Archive for January, 2018

The Gift of Other

When my sister wrote this post, it got me thinking about a family I haven’t talked to in far too long. She has her own memories of them, and that Thanksgiving food fight was epic, but there was so much more than that. Being reminded of them in the context of a bigger world made me realize that they had given me a gift I think many people never have.

The mother and her son, the one I was friends with at least, were both very proud of their Native American heritage. The son and I met in preschool and remained friends even after they moved to another city before middle school. Part of being friends was spending time at each other’s houses and with each other’s families. It was running around in the back yard and playing by the river and pond. It was playing house and eating what the hosting mother was making for lunch. I distinctly remember launching G.I. Joes off the ceiling fan at his house since we could reach the blades from the stairs.

For me, at least, it was also learning about a world that wasn’t my own. My biggest memories of that were the annual dances at Indian Steps Museum. I was always invited, but I was always invited as a guest. There was no doubt in my mind that they wanted me there, but it was also very clear that there were things that I wouldn’t be able to participate in. I was, as they put it, a white girl, not a red girl. So I would always look at all of the wonderful crafts for sale by the Natives from their own cultures and imaginations and I would join the dances that were open to everyone. Well, I would be coaxed into joining, since I was shy. But I also learned to sit outside the circle and simply observe the dances that weren’t open for everyone. I learned to share in something from a respectful distance.

Native American cultures have always fascinated me, no doubt starting from this early introduction. It wasn’t until fairly recently, though, that I realized I might not approach wanting to learn from them in quite the same way as others do.

When I was living in Colorado, I met a woman who was working on convincing the local school to let her teach brain-tanning of hides to elementary students the way she had taught her daughters. I was dearly hoping she would expand this past just the school children because I wanted to learn from her. This wasn’t a wilderness school that took basic information and made it accessible, not that there’s anything wrong with that. This was someone who was teaching what her parents had taught her and their parents had taught them. This was not just a practical skill, but a culturally specific way of doing it that had the weight of generations behind it.

When the protests against DAPL were going strong, I had given some thought to going out to Standing Rock to offer my services. I was willing to be told to peel potatoes, write blog posts, or stand in front of the cops. The leaders would know where I would be of the most use to the people trying to protect a water source. I never went, but I did hear that a lot of white people did show up. No few of them treated this fight for basic rights like it was a Burning Man festival.

When I moved to Colorado and realized I wanted to start growing there, I knew that the best place to go for information were the people that had been there for generations upon generations. (The oldest white family I came across was one whose great-grandfather had been a mountain man.) I was living in a high desert, a place totally unlike the East Coast where my recent family had come from and totally unlike Western Europe where my ancestral roots have been traced to. Water was in my bones, water to excess. Dryness, the ability to thrive when water was limited, that was in the bones of the local Native Americans. I didn’t study them. Somehow, I never really made time for it. I learned how to make raised beds, a very European/East Coast piece of knowledge. I never did try out the lowered beds I saw in the Native exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. In a place where water was scarce, I learned what was being taught. That was how to get water out of the area I wanted to plant, not to keep it in. But when you look at who’s teaching the bulk of gardening courses and doing the gardening research, it’s people with water in their bones, not desert. Most of us just never see that as a problem.

What that family gave me all those years ago was the ability to understand that what I know, what I see as normal, is just one way of seeing things. And it’s not a given that it’s the right way. By sitting and watching these other cultures be themselves, I was exposed to other ways of viewing the world. By being asked to sit outside the circle sometimes, I was given the chance to be the outsider, the token, the minority.

I forget this lesson on a regular basis. I get so caught up in just getting by, just being “normal,” that I forget normal is entirely relative. Much of it stemming from your own relatives, at that. There are other normals out there. We’re losing them at a remarkable pace as the Western, white, consumerist culture devours them, picking out the best pieces to keep and destroying the rest. They aren’t dead yet, though, and I think it would benefit all of us to remember/learn that all of those others exist(ed) for a reason. Just because it’s not my culture, not in my bones, doesn’t make it any less valid. It is in someones bones, and they are the people to ask about it.

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Rotten Documentary

I just watched Netflix’s documentary, Rotten. It left me with a few distinct thoughts. Know your farmer. That includes your honey and tilapia farmers. Encourage your kids to play in the dirt and eat wild plants. Have them bring in a couple handfuls of plantains to toss in the dinner salad for the family. I had no idea garlic was such a troubled food. There is always more than one side to a story, and if there’s money involved, the side we’re hearing should probably be getting some serious side-eye. More and more often, there’s a lot of money involved.

Each of the six episodes had their own focus: honey, allergies, garlic, broilers, milk, and fishing, specifically in New England. As they are all just under an hour, they can’t cover all of the issues in each of those categories. Instead, they focus on the human costs involved. A big portion of most of them involves looking at the regulations in the given industry as well as import/export rules. The theme across all of them seems to be that the regulators are trying, for the most part, to do good, but there are so many costs for the people on the ground doing the actual work that most American farmers and fishers simply can’t compete in the global market. Particularly when the global market has every incentive to not play fair.

The flip side of that is that while the regulators are trying, they are invariably ignoring the people who know the industry and would love to help fix it. According to the folks doing the fishing, the regulators aren’t counting the fish accurately when they’re coming up with their quotas for the season. They’re also using a system that Norway has already determined is terrible for the small businesses as theirs had been mostly been wiped out by the time the system was implemented over here. I suspect that most of the people whose families have been fishing for generations would be willing to buy into a system that let them keep food on the table in their house and would ensure there are enough fish in the sea for their children and grandchildren to do the same. The dairy farmers said, “The farm used to support the family, now the family supports the farm.” As for the chicken growers, they’ve been handed all of the risks and none of the benefits in a system that will actually kick them if they’re down whether it’s their fault or not. People wonder why the number of farmers is dwindling alarmingly? This might have something to do with it.

American farming and fishing has its issues. It always has. I am not saying that the family-sized businesses always get it right and never make more trouble than they solve. However, through each of the episodes there seem to be three major themes that are causing problems: globalization, big money, and cheap food. If a shortcut can be made by using cheaper labor, diluting the food, substituting cheaper ingredients, or any other tactic that will increase the profit margin, it’s taken with no concern about the non-monetary costs. In America, we’ve gotten used to the idea of cheap food, so when we go to the store, we look at the farmed tilapia, not the wild-caught cod. If that tilapia was farmed on a local scale, that’s probably fine. Actually, fish farming is a pretty cool way to get healthy protein into food deserts as long as it’s done well. But the label at the store probably doesn’t tell you where it came from. When there’s big money involved, they can afford to bring in this cheap fish that was raised where labor costs are low. Unfortunately, that often corresponds with unsanitary conditions when raising and butchering them. It also sends money out of a community that probably can’t afford to lose it.

I suspect most people have heard about the adulterated honey from China at this point. Apparently it’s far more profitable to put non-honey syrups into jars, ship them to other countries, relabel them, and sell them in the US than to just sell actual honey. All of this while constantly keeping ahead of the scientists who are testing for non-honey Chinese honey. This leads to all sorts of messes over here like apiaries depending on shipping their bees all over the country for pollination contracts because honey prices aren’t enough to make ends meet. All of the bees in the country meeting once a year to pollinate almonds means that once per year they get to trade diseases. Thieves also know exactly where to find thousands of hives all packed up for easy moving.

What I didn’t know was that China also has a massive interest in garlic. As in, 90% of the world’s garlic is grown there. While you cannot dilute garlic cloves with non-garlic cloves, the processing to make bulbs into peeled cloves does not require any sort of skilled labor the way bees do. In fact, it appears that prison populations do a whole lot of the garlic processing. This labor is even cheaper than US prison labor and it has fewer quality controls. While most of the Chinese garlic exporters pay massive tariffs to get their garlic here, there’s one company that doesn’t. The large US company that they work with is disputing the allegation that they are using their influence to protect this particular company, of course. The lawsuit brought against the Chinese company also has some strange financial dealings on the other side, so it isn’t without concern. However, I think it’s safe to say that if we didn’t have large international companies trying to play the money games only they can play, the small New Mexico farmers could focus on growing garlic not lawyers and payouts for trials.

From the Netflix website, it looks like they intend to have more seasons of this documentary in the future. While it’s far from comprehensive on any one subject, I think the breadth of what they’re reviewing is important as well. It’s not just about making sure you pick up honey at the local farmer’s market instead of Wal-Mart. It’s about understanding that the knowledge necessary for this country to feed itself is being slowly strangled because in food, as in so much else, it is becoming strictly about the bottom line. Who cares what’s lost and damaged along the way. Who cares who loses as long as the big companies win.