Ritual of Oak

"Be humble for you are made of earth, be noble for you are made of stars." – Serbian Proverb

Month: February, 2016

The Star of the Frontier

Pollan, Michael.  2002.  The Botany of Desire.  pg. 3-58. Random House, Toronto, Canada.

Today I learned everything I didn’t know I wanted to know about the advent of apple culture in North America. I also learned a lot about Johnny Appleseed. A character in American mythology that doesn’t get the same kind of reverence in Canada as far as I know. I am, however, familiar with the tendency mankind has to sanctify it’s providers. Michael Pollan speaks at length about the contrasting pictures of John Chapman. One the Christian saint of the frontier. Fervent holy man, and tamer of the wild. The other, “the American Dionysus” (pg. 39) a more innocent and mild ‘child’ of the Greek icon. The sanctification doesn’t end with Chapman, however, Pollan explains that apples themselves have undergone a significant shift in public opinion in their time in North America.

Apples weren’t always so generously thought of as doctor deterrent. An apple a day actually came about around the time of the prohibition as an attempt by apple farmers to save their livelihoods. The transition from primarily growing apples for cider to primarily growing apples for eating was partly a result of the prohibition era. Cider had served the frontier well when it provided something safe to drink, but as America moved towards civilization, apples needed to adapt again.

Pollan talks about how John Chapman was able to make a big difference on the frontier by planting apples the way that he did. Since he was planting seeds with the intention of selling orchards to new coming settlers genetic diversity among the apple orchards flourished. This allowed the apple trees to adapt to the new world, to become American in their own right. In fact Pollan mentions that apples became so important to the frontier, and then further to North American civilization that they recieved a treatment like no other fruit. “How many other fruits do we call by their Christian names?” (pg. 47) That struck a tone with me. Apples had become so important to us that they were worthy of names.

I really enjoyed this reading as Pollan really does have a special way with dragging me into his stories. When I first opened up the chapter and realized how much of it would be dedicated to Johnny Appleseed, I sighed and thought that maybe I would write this post on the chapter later on in the book about the potato. Yet, as I closed the last page of the first chapter, I had come to realize the significance of this hardy fruit.

And to be quite frank, had developed a desire on my tongue for a little bit of that sweet cider.

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“My cup runneth over.” – Psalm 23:5

Pollan, Michael.  2006.  The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Pg 15-119.  Penguin Group, United States of America.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” – Psalm 23:6

My cup runneth over with corn in particular apparently. When I think of abundance I tend to think of things like goodness and joy. Warm feelings of belonging and happiness ingrained in me from a young age by holidays that promote giving and thankfulness. That goodness of abundance has treated Zea mays, or more commonly, corn very well. It has flourished under humanity to become the 2nd most abundant food crop in the world lagging only behind sugar cane. While this is good for corn’s biological imperative to spread it’s DNA across the eons this very same abundance has turned out very poorly for many of our biological neighbours. Neighbour seems like a bit of a stretch as I am referring to the animals that humanity cultivates in this modern era almost exclusively through the mercy of the abundance of corn. Animals that are fed corn despite generations of adaptation to entirely different grasses. Animals that are made sick, and make us sick due to our deleterious desire to make use of our self induced over abundance of corn.

Having spent the better part of the day ruminating on the effects that humans (and corn) have had on the vast majority of animals that we slaughter for food has left a bitter taste in my mouth, and a sharp twist on my words. So to avoid preachy diatribe we’ll move on.

How many things have I consumed today that began it’s journey into my life as corn. The cream in my coffee? The cheese on my sandwich? At the beginning of 2016 I decided to give a vegetarian diet a try with the somewhat banal intention to be healthier. Coincidentally it has also helped lead me down a path that has slowly lead me away from my dependence on corn. Processed food and meat being very large consumers of corn. Personal health continues to be a large part of the pursuit, but reading Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” has placed a special emphasis on the damage humans (and by proxy, corn) have done to our global ecosystem by ham-fistedly producing corn where and when none should grow. The amount of fossil fuels required to produce and transport corn is enough of a reason for me to want to step away from the corn industry; however, that doesn’t even begin to touch on the further ramifications that spawn from corn’s abundance. I don’t blame corn, of course. It was just doing it’s best to make itself useful and therefore safe in a world run by the ecologically rampant and environmentally unaware hominid. The sword that won’t bend, breaks, and corn has proven to be a very sharp sword.

In an attempt to eat healthier and now to distance myself from the corn industry I have struck from my diet all non-wild meats, beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, and most processed foods. I am additionally slowly weaning myself off of the more difficult to see subsidiaries of the great golden crop, but that has proven significantly more difficult (read significantly more expensive). I know all too well that corn is able to sneak it’s way into my daily routine with an ease popularly reserved for government agencies.

Pollan in just over 100 pages forced me to reevaluate how I viewed corn, and by relation how I want to eat. Was it really enough for me to just want to eat a little healthier, or to get my girlfriend to stop picking on me about my predilection towards sub par foods. I’m beginning to think that it goes a little deeper than for me, okay, maybe a lot deeper. I find an opinion forming both ethical and environmental about the effects of playing into the abundance of corn. Is it good for us? Is it good for the lifeforms that we rely on to sustain us?

My cup runneth over, and goodness and mercy do not follow.