideration that we may still be in the process of evolving to psychoactives. The desire to get high may just be the product of us tricking our brain’s reward system (p. 141).

The end of the chapter takes quite a different turn. Pollan talks about how psychoactives work from a biochemical perspective. I really liked this section as it asked many questions I have myself. Why do drugs bring us into a world that we are often unable to access? Unfortunately, we don’t yet have these answers. We understand so little about consciousness from a scientific perspective that we really can’t answer why our consciousness is altered (p. 158).

One thought that I had while reading the end of this chapter is why we believe that a plant has the answers to life, god and the universe. For a long time humans used drugs in spiritual ceremonies, and everyone knows someone who had a “life changing” experience from drugs. I am not trying to belittle this experience as I’m sure it was. But why do we take these experiences as real? Drugs are most often the secondary metabolites of plants that have evolved some advantage to the plant (usually defense). The plant does not produce these compounds for our enjoyment as Mechoulam says (p. 156). So why do people believe that divine spirits lie within a molecule. As stated earlier we know very little about the biochemistry of consciousness. What stores a memory? What allows us to have abstract thought? Is it a molecule? A cell? The electricity produced by the brain? I have suspicions that like the discovery of the relatively simple structure of DNA (compared to proteins) holding our genetic information, what holds memory and thought will be something simple and overlooked. If a molecule or a cell can hold memory, it becomes more likely that plants may be able to store thoughts, memories etc. But wouldn’t that make them artificial? And if they were able to give us thoughts and memories, is this manipulation an advantage to the plant?

When we start to question why we have an innate desire to alter consciousness it becomes convoluted quite quickly. It is a fair assumption to assume that our level of consciousness while we’re sober is our optimal state to stay alive. So why is stepping out of that state so appealing? Is it an advantage to us? Is daily life in all cultures so hard that we must escape? Or do we do it to get the chemical reward without any of the work? My guess is the latter.