Going Rugged in the Green Mountain State

Posted on 23 March 2011 | No responses

Damien and I have on the whole been loving our time in Vermont.  Great state, great people, breath-taking scenery.  A general and refreshing absence of strip malls, traffic, chain restaurants and grey cityscapes.  A long, cold winter…but all the winter sports and activities you can think of to help it fly by.  In fact, our biggest regret so far is our steep, poorly paved driveway; which looked short enough when we signed our lease in sunny September but, it turns out, is agonizingly long.  I mean, 10 plus hours of shoveling that monster per week.  Yup.  Learned our lesson there.

The big “spring” storm we had a few weeks ago—and associated 5 hours of shoveling—had me hobbling around like a 70 year old.  The plows couldn’t even get up to our street to clear it for almost two days afterwards, for fear of getting stuck on the hill (yes, another one—it is after all the green mountain state!).  On more than one occasion this winter I’ve considered how grueling it must have been to live in this environment as a Native American or a European homesteader, back in the day.  It was even colder back then—for instance, in the 1830s they slid granite blocks from the neighboring town down the frozen Winooski River while constructing the state capitol in Montpelier.  How these confoundedly mountainous, rocky and frequently frozen surroundings ever seemed hospitable to people is a great mystery.  I guess we can chalk it up to testosterone, politics and that indomitable human taste for adventure?

In any case, I recently came across a great description of life in the early homesteading years, just after the Revolutionary War.  The 1989 Vermont Historic Preservation Plan entitled Our Cultural Heritage (written by the State of Vermont) aptly summarizes the situation, thus: “The main concern of Vermont’s pioneer settlers was basic survival, and the early years of settlement were spent clearing land and ensuring that the family was provided with the basics of shelter, food and clothing.  As land clearance took several years, the initial crops of corn and wheat were often planted around the stumps of felled trees.  Eventually the stumps were removed to the edges of fields and placed in a tight line to form fencing.  This served the dual purpose of keeping the livestock from wandering and marking the farm’s boundaries.  In addition to the raising of foodstuffs, another primary concern of the early settler was the provision of shelter, for both family and livestock.  A family’s first house was typically a crude cabin built of logs, and the livestock were housed together in a single shed or barn, also built of logs.  It was not until a community grew large enough to support a sawmill that sawn lumber was available for building and the early log structures were replaced with more permanent houses and barns.”

The massive scale of these clearing operations is evidenced by the fact that until the early years of the 19th century, Vermont’s primary cash crop was potash, or processed tree ashes.  The ashes were stored in small masonry structures, or ash houses, and used to make soap, gunpowder and bleach.  By 1800, the clearing of land and associated mass tree burnings had slowed as the newly improved fields began producing wheat, Vermont’s new cash crop.  Other crops raised during this period included “flax for clothing, hay, oats, barley, rye and buckwheat.  Small kitchen gardens were planted next to the farmhouse to raise foodstuffs such as peas, cabbage, beans, turnips, beets, pumpkins, carrots and potatoes, all of which were typically stored in the house cellar, or separate root cellar.  Apple trees, ranging from a single planting to whole orchards, were a common feature on the early farms.  Other fruits such as berries, pears, grapes and plums were raised on some farms, though with less success as apples not only thrived in Vermont’s climate but they were also the easiest fruit to ship long distances.”

Hooray for apples!  I am happy to report that they continue to play a central role in Vermont life.  And so many delightful apple products!  Apple butter, apple sauce, apple pie, apple cider, apple cider donuts…mmm.  Really, Vermont’s not so bad these days.

Why America Loves Her Meat

Posted on 17 March 2011 | No responses

Why is it that Americans are so bloodthirsty?  Does it date back to our days of taming the wild frontier, or the residual dreams of meat and potatoes brought over from Europe?  Is it just another expression and celebration of our own wealth, since meat is so difficult (resource-draining, labor-intensive) to produce?  Whatever its source, in today’s racing, commodity-crazed fast food nation (to borrow Eric Schlosser’s term), the widespread availability and consumption of meat appears symptomatic of a certain cultural ailment.  The quality and origins of most of the meat consumed by Americans are murky, at best.  Yet the most quintessential American pastime is still grabbing a dog at the baseball stadium or sinking your teeth into a hamburger.  Will there ever be a day when ripping into a roasted veggie wrap will boast the same, distinctive aura of Americana?  Although most of California may think otherwise, the prospect does not look good.

I just read an interesting opinion piece on pets versus animals in the New York Times (check it out! “Some Animals are more Equal than Others“).  The (at times, enraged) author clarifies the unjust, perceived differences and distinctions between an animal and a pet, but also brings up some excellent points about the American meat industry in general.  For example:

—Nearly 10 billion animals are “processed” (i.e. killed and packaged) in America each year.  This accounts for approximately one sixth of the world’s total.

—“Common”, i.e. currently legal, practices in the agricultural industry include: keeping poultry in spaces so small they can never open their wings; sending baby male chicks through grinders to dispose of them; castrating millions of calves and piglets without anesthesia; depriving sick animals of individual veterinary care and then breeding them; keeping livestock in grossly unsanitary conditions; and killing off animals en masse to stem the disease outbreaks that inevitably arise in these conditions.

All animals kill (either plants or other animals) and survival of the fittest, blah-blah-blah.  But don’t we carefully weed and water our gardens to make sure we get the best vegetables we can?  And until a few hundred years ago, didn’t the animals we eat either run free in the forest or plains until the day they died or roam happily in the fields, either with or without a shepherd to tend them?  Even the vegetable industry provides as much sun, protection and stimulation to plants as it can.  If animals stood stock still like they had roots, only drank water and didn’t make any noise, would they get more respect?  Ironically, we invest a lot more than that in each animal—in food, time, space and resources—and yet we can’t even afford them the courtesy of a tomato plant.

Yikes; that’s bleak.  Pet pig, anyone?

Jolie

 

 

 

 

The latest from Rides in Rock Creek Park

Posted on 16 March 2011 | No responses

I know, I know.  You thought I was living in Vermont now!  And I am.  But this is an old draft post that I never published and thought I should…now that my days in Rock Creek Park are done, for the moment.

There’s always something new to “enjoy” on the bike ride home from the office.  Unlike the pungent, sewer-like odor of Rock Creek Park that comes and goes, or the clouds of insects at dusk, I tend to find the greatest enjoyment in the more unique moments that may last only a flash and come without warning, but stick in my memory.  Here are a few…

–A picnic table full of teenagers smoking pot; as I coasted past, I felt like I was biking through a cloud.

–A shaggy, over-heated retriever basking blissfully in the shallow border of Rock Creek, on one of the hotter days this summer.  Poor guy!  I’d hate to have to choose between stifling heat and raw sewage.

–A fire!  Passing through the park south of Connecticut Avenue last winter, I came upon a fire truck pulled up onto the park lawn and giant clouds of smoke—a section of the park woods were on fire.  Yikes!

–A man with—I swear!!—a giant fake beard. Like, the color of the beard was entirely different from that of his hair (think an African American man with a bright red beard…what’s wrong with this picture?), and it was enormous. About a quarter mile further on, I passed a man dressed in business attire that seemed a little out of place on him—the pants were too long, the tie was askant—and a bundle of clothes stuffed under one arm, waiting to cross the road and walk up one of the automobile ramps to downtown. Skeeeetchy…

Change

Posted on 16 March 2011 | No responses

Wow.  It’s been over a year since I last posted a regular blog post!  That’s embarrassing.  In a way it’s a good thing—just goes to show how much down time I’ve had, in front of the computer—but it still makes me feel guilty.  Sigh.

Anyhow, on to brighter things: there have been some BIG changes lately.  One, my boyfriend (now fiance!) and I moved to Vermont.  Yay!  So great to be back in New England again.  Second, I left my job with the National Park Service (rather sad) but now I’m doing some landscape history work for the State of Vermont, which has been fun.  I’m also doing a neat second job developing web content for a new website that will connect farmers and other local food producers, processors, distributors, etc. with restaurants and customers.  Hooray, EAT LOCAL!  Third, I decided I wasn’t quite nerdy enough, and applied for PhD programs in anthropology.  This coming fall (2011) I’ll be starting at McGill!  Eek!  Crazy.  Wild.  Totally dorky.  But I’m psyched about the big move to Montreal, speaking French, stuffing my face with crepes, venison and poutine, and all that good stuff.  The decision to go to Montreal was a difficult one; there were two Massachusetts options in the mix, both excellent, and given the number of unknowns that Canada holds (particularly for my fiance’s job) it was an agonizing decision.  BUT we’re both totally pumped about launching into this new stage in our lives.  Yay!  A few funny little issues that arose, when we were considering Canada:

1.  Does Canada have Netflix?  This question just dawned upon me last night—when I’d already notified them of my acceptance—and it very nearly brought tears to my eyes.  I’m pretty sure they don’t…but the boy assured me that we could always just downgrade to their streaming option and I probably won’t have time to watch any movies as a PhD candidate, anyways.  Excellent point.

2.  Can we bring our dog back and forth over the border for, say, Christmas vacations and hiking trips?  We had to look this one up, and it turns out we can (thank goodness).  We just have to make sure she has a special certificate of good health/rabies vaccination from the vet and we’re not allowed to bring any dog food with us, either way.  Weird…makes me think there’s something bizarre going on with dog food regulation on either one or the other side of the border (ahem, why do I feel like the U.S. is suspect, here?).

3.  Can I use my cell phone there?  As far as I have been able to tell, I think we can use our Verizon plans in Canada…at least, we can call there without incurring an extra charge.  But we might have to switch to a special Canadian plan.  Still have to look into this one.

4.  Do I need a new wardrobe?  I’ll have to keep you posted on this one.  But it would appear that I might have to do 2 things: a) upgrade a  bit from my daily, uber-casual Vermont wear (think fleece, wool socks, and sweat pants); and b) finally cave and get me one of those full-length down jackets and a pair of heavy-duty winter boots (sorels?).  Yikes.

5.  Will we be able to buy a house in Quebec?  I’ll have to keep you posted on this one.  But it was a question that arose, since it’s something we had hoped to do in the next 5 years of our lives.  As with so many other things with moving to Canada, this promises to be complicated…

O, Canada!  Watch out.  Here we come!

A Sense of Place in DC

Posted on 5 February 2010 | No responses

I recently saw—and thoroughly enjoyed—the 2007 film, Talk to Me, by Kasi Lemmons.  The movie pleasantly surprised me with its drama, wit, and cool-handed insight; but most of all it shared a sympathy and understanding of Washington, DC that I had never seen before.

Despite the fact that I’ve lived here for over two years now, I’d be hard-pressed to describe the “character” of DC.  For many of the other cities where I have lived, this has been a fairly straight-forward process.  Boston is quaint, salty and historic; New York is huge, bustling and business-like; Chicago is cultured yet gritty; San Francisco is vibrant and culturally unfettered; and Honolulu takes laid-back to a whole new level.  But DC, with its myriad monuments and endless parade of politicians, somehow doesn’t slip into a set category or lend itself to any particular two or three adjectives the way other places do.  Both culturally and economically, it has undergone tremendous change over the past 20 years, even as it has continued to rock and tumble with the regular spasm of political change. 

Since the 1960s the rapid development of downtown and the gentrification of a succession of neighborhoods has gradually transformed the capital.  In many cases, lofty expectations for the improvement of the city led developers to tear down some of the city’s most beautiful historic buildings, literally dismantling its character brick by brick, or board by board.  As a result, most of today’s downtown is an architectural mishmash whose streets could as easily be described as “anywhere, urban America.”  Even the supposedly ethnic neighborhood of Chinatown is disappointing: a giant arch and five or six chinese restaurants nested among a spread of chain stores and restaurants whose names have been written in Chinese.  But when high prices were being offered in this downtown neighborhood, it was difficult for this area’s former residents to stay put.  The result is a largely rootless cultural landscape, with few old-time businesses and only a few historic buildings.  In today’s DC, people come and go depending on who’s in office and personal ambition; and the turnover is so constant and unbroken that actually meeting a “DC native” is almost worthy of an autograph.

When I first arrived here, I’m rather ashamed to admit, I couldn’t have picked out the Washington Monument from the Jefferson Memorial (though—not to worry—I COULD distinguish the Capitol from the Pentagon, in a line up).  I laughed at names like Foggy Bottom and Farragut, and got hopelessly lost one day when I confused 1st St. NW with 1st St. NE (silly bumpkin).  I had visited the nation’s capital only once, around the age of ten.  It was on a family roadtrip to visit relatives in Virginia, and for good measure we swung through DC on the way by.  I don’t even remember what we saw or where we went; all I have is a single, vague memory of walking on the Mall.  My ignorance of DC could perhaps be called un-American; but somehow the glory of national monuments and political pomp never captured my imagination the way it does for many others—Americans and foreigners alike.  On some level, I think I took for granted our politics and system of government—unique and remarkable as they are—and took my under-appreciated American-born wings of liberty and used them to sail off into the sunset (across the country or overseas, usually), rather than pay homage to their founders.  

It is DC’s very glory, however, and its constant preoccupation with being in the national and international spotlights, that lie at the root of its identity crisis.  Living here today, I find myself drawing a blank when it comes to understanding this iconic town as a city and a community.  Like the storied tug-of-war between federal and city officials that has always characterized its governance, the “real” DC of mostly African American residents is consistently cast in contrast to the more transient populations of the city’s northwest quadrant.  As a card-carrying member of the latter group—right down to the northwest part—I have throughout my time here struggled to understand and identify with the rest of the city’s population (see posts on Service Day and Anacostia, from May and April 2009).  Bridging this gap is a monumental task, from a cultural as well as an economic standpoint; and perhaps one of its biggest challenges is that defining community is nearly impossible in an environment of transient residents.  Still, seeking to understand this issue and the underlying divide goes a long way to explaining why DC seems to lack character.  

Another reason why it is difficult to find a sense of place in DC is its sprawling nature, both in geographic and self-defining terms.  A classic example is provided by a website that my sister recently forwarded to me: tastingtable.com/dc.  The website, a self-described “food culture daily” that sends members daily food and restaurant related emails, recently broke onto the DC scene and at first sparked my interest.  However, when I clicked on what looked like a mouth-watering brunch recommendation, it turned out to be about a restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Sigh.  True, as my boyfriend was quick to point out, our house in northwest is only a short drive from Silver Spring.  And certainly other cities frequently become more “metropolitan areas” rather than insular cities, per se.  Yet, as I kept thinking about it I increasingly realized that the reason this annoyed me in this case, particularly, was because it happens all the timein DC.  Looking for an Asian-food store?  Oh, yeah—there’s a great one!  Out by Seven Corners in Falls Church, Virginia.  How about a fabric store, or some place that sells a variety of arts and crafts supplies (i.e. not Staples)?  The nearest one I’ve found is in Rockville, Maryland—a couple light-strewn miles down the dreary 3-lane road known as the Rockville Turnpike.  Perhaps the worst part about the whole thing is that when you look these places up on Google or Mapquest, getting there looks like a breeze (1.5 miles?  No problem!); but a series of painful learn-by-experience incidents have taught me that any DC time estimate given to you by a mapping website is at least 15 minutes shy of what your real travel time will be.  Mostly this is because anywhere you go in DC, there’s always a crapload of traffic.  But please excuse me—in my approach to bitterness I stray from the topic at hand…

When the definition of a nation is determined so much by unique qualities in culture and character, it seems strange to say that our own nation’s capital, or what is meant to be its crown jewel, has no true character.  Yet, at the end of the day, this argument is not a difficult one to make.

The character I wish DC would embrace, the spirit that has always been there but is constantly being swept under the rug or—literally—relegated to the outskirts, is the character I saw and recognized in Talk to Me.  As all movies do, this feature both dramatizes and romanticizes the culture and spirit of DC in order to make it more easily understood; yet in it I also recognized many familiar aspects of the city where I live.  I wish there were more of that spirit coming out from under the rug and into the middle of the parlor—onto the Mall.  Rather than the hopes, dreams and ambitions that permeate politics, a firm grounding in reality could do a lot for DC.  On the other hand, maybe a democratic nation’s capital—a city of politics, politicians and their entourages—is not meant for unity or homey character.  Without a sense of place to anchor it, DC can be a comfortable home to anyone…for a few years, at least!

The Lincoln Memorial, Memorial Bridge, and Washington Monument view from Virginia

Updated Emsite!

Posted on 29 January 2010 | No responses

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I recommend checking out my website if you haven’t in a while!  I recently updated it to include some new features, including details on this summer’s archaeological field school in the Marquesas and an entirely new FRENCH section, which I had been intending to do since I originally started all these website/blogging shenanigans.  Woohoo!  Have a look: www.emilydonaldson.org.  I’d love to hear what you think!

A Doggone Dilemma…

Posted on 27 January 2010 | No responses

For as long as I can remember, I have known that I would someday have my own dog.  One of the old family videos shows the day I came home from the hospital, and who should be first to investigate my plump, flushed little face as my mom brought me out of the car?  No, not my big brother or big sister—but the family dog.  A wiggly, wagging little fox terrier, he wasted little time in poking his long, cool nose excitedly at the new arrival.  I don’t personally remember this event, but have since come to know the video so well that it almost seems like I do!

Not to mention, the absence of this memory is more than compensated for by the wealth of others—recollections from my childhood and youth team with moments spent playing with the dog, snuggling with the dog, harassing the dog, feeding the dog, walking the dog, chasing the dog, and so on.  One of my more vivid recollections involves a certain early-1980s space heater.  I remember little about the space heater itself, aside from the fact that it was black, rectangular, and highly coveted in our sparsely-heated colonial-style New England home.  I clearly recall huddling next to it at age four, zipped snugly into my full-body p.j.s, and being transported straight to heaven on my little rubber-bottomed p.j. feetsies; except for one nagging problem: the dog.  Our stubborn fox terrier—ironically, the same one who had greeted my homecoming with such enthusiasm—was just as determined to be the recipient of that heat as I was.  I used to blow in his ears, tickle his feet, even pull on his legs and tail in an effort to get him to budge.  He growled and I hissed: it was a battle for king of the jungle in the middle of the kitchen floor, primal instincts coming alive as the winter wind howled outside.  And so my love for dogs strangely, but gradually, grew.

With the passing of years my perspective and—luckily!—approach to dogs has naturally become more mature.  In caring for my parents’ dog and, in recent years, taking on various dog-sitting jobs, I have come to appreciate both the joys and the challenges of keeping your own dog.  As my mom likes frequently to point out, having a dog means that you can’t just “pick up and go on vacation” whenever you want, or even spend a full day out on the town with doggie at home all alone.  It also means an added expense—the extent of which varies with the size of the dog—and the daily, bi-daily or even tri-daily responsibility of wandering through the neighborhood with a leash tugging at your hand.  But aren’t those small sacrifices easily worth the joys of the playtime, laughs, and snuggles we garner from these unpredictable little furry friends?  “Of course!” I tell myself.  Of course…

Yet the full-blown responsibility of having a dog—and his plaintive eyes—relying on you day and night is clearly not something to be taken lightly.  For example, there’s no telling when they’ll come galloping in and puke on the rug, or wiggle so excitedly at the sight of Aunt Lydia that they lose total control of their bladder on the new hardwood floors.  Adding a dog to the daily routine, particularly on a temporary dog-sitting basis, has been a fascinating foray into the fickle, tossing waters of dog ownership.  Particularly when you haven’t been the one to train and mold a dog, the unexpected character twists (why is she racing around the house at top speed?) and challenges (how in the WORLD do I get this puppy to pee??) reach new heights.  As I found most recently, working full-time and caring for a dog all by yourself is a bit like what I imagine single-parenting would be like, in its mildest form.  The dog itself is a pleasure, but when the worries and cares of feeding and walking it rest entirely on your shoulders alone, they can easily threaten to overshadow the joys.  Each day I rushed home, worried and wondering how many toys (and other items) the dog had ripped her way through, this time. 

However, I discovered a whole new level of comfort with this responsibility when my boyfriend returned home from being away on a camping trip.  Suddenly our cozy little twosome turned into a threesome, and for the first time I was able to relax enough to realize how much I was enjoying the presence of a dog.  From an objective standpoint, my boyfriend didn’t actually assume many of the tasks involved in caring for the dog; but more than anything it was the relief of having someone to sympathize with and share in these needs, if necessary, that allowed me to relax.  Now there were two of us that could play with the dog, walk the dog, and make sure she was fed on time.  And if I had to stay late at work, there was someone else who could pat her head and take her out for a wee in my absence.

The moral of the story, I have concluded, is that if you truly want to enjoy having your very own doggie, the time to get one is either: a) when you’re not working full-time; or b) when you’re sure you’ve got someone else to share in the responsibility—I mean, joy.  Hehe.  And even then, it’s a lot of hard work…

But I still can’t wait to get a dog!!  

My sister's soft, sweet (and mischievous) greyhound, Bo.

The Curse of Conscientious Shopping

Posted on 18 January 2010 | 1 response

I recently read the book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan.  To say that this book changed my perspective on food would be a gross understatement.  It transformed the way I see the whole American lifestyle; or, to put it more pointedly (and using food industry lingo), it pumped my former suspicions about our food system full of growth hormones and let them loose on the world.  Yikes.

So now what?  Visits to the grocery store have become something bordering on dodgeball: a not-very-fun game where  my beleaguered conscience desperately trys to avoid getting smacked at each step by the reality behind every colorful label or carefully arranged bunch of fresh produce.  A previous devotee of the local farmers market, I have more recently become a full convert, making a concerted effort to buy everything I can from there, rather than the chain grocery store down the street.  But of course, this means spending more money (is there no way to WIN?).  Meanwhile, as winter set in and my cutest of little urban gardens gradually shriveled, I felt a certain gloom descend as the weekly groceries quota helplessly increased.

A part of me itches to just drop everything and make a run for the hills, where a huge garden, chickens and some goats could probably go a long way toward separating me from this nasty, soul-less thing that feeds America (and much of the world): industrial food.  But naturally, this plan may have to be put on hold…at least for now.  🙂

In the meantime, however, and in the interest of sharing some of the perspective I have gained, here are a few excerpts from the book (read on at your own risk, of course; and thank you Mr. Pollan!!):

– First, a case study of ORGANIC POULTRY (or at least what is labeled as such in your average grocery store, including Whole Foods): “Compared to conventional chickens, I was told, these organic birds have it pretty good: They get a few more square inches of living space per bird (though it was hard to see how they could be packed together much more tightly), and because there are no hormones or antibiotics in their feed to accelerate growth, they get to live a few days longer.  Though under the circumstances it’s not clear that a longer life is necessarily a boon.  Running along the length of each shed was a grassy yard maybe fifteen feet wide, not nearly big enough to accomodate all twenty thousand birds inside should the group ever decide to take the air en masse.  Which, truth be told, is the last thing the farm managers want to see happen, since these defenseless, crowded, and genetically identical birds are exquisitely vulnerable to infection.  This is one of the larger ironies of growing organic food in an industrial system: It is even more precarious than a conventional industrial system.  But the federal rules say an organic chicken should have “access to the outdoors,” and Supermarket Pastoral imagines it, so Petaluma Poultry provides the doors and the yard and everyone keeps their fingers crossed.” (Page 172)

– One of the great champions behind the real philosophy that formed the bedrock of the ORGANIC MOVEMENT was Sir Albert Howard.  He called for the remodeling of farms and food production on nature’s own design—a method engineered over millions of years, rather than the century and a half that agriculture has spent manipulating nature to produce higher yields (a process heavily influenced in the last fifty years by the mass production of synthetic fertilizer, which originally came onto the market en masse thanks to an excess of ammonium nitrate—also used in explosives—following WWII).  In this way, as paraphrased by Mr. Pollan: “Each of the biological processes at work in a forest or prairie could have its analog on a farm: Animals could feed on plant wastes as they do in the wild; in turn their wastes could feed the soil; mulches could protect bare soil in the same way leaf litter in the forest does; the compost pile, acting like the lively layer of decomposition beneath the leaf litter, could create humus.  Even the diseases and insects would perform the salutary function they do in nature: to eliminate the weakest plants and animals, which [Howard] predicted would be far fewer in number once the system was operating properly.  Food made from nature’s own handbook is not only healthier for the earth, but it’s healthier for us.” (Page 149)

– One of Pollan’s main themes throughout the book is the bain and the boon of CORN.  He argues—quite convincingly—that over American history corn has staged an all-out attack on our food system, and by now has achieved near total success (trillions of stalks of corn now wave happily over most of middle America).  Unfortunately for us, the reward for this success is a myriad of problems with the food we eat today.  A frighteningly large percentage of what we buy from the grocery store is either mostly or partly comprised of corn.  Perhaps still more frightning, only two companies manipulate the entire corn production system for somewhere around a third of American-grown corn, from start to finish; and they continue to gain ground.  As Pollan explains: “These two companies now guide corn’s path at every step of the way: They provide the pesticide and fertilizer to the farmers; operate most of America’s grain elevators…; broker and ship most of the exports; perform the wet and dry milling; feed the livestock and then slaughter the corn-fattened animals; distill the ethanol; and manufacture the high-fructose corn syrup and the numberless other fractions derived from number 2 field corn.  Oh yes—and help write many of the rules that govern this whole game, for Cargill and ADM exert considerable influence over U.S. agricultural policies.  More even than the farmers who receive checks (and the political blame for cashing them), these companies are the true beneficiaries of the ‘farm’ subsidies that keep the river of cheap corn flowing.  Cargill is the biggest privately held corporation in the world.” (Page 63)  With corn already monopolizing our agricultural system, the emergence of monopolies on the side of agricultural enterprise does not bode well for either farmers or American consumers.

– The primary CASE STUDY Pollan uses to demonstrate what corn has done to America is Iowa.  Once a state of sweeping prairies and diverse plant and animal life, Iowa has over the past century become just another compartment of the breadbasket that feeds America (and, to some extent, the world) with corn.  Only 2 percent of the state’s total land now remains the tall-grass prairie that it once was (Page 38), while despite its natural fertility, Iowa now imports 80 percent of its food.  Meanwhile, its human population has dropped dramatically over the past 75 years (Page 34).

– Perhaps one of the most distressing realizations of the book is that corn is MAKING AMERICA SICK.  Rising levels of both obesity and diabetes in America can be attributed, at least in part, to high fructose corn syrup, which was invented in 1980 to meet a burgeoning corn surplus.  High fructose corn syrup is now the leading source of sweetness in our diet.  In part thanks to this arrangement, the price of a single calorie of sugar (or fat, for that matter) has dropped dramatically since the 1970s.  In a recent study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “researchers found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of potato chips and cookies; spent on a whole food like carrots, the same dollar buys only 250 calories.” (Page 107)  Thanks to capitalism at its best (or worst?), the disconnect between food production and health has become rather shocking.  Although we can feed ourselves for less these days, is it really worth the sacrifice of our bodies?

– A few other fun facts, courtesy of Mr. Pollan:

“Since 1977 an American’s average daily intake of calories has jumped by more than 10 percent.” (Page 102)

“These days 19 percent of American meals are eaten in the car.” (Page 110)

“Three of every five Americans are overweight; one of every five is obese.  The disease formerly known as adult-onset diabetes has had to be renamed Type II diabetes since it now occurs so frequently in children.  A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association predicts that a child born in 2000 has a one-in-three chance of developing diabetes.  (An African American child’s chances are two in five.)” (Page 102)

Despite what you may think, my intention in sharing all this (let’s face it, depressing) information with you is not to make you feel guilty, or to spread the highly infectious, slyly insidious shopper conscience that I myself have developed since reading Pollan’s book.  Rather, I wanted to share a little piece of reality whose clandestine existence I found disturbing, and give you the chance to explore further—if you so choose.  Check out Pollan’s book, or see the film, Food Inc. for a cinematic, summary rendition of it!  It’s worth the curse of conscience.

Michael Pollan’s website: http://www.michaelpollan.com/

Food,  Inc. website: http://www.foodincmovie.com/

 

 

Cows at Codman Community Farms in Lincoln, Massachusetts

Back in the Swing

Posted on 18 January 2010 | No responses

So I think we can all agree—that is me, you, and the other two people reading my blog—that I have been totally delinquent about posting, the past few months…or six.  As my boyfriend recently remarked upon visiting the EmBlog: “Wow.  You really need to update your blog!”  Thank you, dearest, for pointing out the obvious.  You always were so very good at that…

In any case, one of my new years resolutions (2010, woot!) is to become more, err, resolutely devoted to my blog.  At this point, I think posting every day has been ruled out.  So my new goal is going to be posting every WEEK.  And please, please do hold me to this if I don’t keep it up!  Comments, as usual, are welcome—particularly the kind that remind me of how lazy I am.  🙂

With this in mind, I am going to go ahead and write a real post…for the first time in months.  Read on!

Winter in New England

The Swine!

Posted on 22 October 2009 | No responses

Maybe it’s because I come from a family of doctors and never got taken to the doctor’s office for being sick when I was little, but I have a very high degree of skepticism regarding the latest big scare: Swine Flu, or, if you prefer the more glamourous and fantastical science-fiction name, Novel H1N1.

I tend to agree with the attitude presented in an article by CNN back in April, that the most important difference between this flu and the normal one is that it flew (no pun intended) into the media like a frantic magpie and, at least for now, has decided to roost.

As the CNN article points out (visit it at: http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/04/28/regular.flu/index.html), the regular flu (for which there is a vaccine) kills around 36,000 Americans each year. That certainly puts the hundreds thus far killed by swine flu into perspective! And makes the following alarmist article from Fox News (put out the same month) look plain silly: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,518196,00.html.

According to a recent check of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, there were 43,771 reported cases of swine flu in the U.S. between April 15 and July 24, 2009 (when they stopped tracking individual cases); 302 of those cases resulted in death (see the report at: http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/surveillanceqa.htm). That means the death rate for that period was roughly 0.7 percent. The CDC also reports that anywhere from 5-20 percent of the U.S. population (about 15.4 to 61.6 million people) gets the seasonal flu each year. Of these cases, an average of 360,000 result in death, thereby accounting for a death rate of anywhere from 0.6 to 2.3 percent.

So what’s all the fuss about? It seems to me that swine flu is just another seasonal flu, only this time it has a scary name. And if it gives me a full week off from work, bring it on! Just please stop killing pigs…

Two happy pigs getting their rest...

Two happy pigs get their beauty rest.

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