May 2008

How to save the world

I know this is long and nobody reads long blog posts, but it’s a challenging piece of a challenging article. And I think if you pay attention to it, you’ll find it exciting and it may stimulate you to do some creative thinking, like it did for me…

The idea is to find one thing to do in your life that doesn’t involve spending or voting, that may or may not virally rock the world but is real and particular (as well as symbolic) and that, come what may, will offer its own rewards. Maybe you decide to give up meat, an act that would reduce your carbon footprint by as much as a quarter. Or you could try this: determine to observe the Sabbath. For one day a week, abstain completely from economic activity: no shopping, no driving, no electronics.

But the act I want to talk about is growing some — even just a little — of your own food. Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t — if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade — look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind.

A great many things happen when you plant a vegetable garden, some of them directly related to climate change, others indirect but related nevertheless. Growing food, we forget, comprises the original solar technology: calories produced by means of photosynthesis. Years ago the cheap-energy mind discovered that more food could be produced with less effort by replacing sunlight with fossil-fuel fertilizers and pesticides, with a result that the typical calorie of food energy in your diet now requires about 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce. It’s estimated that the way we feed ourselves (or rather, allow ourselves to be fed) accounts for about a fifth of the greenhouse gas for which each of us is responsible.

Yet the sun still shines down on your yard, and photosynthesis still works so abundantly that in a thoughtfully organized vegetable garden (one planted from seed, nourished by compost from the kitchen and involving not too many drives to the garden center), you can grow the proverbial free lunch — CO2-free and dollar-free. This is the most-local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious), with a carbon footprint so faint that even the New Zealand lamb council dares not challenge it. And while we’re counting carbon, consider too your compost pile, which shrinks the heap of garbage your household needs trucked away even as it feeds your vegetables and sequesters carbon in your soil. What else? Well, you will probably notice that you’re getting a pretty good workout there in your garden, burning calories without having to get into the car to drive to the gym. (It is one of the absurdities of the modern division of labor that, having replaced physical labor with fossil fuel, we now have to burn even more fossil fuel to keep our unemployed bodies in shape.) Also, by engaging both body and mind, time spent in the garden is time (and energy) subtracted from electronic forms of entertainment.

You begin to see that growing even a little of your own food is, as Wendell Berry pointed out 30 years ago, one of those solutions that, instead of begetting a new set of problems — the way “solutions” like ethanol or nuclear power inevitably do — actually beget other solutions, and not only of the kind that save carbon. Still more valuable are the habits of mind that growing a little of your own food can yield. You quickly learn that you need not be dependent on specialists to provide for yourself — that your body is still good for something and may actually be enlisted in its own support. If the experts are right, if both oil and time are running out, these are skills and habits of mind we’re all very soon going to need. We may also need the food. Could gardens provide it? Well, during World War II, victory gardens supplied as much as 40 percent of the produce Americans ate.

But there are sweeter reasons to plant that garden, to bother. At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen. Chances are, your garden will re-engage you with your neighbors, for you will have produce to give away and the need to borrow their tools. You will have reduced the power of the cheap-energy mind by personally overcoming its most debilitating weakness: its helplessness and the fact that it can’t do much of anything that doesn’t involve division or subtraction. The garden’s season-long transit from seed to ripe fruit — will you get a load of that zucchini?! — suggests that the operations of addition and multiplication still obtain, that the abundance of nature is not exhausted. The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

– Michael Pollan, New York Times Magazine, April 20, 2008 (read the full article here)

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After the fire

When the flames came over the top of the ridge a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of cleaning out the storage shed. Folders full of financial paperwork on one side, diaries from my childhood on the other, I was simplifying. Mostly in my mind was this: what can I get rid of?

A few hours later, when it became clear that the fire was going to continue to burn through the night and possibly right down into my canyon, my thoughts began to shift to this: what should I save?

I went first to the obvious — the hard drives and the important papers. In retrospect, I understand the hard drives, but if the house had burned down, I’m not sure that I would have cared that I had saved my old tax forms and bank statements. But these were the first things I tossed in the back of the car.

Then things got more complicated. I began to walk slowly through my house. It was almost like touring a museum. Look at something, some object, pick it up, this carved giraffe from Africa or this jar of sand from the Swiss Alps, consider the stories, imagine its absence, weigh it against everything else in the house, make a decision. The giraffe stays. The sand comes with me.

The diaries from my childhood came too. How else am I to know who I am? The box of negatives from before the digital age overwhelmed us all. I packed a small bag of clothing and toiletries. No sense in having to wear the same T-shirt and jeans for a week if I don’t have to. The laptop, which these days is my file cabinet, correspondence, creative expression, and connection to the world, the laptop came along.

In a burst of faith, I watered the lawn.

It was dark by then and huge walls of flame were beginning to wrap around the canyon. Out my window the hillside across from me was deep orange with the reflected light of the fire.

But there was still time and room in my car. What else? The big things were ruled out. No furniture or appliances. Also no books. If you start to take one, they’ll all want to come along. The same with the music. I took photos of the bookcase and the CD rack.

From there the process started to get silly. That sleeping bag was expensive. And it’s comfy. The sleeping bag comes along. And this pair of shoes. My circles around the house started to get faster and more frenetic. With time and a little motivation, the miser in me begins to come out. 

Finally, just after I caught myself tossing a wine corker (expensive, beautifully crafted) into the car, I realized the slippery slope that I was on. Another half hour and I’d be hitching my car up to the house and trying to drag it down the hill. Then what would I have gained?  Nothing but the same headaches with a crappier view.

I realized then that the fire was doing me a favor. I was seeing more clearly. I was discovering what was most important. I was letting go of what wasn’t. I’ll confess that there was a small part of me that hoped that the fire would come right on down the canyon and take it all.

It didn’t. From where I’m sitting this morning, I can see the blackened hillside where it burned so ferociously. Unpacking the car was harder for some reason than packing was. The giraffe and the jar of sand are reunited again — for how long, I don’t know, but the giraffe is keeping a wary eye on me, our true relationship now revealed — and the clarity of flame exchanged for the ambiguity of life. But the lessons have stayed with me. After the fire, you can’t help but see things a little differently.

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Aftermath

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We went for a run in the woods on a rainy day

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Here’s a nice picture of some poppies

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