The 100 Mile Diet: Part 2

Smith, A., & Mackinnon, J. B. 2007. The 100-mile diet: A year of local eating. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

Regrettably, I did not get to finish more than two chapters in to “part 2” of my reading of the 100 Mile Diet. I read what I could in between plane rides to visit my family and friends in the West Kootenays, amidst the chatter of fellow excited Easter-weekend travellers in the crowded Vancouver airport. Once back at home, I was overtaken by heaps of food, desserts, laughter, story-telling, egg painting, hiking, movie watching, and other festivities. Before my departure back to Kamloops, my mother and I were even able to fit in some time in the garden, the sun being a warm and welcome companion to the still crisp air. Now that the frost is presumably gone for good, we were able to take stock of some of our perennial herbs from the year before, many of them already sprouting bright green and healthy, rooting their way through their pots in to the garden soil with impressive strength. With my grandmother’s help, we proceeded to cut back last year’s dry and dead remains. I couldn’t help but ponder that what is true for plants is sometimes true for humans: it is often necessary to let go of the dying parts of ourselves so that we can grow back anew; thriving.

I feel that this sentiment pairs well with James’ chapter on November. He describes the falling apart of his brother, Sasha’s, marriage, and life, in general; everything left in ruins. However, this allowed him the space to make his life exactly what he wanted it to be from that moment forward. As James remarked at the end of the chapter, “For the first time in years he sounded just like the brother I used to love to fight” (p. 191).

In the chapters October and November, James’ and Alisa’s relationship seems to be taking a turn for the worst. I found these chapters to be particularly heavy with emotion, and emptiness. Alisa feels that she is able to imagine “three dozen other potential lives, each representing some opportunity never taken or currently within reach” (p. 164), and she also describes how in some way her restlessness may actually represent a lacking feeling of being rooted in place. It seems she is unable to cut the cord of her “mundane” life with James, and simultaneously uncertain if this will solve any of her problems. James reveals a more uninhibited side to his character, which shows that he is also reaching his breaking point. He not only admits to binging on (completely non-local) beer and chocolate chip cookies during his stay with his family in Kamloops, but after his return he frankly states: “we need to get some wheat or I’m going to go out of my fucking mind” (p. 175). The overall tone is mildly discouraging; both parties seem to be growing weary both of their food project and of each other…What’s the point? Although I can relate wholeheartedly to Alisa’s feelings, which are growing stronger the older I get – I feel that there are so many potential paths to be taken that it is overwhelming to have to settle for just one – if there is any place I would be most alright with settling for, it would be where I spent my childhood, and where my parents’ spent the majority of theirs. I feel lucky to know that perhaps my feeling of “placelessness” has an expiry date, for when I’m done exploring the larger world I already know where my home will be (and always has been).

A final notion that stuck with me in “October”, Alisa’s chapter, is her discussion of Sahlin’s “fundamental observation [that] “Stone Age” peoples had discovered that leisure could be secured with minimum effort, rather than a series of technological marvels that have never yet liberated us from lives of hard labour” (p. 159). I personally think this idea is so timely to the world we are living in, and that is perfectly highlights the importance of local food to perhaps changing our modern, fast-food, fast-life driven society for the better. Lately, amidst travel and deadlines and material goods and the noise of the city, a simple life – with only what is needed – has become more and more attractive to me. And eating locally is one way that we can begin to manifest simpler lives. That is the point. The act of letting go of packaged foods, foreign foods, and chemical-laden foods is a rebellious act of laying a path to a new future, and for every unneeded thing that we can let go, space is created for family, friends and the good things in life to be savoured. I like to believe that I’m on this path and that I’ll get to thriving someday.

A Little Taste of Heaven

Pollan, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Books: New York.

Early Friday morning, I was curled up in my fuzzy blanket reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, waiting somewhat impatiently for the phone to ring. I knew my bi-weekly vegetable box from Thistle Farm could be here any minute, over-flowing with organic produce, sourced most locally first, and then supplemented from farmers in California and Mexico as needed; at this time of the year the supplementation would be the majority of the box (in essence, not-so-local), yet there is still something so different that comes with receiving your produce this way than making a trip to the grocery store. However, what I was most looking forward to in this box was not the California kale or the Mexican avocado, but the humble red cabbage, grown at Thistle Farm itself, merely a half hour drive from my apartment. Approaching the end of March, I knew that Thistle Farm had been running low on their winter cabbage supply and I was eager to obtain one of the last ones for use in my local food dish, which included frantically emailing in a substitution during the wee hours of Thursday morning.

Suddenly I heard the ring. I said good-morning to the friendly woman delivering my food and buzzed her in to the building, meanwhile throwing on a sweater and some slippers so I could run down a floor to retrieve my box, fearing my bounty might be scooped up by a passerby if I left it to sit in the entranceway too long. Ah, there it was! I felt the anticipation hit a peak as I slid the box on to one arm and proceeded back up the stairs. It’s heavy this time! I remarked, silently praying that this meant a cabbage was concealed somewhere under the other organic goodies. And, alas, underneath a handful of carrots, a bag of baby Bok choy, and a bundle of parsley was my perfect purple cabbage, half the size of a typical store-bought cabbage and easily grasped in one hand. There was something magical about it that no store-bought cabbage could compete with, as I could actually picture the landscape, the soil that it was grown in, and the people whose hands had watered it, cared for it, plucked it from the ground, washed it, stacked it in their cold room storage, and finally, packed it in to a box with my name on it, so it could make its way to me.

I feel that it’s no coincidence that the chapter I was reading that morning was “The Market: Greetings from the Non-Barcode People”, an in-depth look at the many ways that meat and produce leave Polyface Farm to reach the plates of someone who has chosen to support a local, grass-fed farming operation. Some of these avenues include customers picking up broiler hens (and other meat and eggs) on the farm itself, purchasing Polyface products at the farmer’s market or a local alternative food store, or ordering it for delivery from a slightly farther away community in the form of a Metropolitan buying club. Local food from the Shenandoah valley is also delivered fresh to chefs and restaurant owners in the area, who provide a backbone to the creation of a local food economy. Whichever way is chosen, Joel Salatin (the primary farmer at Polyface) reiterates that what is important is people are choosing to “opt out” (p. 248). That is, opt out of the industrial food chain in exchange for something more sustainable, for the land, the animals, and the people who eat it. I found Joel’s belief that artisanal food does not have to compete with industrial food to be very thought-provoking. Simply put, farmers offering artisanal products have the quality and the consequences of their products speak for themselves; they have no need to lower their prices of to produce at a rate and volume equal to the industrialized food system, in fact doing so may be more detrimental to their movement than anything. There is one part that still frustrates me: for all the people out there willing to opt out, there are regulation in the USA that make it difficult for smaller-scale farm operations to be run up to their standards, which are modelled around big-business agriculture.

To be frank, these chapters brought up a lot of emotions and considerations for me, from happiness and awe, to anxiety, sadness, disgust and anger, which made its way back to happiness, and wholeness, again.

As a vegetarian, it was easy to oppose the practices of CAFOs from earlier chapters, but less easy to condemn Joel’s spiritual, cycle-of-life kind of animal agriculture, which works in tandem with nature, rejuvenation of the land, and the animal’s natural instincts to do what they love to do best and eat what is most health-promoting for their bodies. Chapters Ten and Eleven, which outline the many nuances involved in the raising of animals in the Salatins’ pastures make Polyface sound like possibly the realist, happiest farm on the face of the Earth.

Of course, that doesn’t change the pain I felt with reading “Slaughter: In a Glass Abatoir”, in which the slaughterhouse is much less a ‘house’ than an open-air gazebo completed with killing, boiling, gutting and de-feathering stations, of which the soupy remains are soon after shovelled into a decaying heap of chicken bits and wood chips. I read this chapter the fastest by far, with my toes squirming and my heart pounding, yet I couldn’t put the book down. I could feel Pollan’s dread and dis-ease with the butchering he was about to take part in, and as he described picking up a sharp blade in one hand and a docile chicken’s tiny head between his other hand’s fingers to put his technique in to action, my anxiety built. Then, as the blood gushed over his hand and hit his glasses I only felt…numbness. Faced with that imagery, I silently reminded myself why it is I could never eat an animal again, for I felt sick to my stomach imagining doing such a thing myself, and should I really be eating a creature whose death I can’t face?

But honestly, by the time I finished the last chapter, “The Meal: Grass Fed”, I was beginning to question my views on animals for consumption. Something about Pollan’s description of the “out of this world” (p. 271) brined and apple-smoked, barbecued chicken, with its superior profile of nutrients (ie. Omega-3s, beta-carotene, vitamin E, folic acid) from its nature-intended, grass-fed diet, had me extremely curious just how much more “chicken-y” this chicken would taste, and if it is really all that wrong to consume animals in the respectful way that many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors did for millennia. Pollan truly must have a succulent way with words, for it is quite the accomplishment to stir up these questions in someone who has been sworn off chicken for almost 5 years.

I must also praise Pollan on his use of character in this segment, for I found almost every character to be immediately loveable; for example, Joel for his fervent passion as a grass farmer and his intense attention to detail; his entire family in general for their simple, family- and routine-centred life; and Bev Eggleston, for his comic relief amongst a discussion of some daunting and timely issues (“Instead of mad cow disease, we’ve got glad cows at ease” (p. 247)).

A question I’ve often tried to navigate is: what is the most important thing, vegetarian food, organic food, or local food? Perhaps it doesn’t have to be either or, although more and more I’m being convinced of the value of local food. This doesn’t mean I’ll be rushing out for grass-fed chicken anytime soon, but perhaps I won’t turn my nose up at it either. For now, I will be savouring the morsels of local vegetables that I can, like sweet, mini onions, cream-fleshed potatoes, and crunchy, purple cabbage.

Plants that Harm & Heal

Hanson, T. 2015. The triumph of seeds: How grains, nuts, kernals, pulses & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York: Basic Books.

For me, tea is so much more than a tasty beverage, and even more than an infusion of health-promoting benefits. Tea is a ritual. A meditation. A necessary component of starting and ending the day.

And now I see that the way that my tea-drinking habit connects me to the world of plants is even bigger than I could have imagined.

The tea I choose to start my morning with on any given day depends on what I hope to derive from it. Some days I’m looking for a subtle boost of energy, perhaps with tender, ground green tea leaves. Other days, especially if I’m feeling under the weather, I may prefer a soothing herbal tea with cooling peppermint, echinacea leaves and elderberries. And, if I’m looking for a combination of energy and warmth in the coldest part of the winter, my favourite choice is a spicy black chai tea, with spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, anise and ginger.

The section of Thor Hanson’s The Triumph of Seeds “Seeds Defend” (Chapters 8-11) is an in-depth look in to a few of the ways that seeds have evolved to protect themselves from those who want to feast on them and who may destroy their seeds’ ability to be dispersed and reproduce.

A theme that comes across to me in particular is how, because of these evolutionary changes, plants and their seeds are a huge part of our lives. As if this message hadn’t already been hit home with our reliance on plants for food, clothing, tools and other materials, I am also now much more aware of the ways that plants contribute to our modern medicines, pesticides, poisons, perfumes, the flavouring of our dishes, and of course, our most popular beverages.

Personally, I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but it cannot be denied that coffee beans have had a profound impact on human history, and continue to today. It is estimated that there are “1 billion to 2 billion daily partakers” (p. 146) in coffee drinking, and this coffee drinking may have “helped pave the way for both the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution” (p. 150), by spawning “revolutionary thinking” both directly and indirectly. Directly, through the stimulation it provided (in great contrast to alcohol), and indirectly, through bringing like-minded, intellectual thinkers together in coffeehouses. Still today we see this trend in our “Information Age”, with the mainstream love of coffee that has developed in office workers, university goers, and technology developers at large corporations.

I find it fascinating that humans are not the only creatures lured by the stimulating effects of caffeine. In fact, Hanson describes how caffeine is used both as a repellant AND an attractant in coffee plants. Caffeine produced in its leaves and beans wards off pests such as snails, slugs and beetles, as well as releasing an herbicide that rids of nearby competing plants, while caffeine produced in smaller amounts in the nectar of the plant’s flowers keeps bees coming back for another reinforcing hit of energy. These busy bees sound an awful lot like “morning commuters [lined up] at their favorite espresso stand” (p. 149). Hmm, another way in which we’re a lot more similar to bees than we may care to recognize. 😉

Throughout these four chapters, about diversified topics of rodents gnawing seeds, the spice trade, coffee, and the Cold War assassination of Georgi Markov using ricin (a violent poison derived from castor beans), Hanson does a wonderful job of stringing them together in a relevant way. He does this using the common thread of his work with the almendro tree. In Chapter 11, I came to learn that the almendro’s seed pods are not something so foreign or unheard of as I once thought – they are tonka beans, once commonly used as a vanilla substitute, and which remind me of a “tonka vanilla”-scented candle I once had. Even more interestingly, Hanson explains that tonka beans contain a potent active ingredient – coumarin – so potent that its derivatives are used to make rat poisons, and a blood thinning medication used in conjunction with chemotherapy.

Why some of these plants have evolved to contain such harsh toxins is in some cases still a mystery being slowly revealed, yet it makes me conscious of one thing: the importance of respecting plants, in their infinite abilities to both harm us and heal us.

A Wall of Potatoes

Pollan, M. 2001. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House: New York

A wall of potatoes.

A wall of potatoes taller than your head, and stacked back farther than your eye can see.

A wall of blemished, dwarfed, discarded potatoes, taller than your head and farther than your eye can see; an avalanche waiting to happen.

This describes the sight I saw just one Saturday afternoon ago, at a small family-owned and operated potato farm in Kamloops, BC. Potatoes are not the crop you turn to if you want to make it rich. The potato is humble, cheap, yet as consumers we expect a certain caliber of potato; we want our potatoes to fit nicely in our hands, big enough to make it worth the effort to wash and cut them, and we want them to be uniform in colour, as free of spots and other imperfections as possible. Since perfection is not the way of nature, this means that farmers – at least at the farm I was visiting – have to chuck out approximately one third of their annual yield of potatoes to be broken up for use as animal feed; feeding us indirectly. Of the potatoes that make do their way to the grocery store, their prices are dictated directly by the supermarkets, and in this way potato farmers are at the mercy of what their “buyers” are willing to shell out. What matters is moving the product.

Knowing this, it is interesting to inquire what the history of potatoes has been for our ancestors. In the final chapter of The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan does just that. It was striking to me to learn that at one time those in Europe did not know of the potato, until it was brought back on ships from South America, largely as an afterthought. Unfortunately, the potato came to be viewed as uncivilized in comparison to wheat; even the peasants had to be convinced to plant it in their fields! Just over two hundred years ago, the introduction of the potato as a second staple crop for northern Europe was hotly debated. Its virtues, being easy to grow, cook and eat, were also seen as it’s downfalls: the potato became disentangled with the threat of overpopulation, a lack of control and security, a loss of progress and money, and anarchy. Pollan describes potatoes as being “chthonic”, or quite literally, as belonging to the underworld, “forming their undifferentiated brown tubers unseen beneath the ground, throwing a slovenly flop of vines above” (p. 200). In every sense of the word, potatoes were looked down upon.  But eventually, the potato allowed the peoples of Europe to become a much more powerful nation than they could have subsisting primarily on cereal grains.

A theme that emerges from this is that of impermanence, change, or progress – of societies and of the food that fuels those societies. It instills in me a sense that things we find so normal today (ie. eating potatoes, in any one of their many forms), were completely new to our ancestors not so long ago in history.

And this begs the question, where will our future lead us, in potatoes and other agricultural ventures? Pollan also explores this issue, by growing in his garden a crop of Monsanto-patented NewLeaf potatoes, genetically modified to produce a toxin that resists the Colorado potato beetle. He uses a plethora of figurative language to describe the GMO potatoes; for example, as “chimeras: “revolutionary” in the patent office and on the far, “nothing new” in the supermarket and the environment” (p. 189). He describes the growing of the potatoes as “not so much as planting vegetables as booting up a new software release” (p. 190). And, my personal favorite is his description of the potatoes as “alien beings”, as he then adds a twist to this comparison, saying: “that’s not quite right; they’re more like us than other plants because there’s more of us in them” (p. 198). This is an excellent example of the way Pollan is able to “tell it slant”, or distort the story he is telling in a way that forces you to look at it from an alternate viewpoint, one that is sometimes uncomfortable. He implies that by exerting our control over potatoes by means of bioengineering, we are essentially inserting more of ourselves, or our knowledge, in to them. We are creating a new relationship between us and the plants we subsist on, and simultaneously, between different species of plants, animals, and fungi in ways that nature has never previously allowed to happen. Although Monsanto markets these GMO seeds (and their resulting products) as benign, the message comes loud and clear: since no one has previously crossed in to this territory before, we just don’t know what the repercussions may be.

Who knows, maybe one day GMO-food will be a fact of life for my great-great-grandchildren, and they will cease to know or remember a time when things were different, much as I am unable to fully grasp a world without a large variety of vegetables, fruits and other food choices available to me at any time I desire them, in relatively unending supply.

The potato farmers that I had the opportunity of meeting myself made me question our society’s obsession with perfection and this “unending” supply, and the difficult position this puts farmers in. There is no room for the farmers to change their farming practices if we do not change our consuming practices. And more and more in the future, this idea will apply not only to techniques of food production, sorting and storage, but to the literal molecular structure of the seeds put in to the ground and the food put in to our mouths.

Corn, Corn, Everywhere

Pollan, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Books: New York.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma has ruined the grocery store for me.

OK, maybe it’s unfair to place all the blame on Michael Pollan. Let’s face it, even though I love cooking and preparing food, shopping for ingredients in the modern chain grocery store has never been the most peaceful experience. Stark, florescent lights, swarms of people playing bumper cars with their grocery carts, and row upon row of packaged goods wedged in beside one another; indeed, it feels like one of the farthest things from nature.

But now, I’ve become prone to seeing the majority of these grocery store goods as giant cobs of corn, protruding from the boxes and bags like beacons. So maybe it is more accurate to say that I see these goods as not much more than ground-up, processed kernels of corn, taking the form of corn starch, corn oil, modified corn syrup, or any other possible corn-based additive.

Just last week in the frozen food section I spotted a package of onion-flavoured hash-brown patties, the kind that only need to be crisped up in the toaster to be ready to eat. “Yum!” was my first reaction. I reached into the freezer and pulled out the box of perfect potato rectangles. Then it struck me: Corn. Look for corn. I slowly turned over the box and scanned the ingredient list. Ingredient number 3: Yellow corn flour. Suddenly they didn’t look so appealing…

Why was this suddenly so unappealing to me, when it was something I wouldn’t have thought twice about in the past? As Pollan says, we are “the true people of the corn”, or “corn chips with legs” (p. 23). Corn is something so prevalent in our diets as North Americans that it quite literally makes up a portion of our bodies. It is an inseparable part of who we are, and this is kind of frightening.

But it goes even further than this. Pollan has made me realize the very real and engrained consequences that corn has had for humans (biologically and socioeconomically), animals, and the Earth that we share.

When it comes to humans, one of the greatest revelations for me in reading this book was to learn about some of the people behind the scenes in the grand-scale corn takeover; namely, the people growing it. These farmers, like George Naylor, who Pollan comes to know well, live and work the fields of the Corn Belt of the Midwestern United States. They are producing more corn in a shorter period of time than has ever been produced in history, and yet they are simultaneously struggling to earn enough money to subsist. Frankly, this seems ridiculous to me, as well as greatly disheartening, and I think I can speak for a great number of us who have had no idea that this was even going on. It also leads to a never-ending cycle of cheap “commodity corn”, as farmers are propelled to find ways to produce even more corn (in order to live), leading to further overabundance of corn, and less money in the corn-growing business.

An image that struck me was that of the scattered corn Pollan observed at the grain elevator in Farnhamville, Iowa: “golden kernels everywhere, ground in to the mud by tires and boots, floating in the puddles of rainwater, pancaked on the steel rails… less a food than an industrial raw material” (p. 59). And so, Pollan goes on to explain, that is exactly what “number 2 field corn” is.

What led to corn as a commodity? In a word: petroleum. The sun as an energy source wasn’t enough for us, or rather, it wasn’t enough for a rapidly growing industry, and so “humanity began to sip petroleum” (p. 45). Pollan quotes farmer activist Vandana Shiva as saying, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II” (p. 41).

Yuck.

With this overabundance of corn there is a need to find something to do with it; one of the ways it is used is to create the corn derivatives that show up in our packaged grocery goods, as described earlier, and another way is to use it to grow animal protein on the modern feedlot, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

In this way, even the meat and dairy aisles are not free from the lurking reminder of corn; the corn that once filled the bellies of pigs, chickens and cattle, plumping them up and marbling their meat. I have to say that, as a vegetarian who is primarily fueled by disagreement with the factory farming industry, I thought I knew a thing or two about the making of meat as in our society, but Pollan was able to horrify me once again with the absurdity of it all. Essentially, CAFOs take cattle, “exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live grass…[and adapt them] to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed” (p. 68). Pollan describes the feedlot itself as a “premodern city”, full of crowding, poor hygiene, death and disease. The sad part is, so much of this could be avoided if only these animals were allowed to live and eat how nature intended. But industry is not concerned with this.

I find Pollan’s writing impactful because he makes it personal. He makes it about us, as human beings, and he ties in characters that make the more “science-y” stuff he talks about have high stakes. For example, he gives corn farming a name and a personality with George Naylor, and he gives the feedlot a face with the brockle-faced steer he invests in and follows through his short life, 534. Suddenly, everything he is discussing can be seen as having real life consequences; something to care about.

 

Dandelion Greens

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.

It was a Saturday morning in May of last year; the kind of morning when the air was cold but the intensity of the sun hinted of the hot afternoon that would ensue. My boyfriend and I were browsing the Farmers’ Market, knit bags in hand. We had already filled them with our usual fruits, vegetables, and local honey, when we came across a small booth I had not noticed before.

The first thing I laid eyes on as a humble package of tiny, hand-picked chamomile buds. How delicate they looked: I could imagine just how deliberately and painstakingly they were plucked from their plants, dried, carefully separated, and sealed into their respective bags. I tentatively picked up the bag, and, at the same time, my gaze was drawn to a row fresh wild greens at the opposite side of the table. I saw broad leaves of stinging nettle, a few varieties of clover, and then, a bag bursting with dandelion shoots, the largest I’d ever seen. I smiled at the girl behind the counter, probably no more than a couple years older than me: “I’ll take one of these, please,” I said, imagining the bright and nutritious salad I could make (although my boyfriend looked a little less convinced).

As the young clerk tallied up the cost, a woman appeared beside me, busily inspecting the greens,”How does this taste? Is it garlic-y?”
“Yes,” replied the girl “I believe it is. Would you like to try?”
The woman popped a cluster of leaves in her mouth and chewed hurriedly, “Nope. Doesn’t taste like garlic at all.” Then she walked off.
Before I could process this a second woman came by, bringing herself just close enough to the table so that we could hear her scoff: “aren’t those the same weeds I could pull out of my front lawn?” I felt my face get warm as I stared down at my bundle of greens; they certainly didn’t look like any I could find on my lawn (and were presumably much safer to eat). My boyfriend and I exchanged glances, thanked the girl, and headed on our way, the dandelion greens joining the other chosen items in our bag.

So, what do dandelion greens have to do with the advent of agriculture? For me, they are a symbol of the fact that agriculture, as Jared Diamond expresses in “Guns, Germs and Steel”, was not much of an “advent” at all, but a slow evolution.  And that, correspondingly, the path from the life of a hunter-gatherer to that of a farmer was not at all linear, but was more than a bit messy.

The defiant woman at the farmers market, and admittedly my boyfriend, turned their noses at the idea of eating dandelion greens because they are a wild food, viewed by many as no more than a common, bothersome weed. In contrast, when I told my grandmother about my purchase she had a much different reaction: “Oh yes, dandelion greens!” She nodded, recalling with a hint of nostalgia how she would collect them as a girl for her Italian father, in a field adjacent to their house. For him, these greens were a delicacy, and a necessary ingredient to the perfect salad. This demonstrates just how much is still changing in our dependence on, and in our knowledge of, edible wild foods. By the time my grandmother was raising her own children, virtually all of their plant foods (other than the odd collection of wild berries) were deliberately grown in the garden or bought at the store. This is a modern day example of changes that have evolved as a response to convenience and availability, two important themes that emerge in Diamond’s work.

Starting with Chapter 4, “Farmer Power”, I found this phrase striking: “Today, most people on Earth consume food that they produced themselves or that someone else produced for them. At current rates of change, within the next decade the few remaining ands of hunter-gatherers will abandon their ways, disintegrate, or die out, thereby ending our millions of years of commitment to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle” (p. 86). I found this striking because it is a reminder of the way our ancestors lived, and even thrived, in non-agrarian groups for so long. When I have thought of my ancestors previously, I didn’t look so far back – I thought of the lives that my more recent relatives dedicated to farming, and to me this made farming and gardening seem the most natural and instinctive things in the world; a way to connect back to the Earth. But, Diamond’s words made me think, what is a more intimate and loving connection with the Earth than taking only what you need, careful to respect the integrity of the land from which you take it, as hunter-gatherers often did?

Coming back to the advent of agriculture, I appreciate how Diamond takes us through research and reasoning piece by piece, as if we are on the journey to unraveling the great mystery of the beginnings of food production with him. His sequence of explaining these events is completely logical, and fully explains a topic in one area before moving on to the next. For example, in Chapter 6, he begins with “Formerly, all people on Earth were hunter-gatherers” (p. 104), which set the stage for a long list of questions, loosely in the form of: “Why did this happen the way it did, and not this?”
“Why?..Why?..Why?”
Then, he “dispels” misconceptions about the origins of food production, and the differing lives led by hunter-gatherers. Finally, we get to the fact that “food production systems evolved as a result of the accumulation of many separate decisions about allocating time and effort” (p. 107) and the consideration of “food production and hunter-gather wrong as alternative strategies competing with each other” (p. 109), ending with a discussion of why, in the end, an advantage was seen in food production, leading to the modern agriculture that we have today.

But, perhaps my favourite chapter so far was Chapter 8, “Apples or Indians”. This chapter compares the facility of cultivating plants and domesticating animals in the Fertile Crescent with two vivid examples at the other extreme – the highlands of New Guinea and the Eastern United States. These examples culminate in an important lesson: it was not some deficiency of the people that lived in these areas that led to relatively less food production than obtained in the Fertile Crescent, but a deficiency in the availability of wild species that could be domesticated for human use or consumption, as well as a deficiency in crops that provided adequate protein and calories for these populations to expand. In fact, Diamond makes the case that the indigenous peoples that inhabited these areas (and in some cases, still do) knew a lot more about their natural environments than we do today, and they were extremely capable in recognizing which varieties of plants would be useful to them. “Native Americans were not constrained by cultural conservatism and were quite able to appreciate a good plant when they saw it” (p. 152).

When the “Mexican triad” was completed in the Eastern United States with the introduction of beans and corn via trading, native species like sumpweed (a relative of ragweed) were discarded and long forgotten as a food source. Somewhat similarly, we have largely forgotten dandelion greens in our modern-day North American salads, instead replacing them with tender lettuces while we spray and weed out the invasive dandelions.

Artificial Selection of Plants & People

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.

Pollan, M. 2001. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House: New York.

In an introduction to The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan starts with a premise: perhaps it is not us (humans) who have solely shaped plants over hundreds and thousands of years, but also plants who have acted to shape us. For many people, myself included, this notion is rather strange, as it shatters our belief as a human species of being in control, reducing us to be little more influential than an insect. Further, for many of us, it changes our whole notion of what a plant is. Of course we have a basic understanding that plants are alive, but seldom would we think of a plant as having a voluntary, active role. And, seldom do we consider that what we choose to eat on a daily basis – the seeds and fruits we consume – could possibly be shaping the plants that produce these foods, and likewise shaping our own genes. In other words, we have been programmed to think of ourselves as subjects and  plants as mere objects, but could this be wrong?
Pollan begins his discussion with some very simple, yet vivid, imagery: lazily sowing seeds in the garden, lost in one’s thoughts. Remarking the sounds and smells of nature; in this case, buzzing bees and sweet fruit. I know that I can relate to this image he has conjured. I’ve often thought of the act of planting seeds as almost too easy, intuitive even, once I got past the initial doubts of my own skill. For a short time I agonized over getting the rows straight, making them deep enough but not too deep, and determining exactly how many seeds I should sprinkle. But even when my work was clumsy and the soil was relatively poor, things grew. As simple as that, a seed would sprout into a seedling, and several weeks later I would have dark green spinach, curly kale, or the tiny beginnings of cucumbers, fat, unripened  tomatoes, the flowers of squash, or up-reaching tendrils of pea plants that would eventually gain pods. Perhaps, I speculate now, this is because nature, or plants more specifically, has selected me (or us) to disperse these seeds. In a way, almost no other act could be so natural. Even as we believe we are rarely associated with plants except for when our hands are in the dirt, deliberately spreading seeds & coaxing them to life, I think it is truer that plants are intertwined with us in a way beyond our imaginations, so vital for everything we need and, as Pollan stresses, desire. Aha, yes, we desire the products of plants. Pollan makes the argument that this is because they have readily adapted to offer us our desires (eg. beauty, nutrition, intoxication), so that we can fulfill for them their destiny of reproduction and expansion. I appreciate Pollan’s injection of humor, as he says, “I can remember the exact moment that spud seduced me, showing off its naughty charms in the pages of a seed catalog”, and reinforces this with “the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light, the manifold delights it offered to the eye and nose and tongue were no longer quite so innocent” (p. xv).

Another image that stuck with me is that of the dog and the wolf. Pollan posits that relative to a domestic dog the wolf seems much more “impressive” to humans, but it is the dog that has been able to readily adapt and survive in a world increasingly governed by human activity, by learning “our needs and desires, our emotions and values, all of which it has folded into its genes” (p. xvi-xvii). He also argues that this is quite similar in plants.

Secondly, in Chapter 7 (“How to Make an Almond”) of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, this idea of the way plants have changed in response to human consumption becomes fleshed out. Diamond begins with a description of domestication from a “plant’s point of view”, outlining how seed dispersal and artificial selection probably first began, mostly accidentally, and both in ways that can be readily seen (eg. picking the biggest, juiciest berries) as well as in ways that are more subtle and unconscious; serendipitous, even (eg. picking and eating the pea pods that don’t pop open and release their peas). He ends with a developmental view of ancient cultures and the crops they domesticated as they became more skilled and purposeful in their agricultural endeavors. I found Diamond’s writing to be a bit more matter-of-fact, with less character and plot development than the other creative non-fiction pieces we have been reading thus far (which could be due to starting with the seventh chapter), but that being said, this book read smoothly, easily, and intriguingly. His word choices certainly evoke the senses; I could taste the wild strawberries and blueberries,“oily” olives, and the crunchy, bitter acorns.

Something that I remarked as I pored over the table of “Examples of Early Major Crop Types around the Ancient World” (p. 126-127) that Diamond includes, which displays cereal grains and legumes (pulses) as the predominant and integral food sources for the human diet, is that it differs greatly from the Americanized and fast-food diet of many people in today’s times, in which animal proteins are often viewed as a staple, while legumes (with the exception of a few) are not largely consumed. Cereal grains do remain widely important, although not in the same ways that our ancient ancestors used them. Breads, bagels, cookies, cakes, muffins, pastas, instant oatmeal, and so on, typically consist of highly processed wheat, corn derivatives (ie. high-fructose corn syrup) and many additional additives.

For me this comes back to a familiar question: how have we so much lost touch with our deeply-ingrained, mutual relationship to plants (the organisms largely responsible for feeding and clothing us)? Will we ever get it back?