Ritual of Oak

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

Category: Uncategorized

Get Blunted

Pollan M. 2002. The Botany of Desire. Random House. Toronto, Canada. 113-179p.

I thumbed open Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire eager to begin this weeks reading. Flipping through the yellowed pages of my dogeared copy I briefly reminisced on the things I’d already learned about the apple and the potato. How mankind had come to find desirable features in plants and learned to exert influence over them. As the pages fell softly to either side I drew in the title of the chapter of the reading.

Desire: Intoxication

Ok, sure.

Plant: Marijuana

Oh no.

Of all the plants in the world there is one that I have heard decried and deified to such an extent that I’d rather never hear of it again. Cannabis sativa x indica is that plant. The denunciations of authority and the proselytizing of the enthusiast. The wild inaccuracies and obvious ignorance on both sides of the equation. I just never want to hear about it again, or smell it again, goodness. That being said Pollan has demonstrated the capacity to make topics that seem dry burst to life like Death Valley experiencing a super bloom. So I figured I’d give it the old college try. I took a deep breath and dove in.

The observation that Pollan had that I resonated most with was the idea of marijuana altered consciousness being a somewhat reducing effect. The idea of forgetting the already perceived. To re-experiencing the mundane as something fantastic (pg 162). It’s intriguing to be faced with the idea that science doesn’t know what causes an individual to experience the sensation of being “high”. That the closest that we can come to an understanding of that concept is in the realm of poets. Neuroscience is pushing towards that field of knowledge but it is by all means a fledgling field with much to discover. The effects of marijuana on brain chemistry and the way it affects consciousness is surely low on the list. As the field lengthens and deepens though it will be very exciting to see the scientific explanation for a phenomena widely experienced in our society.

I learned a lot about marijuana from this reading, and I still find myself full of contempt for the idea of speaking about it. The legalization topic which Pollan blessedly stayed away from is the primary source of my distaste. Many long nights of listening to friends speak on the pros and cons of legalization have completely drained me of the desire to see any change occur.

Mostly though, I really just don’t want to have to smell it.

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“One medium refill please, black.”

Hanson, Thor.  2015.  The Triumph of Seeds.  pg. 143-160.  Basic Books, New York, United States of America.

640px-Coffee_Flowers

(Coffea arabica https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffea#/media/File:Coffee_Flowers.JPG)

I really appreciate that every time I’ve picked up Hanson’s The Triumph of Seeds I’ve been in the middle of consuming one of the seed product that he goes on to talk about in the reading. In this case, once again, it was my dear friend Coffea. A decaffeinated cup, as my roommate and I haven’t found the time to swing to the grocery to buy a new bag of the good stuff, but coffee nonetheless. The ritual suffices when the caffeine can’t make an appearance, and today I’ve learned that I have a name to thank, at least partially, for the prevalence of that ritual. When Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu brought his little coffee shrub over the Atlantic to the Caribbean he brought with him the possibility of my daily cup of coffee. Which is another thing that I really appreciate.

Coffea developed a neat trick during it’s evolutionary history in the production of caffeine. Not necessarily a unique defense mechanism, but seemingly a fairly robust one. Like other alkaloid producing plants such as chili peppers this defense mechanism served an ultimate double purpose for the coffee plant. While many species were repelled by the caffeinated bean allowing for the propagation of Coffea in the wild, one species of particular import took notice of the plant.

It was us.

For many other species on Earth this ended up being a “bad move” on the part of evolutionary selection. Humans have had a nasty habit over the course of their dominant role at the top of the food chain of accidentally pushing species to the brink of extinction. On more than one occasion we’ve seen species right out the door. That being said some species have benefited greatly from human “intervention”. Coffee sits up there with corn and wheat in terms of its human facilitated spread over the globe. I have never once been to a town in North America where I couldn’t find a cup of the ubiquitous black nectar.

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.

“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.

Converts to the Way of Grain

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Chapters 4,5,6 and 8. Norton, New York, United States.

Jared Diamond opens part two of Guns, Germs, and Steel with a personal anecdote that I think helps ease the reader into his explanation of “the rise and spread of food production” (pg 83). One of the complaints I heard in class about Diamond’s writing style was that it felt impersonal and hard to relate to. Hopefully with this introduction readers will be able to absorb more of the discussion Diamond is trying to facilitate.

While I really appreciate Diamond’s writing style I found it very difficult to pick out specific sentences to analyse. I found that his dialogue held it’s weight not based on one strong sentence but on the cumulative strength of his paragraphs. I found that his writing style worked less on the principle of building up to a climactic end, but instead like the plodding construction of a pyramid. Facts building on facts that then build into well supported thoughts.

From chapter 4 to 8, Diamond describes the process by which humanity switched from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to one of more agricultural leanings. The take home lesson boils down to that as the density of humans rose, the natural abundance of the earth was depleted to the point that a new food source needed to be used to maintain the growing population. While this points towards a conscious decision to switch to agriculture Diamond explains that it is more likely that “…Food production evolved as a by-product of decisions made without awareness of their consequences.” (pg 106). This is a concept that we discussed last week after reading chapter seven of Guns, Germs, and Steel. As food production increased, density too would increase. Diamond describes this as an “autocatalytic process – one that catalyzes itself in a positive feedback cycle, going faster and faster once it has started.” (pg 111) This is an intuitive process and is very obvious in the modern world.

From there the dominance of agriculture expanded as a result of the resources it offered the converts to the way of grain. Technology (guns), a standing military (steel), and the advantage of unintentional biological warfare (germs). All three were made available by the time that was permitted to certain members of the civilizations that grew around agricultural hubs. Artisans, scientists, and farmers. These things have all had a very visible effect on the world, and it is very easy to see the dominance they’ve had. All from the accidental advent of agriculture.

“A Concatenation of Accidents”

Pollan, Michael.  2002.  The Botany of Desire.  pg. xxiii-xxv. Random House, Toronto, Canada.

Diamond, Jared. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. pg 114-130. Norton, New York, United States.

It is a most peculiar experience whenever I am forced to acknowledge my anthropocentric view of the world. What better class to do it in than one that highlights the effect that plants have made on humans over the course of our brief history. One step back and a vast cycle of life forms adjusting each other for their own fitness comes into focus. For every corn plant humans have selected and cultivated, the argument can be made that corn has also selected us to propagate their seeds. By improving the ability for humans to survive, and thereby procreate, corn has given us cause to increase our production of corn greatly since the first corn plant was discovered as a food source. This relationship is one of mutual dependency where both parties are required in order to see either continue to prosper. Michael Pollan humourously puts the impetus on corn in his book The Botany of Desire by saying “that’s why it makes just as much sense to think of agriculture as something the grasses did to people as a way to conquer the trees.” (pg xxi). If we continue to put a human voice to corn it would be easy to say that corn is doing quite well in it’s war on the trees.

Jared Diamond explains how it could be that plants, or more appropriately natural selection as a cosmic force, use humans to select for beneficial traits in the seventh chapter of his book Guns, Germ, and Steel. He says that “as far as plants are concerned, we’re just one of thousands of animal species that unconsciously ‘domesticate’ plants.” (pg 115) an observation that when taken one step back reveals natural selection as the culprit in nearly every interaction. Diamond then points to the politely described latrine sites where many seeds would have collected over the course of a humans lifetime. (pg 117). As a person collects strawberries for consumption in the wild it is more likely that they will grab big strawberries. A reasonable assumption is that the seeds of big strawberries will produce strawberry bushes that will produce more big strawberries in kind. When the person notices the correlation between these events it is also reasonable to assume that they might try to plant some more of these seeds somewhere they can easily retrieve the fruits from. Voila, a very watered down example of an animal accidentally domesticating a plant. Following this domestication, we see the fitness of the strawberry improve drastically. Genetic information is passed down constantly as humans continue to increase demand for the sweet fruit. Pretty clever trick on the part of the strawberry.

Ok, so what? Why does it matter that plants are respectively domesticating us? We perform a service to them that increases their fitness while they do the same for us. What’s the big deal? I think the answer to that lies in the unwillingness humans have towards the idea that we AREN’T the center of the universe. It’s a big deal because by not accepting that we as a species are just another aspect of nature performing its ultimate task I think we find ourselves ignorantly pushing forward a system that is unsustainable only for ourselves. The penalty for this ignorance is a short species lifespan. While we might drag other life into oblivion with us on our short 1 million year trip into the dumpster it is very likely that life will find a way to carry on without us. As the years go on the situation becomes more and more a shape up or ship out scenario.

“All aboard the HMCS Extinction! Lieutenant are all of the humans accounted for?”

“Aye Captain! They’re all safe below deck. Funny thing is they still seem confused about what’s happening. Sir, I don’t think they know that they’re going extinct.”

“Yes Lieutenant, that is unfortunately the case. For some reason they spent their twilight years arguing over the safety of vaccines, and hollering about the lives of celebrities instead of doing anything about climate change. Well, hopefully the lizard people will be better stewards of the planet.”

“We can only hope so, Sir.”

“HEED!”

Hanson, Thor.  2015.  The Triumph of Seeds.  pg. xix-80.  Basic Books, New York, United States of America.

I got a little carried away reading The Triumph of Seeds. xix turned into 67 before it occurred to me that pages had likely been assigned and I had almost certainly gone beyond that point. I had been wrapped up and whisked away on an extended lesson about the intricacies of seeds, and the people who have devoted their lives to their study. I am, like many of my contemporaries, at best passingly knowledgeable about seeds. A year ago I would have had to have been convinced that a bean is a seed. A little embarrassing perhaps, but that is the emphasis put on seeds in our modern western culture. Considering the importance of the little bundles of life it would seem that the common knowledge is disproportionately small.

I sat down to read The Triumph of Seeds with a coffee. Black, brewed confusingly through an espresso machine as a little middle finger to connoisseurs everywhere. Not even a thought to the magnitude of preparing one of the most popular seeds in the world before I sat down to consume Hanson’s exuberant love letter to the little lunch boxes. By the end of the introduction I realized that I’d played unwittingly into his hands. There I sat, already forced to marvel at the ubiquity of seeds in my life. It only got better from there.

In chapter four, Hanson goes on a field expedition to New Mexico to investigate a coal bed with a conference of paleontologists. The impression Hanson gives of the group is electric. A flurry of activity and discovery. “Around me, the paleontologists worked and talked excitedly. Where my eyes saw only dust and confusion, I knew theirs were reconstructing an ancient world.” (pg. 58) Hanson remarks on what I would guess is a scene only all too familiar to him. The passionate goings on of professionals in the field. This scene resonated with me because at the end of April 2015 I experienced that feeling for the first time, and was dragged into the world of botany by the excitement of my enthusiastic peers. I felt the same way, lost and confused, but so intrigued by what could elicit such response. A new world had opened up to me that had been hidden from view only by my unwillingness to look.

On page 56, Bill DiMichele, a Smithsonian paleontologist quips something to Hanson in reference to new evidence showing that seed plants might have begun their triumph of Earth long before the previous evidence had shown. He says, “I used to go to the field expecting certain things… now I go to the field looking.” which might be the most scientifically important sentence in the entire book. It is the embodiment of the most important part of the scientific method. The indisputable fact that facts are only as strong as the evidence that supports them, and that the evidence is always subject to change. New evidence is always waiting to be discovered, and that’s the best part! Heck, the most exciting part of being a scientist should be finding evidence that we were wrong. Everyone, not just scientists, should spend more of their time looking rather than expecting.

Selfish selflessness; or an exercise in ambiguous social conciousness

MacKinnon JB, Smith A. 2007.  The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. pg. 1-149.  Vintage Canada, Toronto, Ontario.

The first half of The 100-Mile Diet explains how MacKinnon and Smith came up with the idea to take on the challenge of narrowing their diet to a 100-mile radius, and then follows through to show how they were able to thrive within these self imposed restrictions. The first few chapters emphasize the couples growing distaste with the globalization of food sources among other things. They refer to statistics showing that the way that North Americans eat is unsustainable and decide to attempt to do something about it at least on a personal level. The remaining first half of the book contains the musings of the couple as they continue to discover a rich and vibrant world just outside their proverbial back door, and the anecdotal explanations of how they overcame the unique obstacles such a diet would come with.

There are a few things that stood out to me as I pored over MacKinnon and Smith’s experience. The first is that for every moment that I found myself excited over the clever simplicity of eating locally; I couldn’t help but find myself remembering that these were the experiences of a seemingly very privileged couple. A pairing that had the time to go far out of their way to make the their diet possible. Nearly daily trips to different food sources are a reasonable expectation of the process, but to do so in a normal 9-5 job experience seems difficult if not impossible. Reading the 100-Mile Diet continually left me at a loss on how I actually felt. Excited that it was possible to eat within such a globally small region (if I lower my inflated expectations of what will be available), or distaste over what ultimately feels like another footnote in a generation increasingly known for slacktivism. I can’t and won’t deny that publishing their experience helps prevent a clean slacktivism argument, but just as with any “be the change you want to see in the world” experience it ultimately rings hollow. The inequity within that 100-mile radius speaks louder than the potential good of such an ultimately self-serving goal.

A bit harsh, maybe.

Honestly I think my issue with 100-Mile Diet is the same issue that MacKinnon and Smith had at the beginning of their book. I think I’m exhausted by the perverse way that humans as a global entity interact with the world. So exhausted that at this point, like many others, I find myself apathetic to the state of the global community. Unfortunately I find this leaves me more disgruntled with people that are trying their hardest to affect positive change. I hear a snappy little voice in the back of my head that says,

“ONE PERSON CAN’T MAKE A DIFFERENCE WHY BOTHER”.

Ugh. The capitalist devil.

With all that said, my protestations of activism on a personal level ring significantly hollower. This year I too plan on attempting to eat more locally. Finding food in the Kamloops area and cultivating it for myself and others in an attempt to bring myself closer to my home. I may not be taking the extreme route of dedicating to a strict 100-mile radius, but I will be trying my best to narrow down my field of consumption. A little more positivity in the world can’t hurt.

In addition to my moral fisticuffs above there is a repeated phrase in The 100-Mile Diet that I’ve seen before, and have grown to love more with each passing day. The phrase resonates with me in a way that few others have through my life. It is very likely that it is appealing to the biologist in me. The burgeoning naturalist and storyteller.

“Say the names.”

I feel it bouncing off the memory of another phrase. “Plant blindness”. Give the plants their names back. Give them their story back. Point and show and awe and the exuberance of life comes rushing back in. There is discovery in every day life. You just need to know how to look. Without rehashing what has been said already, say the names. To yourself, to anyone willing to listen, and give the plants their place in our hearts back.