Friday, July 30, 2010

Acorn Crop Failure?

OK, time to get back to saving the world. It's always funny - in a heartbreakingly sad sort of way - that it's possible to be too busy to save the world. Business has been ridiculously good of late, which from a mundane perspective (paying the bills, feeding the children... the little things) is great, but has cut into my writing time.
Balance, Chris, balance.

I'm starting to read Gary Paul Nabhan's Coming Home to Eat, which chronicles the author's effort to spend a year eating only foods grown, fished or gathered within 200 miles of his Tucson home. The book holds a special interest for me, as a born-and-bred Minnesotan who lived in Tucson for three years and never was able to acclimate myself to desert life. Then again, within 200 miles of Tucson there's a lot more than desert. It's a matter of both altitude and attitude.

In one of those great coincidences you find every day if you're looking for them, after I picked up Nabhan's book at the library I was reading an article in Smithsonian magazine about the work of Joshua Tewksbury, who is doing fascinating research trying to determine why chiles are hot (other than the obvious reason of trying to embarrass Midwesterners at Tucson dinner parties)... and Gary Paul Nabhan is mentioned as a friend and collaborator of Tewksbury.

Me being (unfortunately) me, the first thing I did upon picking up the book was to turn to the index and look for passages about acorns. There is one listing, p141. I flipped to the page, eager for a story of an easy harvest, a season of nutritious meals, a parable for our times. Instead I read a story of... complete and total acorn crop failure.

Nabhan took a trip south of Tucson toward Nogales (thus going up in elevation) hoping for a harvest of acorns and chiltepines, the northernmost wild chili. But when he arrived he found that neither crop was ready to harvest. The chiltepines were still green and "not fiery enough for me," Nabhan writes (meaning they would probably set my tongue on fire) but there were no acorns to be seen. A late freeze and snowfall had caused a complete failure of the acorn crop that year.

For Nabhan the trip was not a total loss. On the way home he stopped and gathered a variety of wild greens. Upon arriving home he fixed a meal of grilled scallions and poblano chiles and hand washed greens heated in a sauce pan only long enough for them to wilt slightly. What follows is a brilliant piece of writing: "Their flavors were so fresh, so buzzed with their recent photosynthetic surge that my meal sizzled with sunshine. Within minutes of devouring them, I felt greener, as if I were on some folic acid high. I dreamed that night of having chlorophyll in my skin, as if I had become green as the Green Giant himself."

But, of course, we're not here to talk about greens, even when the writing is that good. We're here to talk about acorns as food, and in that context this passage in Nabhan's book is deeply troubling, especially when considered within the context of the question I have been asking: Why did mankind walk away from a life of acorn eating to take up the plowshare and grow grains?

This passage might give us a glimpse, at least, of how it might have happened in one place... and then another. A warm spring, causing the oaks to flower. A late frost. A freak snowstorm. The flowers are killed and the acorn crop is a total loss. Sure the locals were smart enough to have enough acorns stored up to survive a year without an acorn crop. But then it happened again, and maybe a third time. Running out of reserves for both people and livestock it is decided to plant some grain seeds next year as a back up plan, just in case. Then for a while there is both, grains and acorns. Archeological evidence suggests that in these cases people did the logical thing: fed the grain to their livestock and kept the acorns for themselves.

But from that point on, they were grain people. Tied to the land - to a particular piece of land to be defined as mine/not yours - to tend the crop. Building a new economy in which some control land and seed, and others must provide labor in exchange for a share of the harvest.

It didn't happen everywhere at once. Where it happened it was a gradual process spanning generations, so that no one even noticed a change was happening at all. It's interesting to speculate, as Michael Pollen does so eloquently, who was really using whom: Were humans using grains to gain control over land (and other humans) while (in theory) reducing risk of catastrophic food shortages, or were grains using humans to take over larger and larger portions of the Earth's surface and resources?

Just a glimpse. A complex puzzle. But in the answer the answer to my question of "Why?" is not nearly as important as the answer to the question: "How to we go back to a tree crop-based culture and economy?"

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Paradise Lost - Stupidity?

"Stupid is as stupid does"
~Forrest Gump's mother

"The stupidest man on Earth
is the man who thinks he's smarter
than everyone else"

I have been thinking a lot about stupidity. (I'm sorry, but I really like that sentence.)

Last week I was going to pick up the theme I have been wrestling with for some time: For millennia humankind lived a nearly Utopian life among food-bearing trees, both in creation myth and in reality. Biblical man was cast out of paradise by a fall from grace. Perhaps that is truly what happened. But my secular mind has been searching for a deeper answer to a question that is at once simple and endlessly complex: Why? Why did we did we stop living a life of leisure, happiness and peace harvesting & eating tree crops - which in many areas that meant primarily acorns - and switch to a life of toil and sweat producing and eating annual grain crops? (Incidentally, we made the same bone-headed decision on behalf of our livestock as well. Originally we both ate acorns. And when we started cultivating grains we actually first fed them to our livestock, keeping the acorns for ourselves. Only later did we decide to do battle with millions of square miles of the Earth’s surface to produce grains for us both.)

Various sources discuss overpopulation and competition for resources, overuse of the resource (the arboreal equivalent of the Pleistocene overkill theory), or, as William Bryant Logan convincingly argues in Oak: The Frame of Civilization, wanderlust and boredom.

Well, like I said I was getting ready last week to explore these theories when events conspired both to delay my writing but also to bring me face to face with an entirely new theory I hadn't considered: Stupidity. People can be remarkably, mind-blowingly stupid.

Let's first talk about the different kinds of stupidity, and then explore how these different flavors of stupidity might have caused us to leave our cushy happy life eating the fruits of the trees and spend our days instead in endless toil, at war with soil, and in love with oil (Nobel Prize for poetry here I come!). Much of what is viewed as "human nature" (oxymoron?) is meant to get us through the day and, more to the point, get us collectively and me individually regenerated in a new generation. Many of these same traits result in actions that are, over the passage of time, stupid, pointless and self-destructive.

1. Arrogance/hubris - Believing that you are smarter than everyone else, and smarter than nature.

2. Enviousness - Believing that the "other" is always "better" - it's better over there over that hill, the grass is always greener, etc.

3. Pride (variation on hubris) - Believing that others are lazy compared to you

4. Self-centered-ness - Believing that every idea you have is new and unique in the universe (instead of a repeat of ideas had millions of times before in minds brighter than yours)

5. Need for control - Believing that by controlling resources you can therefore control people, and their hopes, dreams and aspirations

OK, this is getting repetitive, but you get the point. Given all of these human failings, all of this collective stupidity, it was inevitable that we would leave our happy peaceful life among the trees and acorns to come down into the valley and pound on the soil. What is perhaps more remarkable is that there were any people who didn't give in to stupidity and who didn't leave the trees until forced to (the indigenous people of California, Oregon and parts of Washington for example). Would they have walked away from their life of happiness and plenty given enough time? I'd like to think not, but what I believe about human nature tells me they would have.

We are hard-wired to not just hang out, relax and let nature provide in the way it always has and always will. We need control. We need to feel like we are in control of our food supply. And a small number of us need to feel like we are in control of others. The easy abundance of an acorn-based society does not allow a small number of people to control resources in the way that a grain based culture does.

We need to do things differently than they were done before - or at least believe that we are doing things differently than before.

We seem to need to believe not only that we must do battle with the Earth for sustenance, but even more remarkably we seem to believe that we can win that battle. Duh.

I better stop now or this will never get posted. But we’ll keep exploring the question of Why? in future posts. It is no doubt a combination of things – overpopulation and overuse of resources in some areas, boredom and wanderlust in others, dispersal by war and force in others – but I now have no doubt that underpinning any and all of these is the simple, sadly inevitable and infinitely repeated – fact of human stupidity.

They say that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. We need to collectively and individually realize how stupid we have been in walking away from tree crops in favor of grains. Only then can we begin to change and regain the paradise that we lost.

And most of all: Never, ever let stupidity get in the way of the life you’re intended to live.
Apropos nothing.

* OK, that wasn't anonymous. I'm the one who said that.