April 21, 2007

A reading from a poem by Wendell Berry:

1991 part 2

The ewes crowd to the mangers;
Their bellies widen, sag;
Their udders tighten. Soon
The little voices cry
In morning cold. Soon now
The garden must be worked,
Laid off in rows, the seed
Of life to come brought down
Into the dark to rest,
Abide awhile alone,
And rise. Soon, soon again
The cropland must be plowed,
For the year’’s promise now
Answers the year’’s desire,
Its hunger and its hope.
This goes against the time
When food is bought, not grown.
O come into the market
With cash, and come to rest
In this economy
Where all we need is money
To be well stuffed and free
By sufferance of our Lord,
The Chairman of the Board.
Because there’’s thus no need
To plant one’’s ground with seed.
Under the season’’s sway,
Against the best advice,
In time of death and tears,
In slow snowfall of years,
Defiant and in hope,
We keep an older way
In light and breath to stay
This household on its slope

We live in a world of catastrophe. War, environmental degradation, social injustice, death and destruction are everywhere. Listening to the keynote address yesterday, and its vivid description of the toxic chemicals used in viticulture, and Dr. Hansen’s eloquent understanding – a knowledge that can only be acquired by experience – of the dilemmas of rural life, we see and hear small snapshots of the present reality.

But like any description, the verbalization is inevitably incomplete, even when we contemplate the catastrophe of modern life. Perhaps I should say, especially when we contemplate the catastrophe of modern life. All that we see or perceive is not all that is. Reality is much more complex than that. In permaculture, we talk about “invisible structures”. They typically have a visible component, but like the proverbial iceberg, we can only see the tip.

OSN is an invisible structure. We see some of its visible component here today, but most of what goes on we don’t see. There are connections being made, decisions contemplated, relationships blossoming, information exchanged. There is much more here than meets the eye. Here is not catastrophe – well, maybe the organizers had some catastrophes while they were setting up but if so they aren’t apparent – anyway, here is not catastrophe.

Catastrophe is not the only option the future offers us. I can see something better coming, because I see something better happening right now. So we should ask ourselves, What does this better world look like?

It is smaller yet it is bigger. It’s like Dr. Who’s magical telephone booth. There is more inside than we can see outside. Think globally, act locally – now there’s an invisible structure for you. That phrase has been around so long it is now a cliche, but cliched as it may be, it is nevertheless truth and it is increasing in reality. Modern telecommunications keep the whole world at our access, with just a click or two, we can read the daily news in Burma, or Burkino Faso, or Vanuatu. An injury to one can indeed become an injury to all. Yet, with this global knowledge, If we are going to heal the planet, we have to start with our own lives, our own backyards, our own cities and towns, our own doorstep. It’s like I used to tell some radical friends of mine, “Before anyone is going to trust you with foreign policy, you’re going to have to prove you can handle potholes and sewer systems.”

This better world is founded in personal responsibility. Anyone can go along to get along, that’s a no brainer. That’s in part why we are in the situation we are in. But throughout history, those who have made a difference for the cause of goodness, beauty, truth, and wisdom have been people willing to take personal responsibility for goodness, beauty, truth, and wisdom and to incorporate those invisible structures into their own lives, thus giving a visible sign for all to see. So if you want more wisdom and beauty and goodness in the world, your job first and foremost is to live wisdom, beauty, and goodness in your own life.

One of the most important aspects of OSN is its institutional commitment to practicing what it preaches. Look around you and see all those compost bins. Look at this serving ware that is produced with a non-toxic process and which is compostable. taste the excellent local foods. I personally know many of the families who produced the food that we are eating at this conference. These institutional actions are as important as anything else that goes on here today because actions speak louder than words.

I recently received an email inviting me to go to a conference on “Sacred Foods”. I looked at the website and it looked interesting, but I thought it was odd that they didn’t say anything about the food that would be served at the conference. So I sent them an email of inquiry and the word came back that the conference center had a contract with an institutional food supplier and so the groceries would be standard American agribidness crap. The conference is in June in Chicago, so there isn’t really any excuse about local foods not being available for the event. I am not going to that meeting.

It has not been easy for OSN to get local foods for meals. Many years ago I was in the convention and meeting business and every convention in the whole world practically serves the same homogenized industrial food. I attended a conference at the Cox Center earlier this winter and the food was truly terrible. Yet, yesterday, Kamala Gamble and her staff served a superb meal to a huge crowd. I was towards the end of the line, and I was wondering what condition the food would be in by the time I got there. It was superb. In 2004, when I went to Terra Madre in Turin, Italy, they served meals for 5,000, and every bite was a delight. There is nothing inherent in serving a crowd that dictates that the food taste terrible. It helps to start with the best local foods, and having an artist like Kamala in charge doesn’t hurt either.

Every time OSN holds these annual meetings, we push the envelope of sustainability everywhere we go. I trust that won’t stop as time goes on, because it is an important aspect of OSN as an institution and as an invisible structure. I think it’s called authenticity, and that is also a sign of this better world I like to talk about.

One way to describe how OSN approaches this is “entrepreneurship.” It goes right along with all those high sounding thoughts about beauty, wisdom, and goodness,– entrepreneurship is an inevitable natural succession to personal responsibility. It’s people thinking up new ways to fix old problems and rediscovering old ways to fix new problems. And vice versa, and every other possible permutation. I often carry on about how we started the Oklahoma Food Cooperative without a business plan. We thought about it and we talked about it and we emailed about it and finally, it was a reality – we had called into being a new invisible structure, some of which we could actually see and feel and touch and most importantly, taste. OSN is an entrepreneurial approach to the issue of social change towards a world that is environmentally and economically sustainable, as well as being socially just. I don’t know that any of us who were there at the beginning could necessarily have predicted how all this would turn out today, but look around you and see what’s going on now. Look at the list of sponsors and exhibitors. Think scalability and look ten years in the future. This is how we bring goodness, beauty, and responsibility into the world – one meal at a time, one meeting at a time, one relationship at a time.

This better world is a place where people question authority and participate fully in the social, civil, and political acts of the community. There are many opportunities for this. OSN is offering important input into the mercury rule-making process. I hope all of us Oklahoma City residents plan to advise and counsel the mayor and city council on the upcoming bond issue. $500 million for roads, $9 million for mass transit – what’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong with the allocation of the gas tax that OKC has to take out a 30 year mortgage to repair its roads? Why don’t we spend more money on mass transit so the roads stay in better shape and need less repair? And why don’t we use existing infrastructure such as the rail yard at Union Station as part of a functioning multi-modal mass transit system?

There is one interesting thing, however, about the city’s desire to borrow $500 million to fix the roads that deserves some comment. Opponents of mass transit are fond of saying that mass transit is subsidized transit, and that cars and trucks “pay their own way” through the gasoline taxes, licenses and other fees. Obviously this is not true, since Oklahoma City is proposing that the property taxpayers of Oklahoma City subsidize the automobile system by approving $500 million in city mortgages to pay for its roads.

This better world is literally rooted in the soil. If we are going to heal the planet, while we of course should do everything, we must not forget that the foundation of any civilization is the soil and the most important people are the ones who grow the food. Without a surplus of food, there is no civilization. There are no oil wells or oil refineries, no gleaming airplanes, no mighty cities, no technological advance, no division of labor, no finance system. All the dollars in the world will not buy you one loaf of bread if there is no wheat growing in the fields, if there is no one to grow the wheat, care for the wheat, and then bring it to harvest and table.

We have heard an eloquent description of the toxicity that goes into much farming these days. We have all read elsewhere, and some of us have smelled in person, the problems inherent in confined animal feeding operations. We have the agricultural system that we presently have because that’s what we pay for. When we go to the “supermarket” and spend our money that’s what we buy. It’s another of those invisible structures. You don’t see all the environmental destruction and animal cruelty that is packaged with those supermarket foods, but just because you can’t see it, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. There’s those invisible structures again.

Recently, in an article about local foods, a “nutritionist” from OSU made the astonishing statement that she would rather shop at the supermarket because she was afraid of E coli on organic foods, a reference no doubt to the organic spinach contamination scare of last year. Well, if she is afraid of E coli, she should stay out of the supermarket. How did that spinach become contaminated? A feral pig wandered into a spinach field – after first traversing part of a cattle feedlot. Rooting around in the cattle manure, it acquired a good load of a virulent strain of E coli. That strain of E-coli evolved in the highly acidic digestive system of feedlot cattle, who are fed an unnatural diet in order to fatten them for market. Science magazine recently published a study reporting that grain feeding of cattle increases the bacteria count and their resistence to stomach acids. This high stomach acidity is not natural in ruminants so once stranded in feedlots, they become ill from their diet and the filthy conditions and they require heavy use of antibiotics to keep them alive. So it comes to pass that antibiotic resistent strains of E coli develop, thrive, and spread in these confined animal feeding operation disease factories. Besides corn, that feed includes animal byproducts like beef tallow, feather meal, and chicken parts. According to the book Fast Food Nation, 13 processing plants produce almost all of the meat in the supermarket system, thus making it easy to spread disease.

[Special note for coop members: some of the coop producers do feed their animals some grain, but the animals are not confined in feedlots, the time on grain feeding is much less than the typical feedlot steer (1 to 2 months for coop producers, maybe 5 months in a feedlot). No animal products can be used in the feeds, nor can antibiotics be routinely included in the feed. You can always ask the producer about his or her production practices to clarify anything you don’t understand. All of the meat and poultry sold through the coop comes from free-ranging animals and birds.]

The contaminated spinach also went through a centralized processing system, so that people in 26 states got sick. A study in Consumer Reports found that 83% of broiler chicken in a supermarket was contaminated with dangerous levels of bacteria.

If our OSU nutritionist is afraid of filthy food, she is much better off buying from Oklahoma farmers than she is shopping in the supermarket.

Food systems grow from personal choices. If we want something better, if we want this better world I keep talking about, then we have to take personal responsibility for our household’s choices. If we want a more sustainable, just, and humane system of agriculture, then there must be a market for the products of more sustainable, just, and humane farms.

Thus, Personal and household choices about where and how we spend our kitchen money and time are critical decisions about the future of this planet. Your active participation in healing the planet begins with a detailed observation of your present situation and an inventory of what you have and do, what you need, and the challenges of getting from here to there.

OSN conferences are a great place to explore new ideas in that regard.

Natural succession is the rule in nature, and we find it in human ecologies too if we know what to look for. A mature forest does not spring into being overnight. It starts small, or it doesn’t start at all and that’s true for us too. Change is often exciting but it can also be scary for people, especially when we are talking about food.

A local food system is about distributing basic foods; it does not look like a supermarket. And thank God the food does not taste like supermarket food.

Modern consumer culture has degraded food to the status of mere fuel, and devalued it of any greater cultural or existential meaning. But food is not just fuel. Food is life. It speaks of our families and our cultures, our identity as persons and communities, Eating is an agricultural act, and eating is a moral act and you are what you eat.. The big questions are – what food is in your kitchen, where did it come from, who produced it? Do the groceries create beauty and wisdom and environmental sustainability? Do you even think about that and your food? Do you steal food from hungry children in poor countries to feed your household? It’s time that we focused on the food first, and then let the form and function of our food systems flow from that original essential reality. When OSN goes the extra mile to secure local foods for its meetings, it is saying something about who we are as an organization. And what it says is beauty, wisdom, goodness, and truth.

Which leads me to my final point, which is that this better world is a time and place of hope and promise. Even as the smoke rolls into the air from the fires of Mordor, and hosts of genetically modified evil descend to murder and destroy, out of sight and thus out of mind, hope creeps slowly and carefully along a way that leads to a better world. The promise of tomorrow is not a genetically modified nightmare of soylent green. The hope we carry is not the death of our species in an orgy of mindless consumerism. We can see the true hope and promise of tomorrow because right now we are busy creating a tomorrow of sustainability and justice, beauty and wisdom, truth and authenticity. The day of the genetically modified orc is past, what we see about us is the tumultuous birth of promise and hope. That doesn’t mean that this is an easy time, ask any woman who has given birth about that. It does mean that the tumult and the suffering has meaning and is not purposeless. This purpose that we read into these events is, of course, itself another indivisible structure that we brought into being, but that does not make it any the less real. Self-fulfilling prophecies are the best kind of prophecies, because they always come true. We just have to be careful about which prophecies we choose to self-fulfill.

I do not mean to trivialize the challenges that come before us this day – peak oil, climate instability, war and injustice are real and cannot be ignored. There is more there too than we can see with our eyes, and that’s an important concept to think about. The response of humanity to these challenges clearly hangs in the balance. This is why each individual’s effort is important. Nobody can say to himself or herself, “What I do doesn’t matter”, because everything we do does matter. By our choices, we vote for the better world I have been talking about, or we vote for catastrophe and collapse. No one knows where the critical mass is that leads us to hope or to doom, so it’s better that we don’t push the envelope of catastrophe, but rather run forward into beauty, goodness and wisdom. As we become the change we want to see – and remember, this too works both ways – we bring into reality a self-fulfilling prophecy of hope and promise for all people and indeed all the earth.

The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows for me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests,
in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things,
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief,
I come into the presence of still water,
and I feel above me the dayblind stars,
waiting with their light,
for a time, I rest in the grace of the world,
and am free.