Wednesday, 23 March 2016

There Must Be Food for the Soul.

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. Toronto (ONT): Vintage Canada. p. 149-262.

Three essential rules to follow when making ice cream.

Rule #1: Don’t Cook Angry

“Sorry,” my brother says, elbowing me by accident as he reaches for the kitchen shears sitting across from me.

I swing my arm down to crack the egg in my hand. The shell shatters, puncturing the yolk in the process. I watch as whites, yolk, and egg shell combine in my bowl.

“No problem,” I grit my teeth and silently rage.

Rule #2: Don’t Get Distracted

I place the pot with the ice cream custard base onto the stove. During this stage, I have to be very careful not to cook it too quickly or the eggs in it will heat up too fast and scramble. Then I stand there at the stove, whisking, making sure the mixture never comes to a boil.

“Meow,” my cat, Morpheus, threads his way in between my legs.

“Hey kitty, are you hungry?” He flops onto his back and starts to purr. I reach down and pet him, cooing as he wriggles around on the floor. Suddenly a blob of custard splatters onto the floor beside my cat. I shoot up, panicking, and quickly shut the gas burner off.

I look at my now lumpy mixture of ice cream base.

“Ah crap.”

Rule #3: If Your Mother Suggests Something, Take Her Advice

“Wouldn’t it be easier just to use the juicer?” My mother asks me as I stuff some cherries into the food processer.

“Mom, the recipe says puree, not juice.” I roll my eyes as I flip the processor’s switch on. The machine comes to life with a whir and dices the cherries into lumpy pieces. I add the cherry puree to my chilled custard (strained of all egg pieces, of course). Then I pour the whole mix into my ice cream maker. In half an hour, I’ll have ice cream.

The ice cream maker stops. I take the lid off of it to look at my frozen confection. My heart sinks.

It was brown.

Pureeing the cherries didn’t release enough juices to turn the mixture into the pale pink I was hoping for. My mother looks at me, raising a delicate eyebrow. She opens her mouth to speak.

“-don’t.” I cut her off, “Just don’t.”

Making new food is always an adventure for me. I love to cook and most of the time what I cook ends up being pretty tasty. That’s not always the case with confections like ice cream. Confections are probably one of the things I will never master. I can’t count the number of times I’ve burnt my candy/caramel, burnt my hand, or burnt the stove whenever I try to make sweet things (not including cakes or cookies of course). So, when my second attempt at making ice cream was a success I felt a sense of accomplishment. I think that’s what Alisa Smith felt when she successfully made her first soup as well.

I finish my blogging journey of the relationship of plants and people in a full circle. Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon welcomed me back to the 100 Mile Diet just as they began their hardest months of local eating. I had last left the couple back in October just as the winter months began to set in.

I admit, I felt a little worried for the two of them because they would soon be saying goodbye to fresh fruit and vegetables as the farmer’s markets closed and their gardens withered in the cold. Smith and MacKinnon did not have an easy start to winter eating. Preserving corn in the wee hours of the morning did little to help preserve their wits. I could feel in Smith and MacKinnon’s writing how strained their relationship was becoming due to this experiment. It made me feel quite uncomfortable to read about it.

 The turning point, much to my relief, finally came when they found their coveted wheat farmer. As Dorothy Day once said, food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul. I full heartedly believe that bread is the food of the soul. What is more comforting than a freshly baked loaf of bread? And crackers! And pancakes! I was overjoyed when Smith and MacKinnon found this staple to hold them out throughout the winter. I pity the people on gluten free diets. I just love food too much to even attempt one.

Despite my happy feelings for the now happy couple, something dark lingered in the back of my mind. It came to a forefront when Smith sat down for a precooked dinner with her grandmother. What will the future of our food look like? Will there ever come a day in some dystopian future where preparing food yourself is unheard of? Will everything you eat come prepackaged at the supermarket? Will the thought of local eating fade away as some fanciful fad? It’s a terrifying thought.

I feel like just in the last few years I’ve begun to see more and more prepackaged vegetables. Of all things, vegetables! I don’t even remember when romaine lettuce started to come already prepared to use in a bag. When did that happen? I can finally see the importance of the 100 Mile Diet. This wasn’t just an experiment about local eating, this was a statement about our current way of eating.

We’ve lost connection with our food.

I feel like people today are too content with following other people’s advice about food. I feel like there’s too many people following food fads just because they are popular. I feel that people have become too passive with their food. We just don’t care anymore and because we don’t care anymore, it’s become too easy for corporations to pervert our food. I fell that this submissive attitude is the root of our problems.

At the beginning of this experiment I was skeptical about local eating. I am happy to say, that my attitude has changed. I am not saying that I will insist to my parent that we should only eat local food. I am saying that I will become more active with what I choose to eat, and yes, part of that includes trying to eat locally.
Today is March 23. Spring has just begun. Tulips are slowly pushing their way out of the soil. My future goals: go to the farmer’s market and cook a locally sourced meal for my family.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Grass: A Sunlight Sonata

Pollan Michael. 2006. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meal. New York (NY): Penguin Books.

The cheaper we make the cost of living the more expensive it becomes. Western Society has fine crafted the ways of perverting the natural order of life so that its people can benefit from it. We clone our corn, gorge our cattle on grains they were never meant to eat, and mutilate our pigs to prevent them from seeking relief from the depression of their lives. Our soils are swollen with toxins and our skies are choked with smog. Epidemics of obesity are on the rise but the price of your hamburger and fries just keeps getting lower. Am I coming off a little strong to you? Well, reading Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma make me very emotional, and not in the ‘sad sappy movie’ kind of way.

The subject matter that Michael Pollan touches on in the Omnivore’s Dilemma is capable of evoking emotions of anger, frustration, and guilt in me. However, Chapter Ten: Grass, also induced hope. When I read about The Conquest of Corn, I did not have much hope or faith that Western Society could ever change its ways. The system that arose from corn just seemed too integrated in our society today for there to ever be an alternative. I did not think that anyone cared. Or rather, I did not think that anyone cared enough to do anything about it. Then, Michael Pollan introduced me to Joel Salatin.

Joel Salatin is the owner and proprietor of Polyface Farms. His motto is all about natural organic foods and curing global warming with cow. Wait? What? But aren’t cows part of the problem? Well, yes, cows are part of the global carbon emission problem but that is only because of how we are raising them.

I learned earlier about the horrors of raising feedlot cows. Hundreds of cows are forced together in small, dusty, filth filled enclosures where they are force fed a diet of corn flakes and anti-biotics. These cows will never know a life outside these pens. They will never eat a single blade of grass. Salatin raises his cows as nature intended: on a diet of grass.

Salatin admits that his neighbours think he’s insane for the way he raises his cows. He is a grass farmer that practises rotational grazing and this means he moves his cattle every single day.  By practising rotational grazing, farmers can mimic the natural grazing cycle of ruminants. “’Whether it is wildebeests on the Serengeti, caribou in Alaska, or bison on the American plains, multistomached herds are always moving onto fresh ground, following the cycles of grass.’” (page 193) The cows eat just about everything in the paddock but they are moved to fresh pasture before they can destroy the natural habitat.

The grass is then given a chance to grow but this time it’s fertilized by cow manure. The cows also spread the grass seeds and create shady safe havens with their hoof prints where water collects and seeds can germinate. Cows that are raised with rotational grazing are also kept healthy and free of parasites that they would otherwise get from staying confined in enclosures that accumulate with their waste. The best part of it, I think, is that cows get to be cows. Too often humans forget that animals can think and feel themselves. Rotational grazing cows aren’t tormented like feedlot cows.

I mentioned earlier that Salatin believes that his way of farming can cure climate change. How you may ask? Well think about it. Instead of raising his cows on corn, he’s feeding them grass. Yes, yes, I know I ready explained this but hold on. The grass farm that Salatin grows is not a monoculture like corn. It is a polyculture. There are dozens of species of grass growing in his pastures. “A diverse enough polyculture of grasses can withstand virtually any shock and in some places will produce in a year nearly as much total biomass as a forest receiving the same amount of rainfall.” (page 197) So what does this mean?

It means that Joel Salatin’s grass farm is removing thousands of pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year! Now, imagine. What if we replaced all of those monocultures of corn that we use to feed cows, with grass? Not only will our cattle be living healthier and happier lives, the grass would offset the emissions of fossil fuels. “For example, if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year; the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road.” (page 198)

I was really struck by Salatin’s words. “’I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time.’” (page 212) I thought this was a beautiful metaphor. I think, to extend the metaphor further, agriculture should be like going to the symphony. The plants and animals are the instruments, the farmers are the musicians and conductors, and the consumers are the audience. A symphony isn’t just about the music. A symphony is about the hard work.. The instruments must be well cared for and tuned to produce beautiful music. The musician must know his instrument intimately and he must practise for hours to produce the right sounds. Finally, the audience doesn’t come to a symphony just for they music. They come to appreciate the hard work of the musician. They come to marvel at how instrument, musician, and conductor can come together to produce a masterpiece.

Yes, I agree that Salatin is idealistic in his views of farming but the fact that someone is trying makes me feel hopeful. There is another way for the system to work. Western Society does not have to live the way it does. We have options. Life doesn’t have to be expensive to be cheap.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

A Rose by Any Other Name (or, how many different ways can I say marijuana?)

Pollan Michael. 2001. The Botany of Desire. Toronto (ONT): Random House, Inc.
Usually I like to start my blogs with a short paragraph or anecdote of how the weekly reading relates to my personal life. Stories, after all, are more interesting when personal connections can be made. This week’s reading of Chapter Three from Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire was difficult to make a personal connection with because the subject matter in question was about marijuana. My personal experience with marijuana starts with news broadcasts vilifying the plant and ends with the occasional skunky smell of it wafting through the air as I take my dogs for walks around the neighbourhood. I’ve never had a desire to experiment with it nor have I ever been peer pressured into trying it. The thought of filling my lungs with any sort of smoke makes me cringe. After all, I am a choir girl and singer; my lungs are a very precious tool to me. I may not have any experience with Miss Mary-J but I have heard plenty of stories of other people’s experiences with it. Many of which, like Michael Pollan’s, are very funny.

When I read about Pollan’s personal experience with growing the green bud I laughed out loud. Firstly, I would like to know how anyone could forget about growing something like that in his backyard. I did not realize a cannabis plant could grow so large. I thought they were short shrubby things. Of course, the movie Pineapple Express probably should not be taken as an accurate source for botanical descriptions (Further reading of Chapter 3 actually confirms that, yes, they can actually be short shrubby things). I had to reread the section of Pollan’s encounter with the chief of police because I was laughing so hard. For some reason, thinking about that scenario reminds me of a naughty child almost getting caught by their parents with something they should not have. I cannot even begin to understand why hash has become such a stigmatized plant. I would like to know which bureaucrat decided that a “garden can be found guilty of violating drug laws.” (pg 125)

I have to admit, this week’s reading bored me a little. That’s an unusual thing for me to say because usually I really like Michael Pollan’s work. However, it was probably just due to my lack of ‘appreciation’ for the subject matter. It was not all bad, I suppose. I did learn some interesting things about the history of marijuana and a bit of insight on the nature of human desire. I especially enjoyed reading from a Pollan-eyed view on page 160. On page 160, Pollan is explaining what our sense of consciousness does for us. He demonstrated, in a unique way, what we filter through our brain every waking second of the day. Pollan described everything he could see, hear, taste, and feel in that instant. I cannot say for certain that I have seen this sort of literary device used so extensively before.

I found the genetics behind growing dope interesting. I did not know that there were two strains of cannabis (sativa and indica) or that they actually ‘taste’ different. The fact that pot grown today contains 20% (nearly ten times as much as  the wild plant) of THC astounded me. I was not surprised, however, to learn that marijuana is cultivated by cloning. On page 135, Pollan discusses the innovations herb growers have come up with to cultivate it. “By 1987, all of these various advances and techniques had coalesced into a state-of-the art indoor growing regimen that came to be known as the Sea of Green…A Sea of Green garden consist[s] of a hundred clones, grown under a pair of thousand-watt lights in a space no bigger than a pool table.” I was strongly reminded in this instance of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Instead of cloning hundreds of humans and stripping away the very nature of humanity however, marijuana plants are cloned by the dozens and forced to exist in situations that are the very opposite of their nature.  

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Live and Let Die

Hanson Thor. 2015. The Triumph of the Seeds: How grains, nuts, kernels, pulses, & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York (NY): Basic Books.

In this industrial age it seems to be quite easy to forget that plants provide more than just nourishment. Plants build our homes, they clothe our bodies, and even offer us the means to eliminate our enemies. Plants share a dichotomy of life and death. They are capable of saving lives just as well as taking them. Chapter 11 of Thor Hanson’s Triumph of the Seed brings attention to these two contrasting aspects of plants but mainly focuses on the toxins that seeds produce and the ways they are used.

Hanson begins his chapter on the grim tale of plants with a humorous start. If “Death by Umbrella” did not grab your attention then I do not know what would. The chapter title did grasp my attention but it was the first paragraph that really drew me in. When I first read The Triumph of the Seed I was not very interested. Yes, it was humorous to read his struggles of trying to open up a seed with his office desk but the following pages I read were not quite as easy to follow. I am not sure it was because Hanson progressed in his abilities to tell a story or if it was due to the fact I found plant toxins a more interesting topic to read about, but I devoured this chapter faster than my dog with a Dentastix (which, by the way, is really fast).

As morbid as it sounds, I really enjoyed the introduction of the James Bond-esque death of Georgi Markov that Hanson presented at the beginning of the chapter. Not only did it present a simple way to ease the reader into the subject material, it provided a bizarre and interesting real life example of how deadly a plant can be. I asked my mother what comes to her mind when I said deadly plants and her immediate response was “Venus flytrap”. To many people, a deadly plant should be large and intimidating. A deadly plant should have a great cavernous maw with rows of sharp jagged teeth-like spines and be capable of devouring animals in one gulp. These deadly plants should only be found in far off and exotic places where only the most intrepid explorer can find them. A deadly plant should not be available off the Internet with a few clicks of the mouse and a handy credit card.

I could not believe that something so dangerous could be so readily available to people, but Hanson demonstrated this was exactly the case. Castor beans, the source of the deadly toxin responsible for Markov’s death, can be purchased off the internet. They are also the main component in Castrol oil. In addition, castor bean can be used in jewelry or as an ornamental plant. I had to google what a castor beans looked like and why anyone would want to grow them. They are actually quite striking looking plants with red fuzzy looking fruit. I also discovered my neighbour down the street grows one in their backyard. Small world, huh.

Hanson involves other people in his story about seeds. In earlier chapters, we became acquainted with Carol and Jerry Baskin, two experts in seeds. We met with Bill DiMichelle later on in the bottom of a desert canyon as well. In this chapter, Hanson introduced us to his friend and colleague Steve Brunsfeld. I thought it was amusing to read about the two of them consuming almendro seeds despite the risks they pose to liver cells and the fact that Steve was a liver cancer survivor.  I was very upset to read he passed away later on due to remission of his cancer. Hanson already described the death of Georgi Markov but for some reason reading about the passing of Steve Brunsfeld felt more personal.

Looking back on the chapter, I began to realize how na├»ve and ignorant I am about the world of seeds. It really should not shock me that deadly plants are easily available to the general public. When I think about it, many of the plants we consume on a daily basis contain toxins. Just take apples as an example; the seeds contain cyanide. There reason for this toxicity is because the plant needs to protect its offspring. Hanson explains this quite well. “On the surface, the notion of lethal seed poisons seem to make perfect sense. It’s a natural extension of the same adaptations that led to spices, caffeine, and other natural defensive compounds. After all, what better way to protect your seeds than to kill anything that tries to eat them?” (pg. 172)

Hanson has further enlightened me about the world of seeds. As I said before, the toxicity of plants should not shock me. Plants need to be able to protect their offspring to ensure the continuation of their species. I guess I just never thought about toxins from a plants point of view. As a human, poison mean death, but to a plant, it means life.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Nectar of the Gods, Food of the Future

Pollan Michael. 2001. The Botany of Desire. Toronto (ONT): Random House, Inc.

The more I learn about my food the more I realize how much I do not know anything about it. I sat down to read this week’s assigned chapters with a bowl of potato chips and a glass of apple juice. I have to admit, I did not know what the chapters were about beforehand and so I had no idea how ironically appropriate my snack was.  That humble little bowl of perfectly rounded potato chips and that tall glass of sweet apple juice was unknowingly about to take me on a trip through time with deities and genetic engineering. Sounds like an interesting plot, right? Well you’re in luck, because with the help of Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, that is exactly what you get. This week’s reading had me delving into the desires of sweetness and control through the stories of the apple and potato.
I was excited to read more of Pollan’s work because I find him to be an excellent story teller. He did not prove me wrong with The Botany of Desire. However, there were a few things I found to be a bit nit-picky. Firstly, I was not expecting Pollan to delve into the history of John Chapman, otherwise known as Johnny Appleseed.
I am not sure if it is because I was born a Canadian and that Johnny Appleseed rests only within the minds of Americans, but I was not particularly interested in learning about him. In fact, before reading The Botany of Desire, I thought he was a fictional character that Americans invented to explain how the apple spread across their country. Even then, it took me a couple pages to realize that Pollan was not talking about a folktale and that he was, instead, referring to a real person.
Despite my newfound knowledge, I still was not very interested in learning about him. Unfortunately, Pollan had other plans and he dragged me along with him to discover the roots of John Chapman. On the up-side, I was able to learn some interesting things about apples along the way. For example, I never knew that apples were used to make alcoholic beverages (applejack) or that finding a sweet apple in an orchard of bitter ones was the equivalent to winning the lottery. 
I began to see Johnny Appleseed in a new light when Pollan came to his realization of who he truly represented. Along the way, Pollan foreshadowed it many time but until he outright said it, I could not quite put the puzzle pieces together. “Johnny Appleseed was no Christian saint – that left out too much of who he was, what he stood for in our mythology. Who he was, I realized, was the American Dionysus.” (pg. 36) From that point on, John Chapman and his apple orchards became a little more interesting. My love of Greek mythology far outshines my knowledge of American folk heroes.  
With my interest restored, I delved further into The Botany of Desire, but now, I was not in the apple orchards of Ohio, I was in the laboratories of the genetic giant, Monsanto. Many people fear that genetically modified foods are dangerous. Certainly, the words ‘genetically modified’ sound intimidating on their own. These words bring to mind the misshapen by-products of a post-apocalyptic world. However, one would be surprised upon seeing the product of genetic engineering: a simple potato.
I have never really had much of an opinion on genetically modified foods. From a scientist’s point of view, it’s simply evolution and artificial selection but on a much faster scale. Pollan, was quick to show me that there was much more to it than just that. It was not so much the food itself that posed the problem; it was the company behind it. Such is the power of Monsanto that it can patent the food you grow and endanger a public resource, Bacillus thuringiensis, with nary a thought. Monsanto defines the word control.
The Botany of Desire is the story of man’s aspiration to assert its authority over nature. The Botany of Desire is also the story of nature’s devious manipulations over man. We think that we are the ones in control. Monsanto is a good example of man’s triumph over nature. We have designed and manipulated plants to fulfill our desires. We’ve created hundreds of new species of apples to satisfy our lust for sweetness. Plants, in turn, have cleverly used us to ensure the survival and improvement of their own offspring. Michael Pollan’s unique perspective on the subject matter has left me with some new ways of viewing plants and people. Who knew that a bowl of potato chips could be the source of such controversy and a glass of apple juice could have such close ties to a god?

P.S. I wrote this before the reading list was updated and I didn't want to rewrite it. There were some sentences that I just really wanted to keep.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Children of the Corn, Indeed

Pollan Michael. 2006. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meal. New York (NY): Penguin Books.

“It’s just chicken, Sam,” I reassured myself.

I stared at the plate of freshly cooked meat sitting in front of me and my stomach churned. My mother looked over at me with concern, no doubt my face was turning green as well. It was dinner time and I had just finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

I’m not a vegetarian, but today, I could not even stomach the thought of eating any meat. Looking at that plate of chicken on the table made me nauseous. All I could think of was steer number 534.

“I’m not that hungry tonight,” I replied weakly, “could you pass the vegetables, please?”

My brother handed me a bowl of corn. My vision spun.

“Maybe just the potatoes, please…”

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, was this week’s reading and it was very informative. Michael Pollan followed the journey of corn from the fields it was grown in, the trains it traveled on, the factories it was processed in, to the hungry people it fed. Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma was like watching a train wreck. At first, everything seemed fine, it was a typical day on the tracks. Pollan’s introduction discussed the history of corn and how it became America’s number one crop, there was some humours and obligatory information on corn sex, and then everything got worse.

Like watching a train wreck, my eyes were glued with some sort of horrified fascination to the pages of this book. Pollan was not holding anything back when he recounted his journey following the grain. When I read about the plague of cheap corn I wanted to bash my head against something hard. “Instead of supporting farmers, the government was now subsidizing every bushel of corn a farmer could grow – and American farmers pushed to go flat out could grow a hell of a lot of corn.” (pg. 53)


Even a young child knows that when a bathtub is too full she has to turn off the tap. So why flood your markets with corn only to make the value of corn decrease and therefore you profit decrease as well? Where is the logic in that?! I am not even a business student and I know that that is bad! America (and I bet Canada isn’t guilt free either) does not know when to stop. America isn’t the land of the free, it’s the land of gimme more.

Needless to say, Pollan is an excellent writer to make me feel so strongly about a subject I am just becoming aware about. Despite how angry it made me feel at some points, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is written very well. Like The Botany of Desire, Pollan did not just slap down a tonne of facts onto the pages of his book, he crafted a lyrical story. Pollan brings other people’s voices, like George Naylor and Ricardo Salvador, into the story. By doing this, Pollan’s story make me feel emotionally invested in their lives.

I felt angry when I read about Naylor not being able to make enough money to feed his family, despite living in a literal cornucopia. I also felt embarrassed and ashamed when I read about the corn that was so carelessly scattered on the grounds beneath the grain elevator. “’In Mexico, even today you do not let corn lay on the ground; it is considered sacrilegious.’” (pg. 58) What has happened in America that people do not view such an important resource the same way?

Ultimately, I was expecting that I was going to enjoy reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, but I never thought how personally it would affect me. Michael Pollan has taken a single, insignificant grain and turned it into something larger and far more impacting then I ever thought it could be. Pollan made me realize how integrated corn is in our lives. The very foundations of our nations are build upon it. We are children and people of corn.

After reading this book, I walked around my house in a daze. I began to wonder about all the things that could be made of corn. Was the chicken that my family was eating for diner fed corn? How much corn was in that can of pop my brother was drinking? Was there corn in my toothpaste? I began to hate corn. I hated what it represented (a welfare crop for farmers trying to make enough money to feed their family). I hated that it was necessary (with our current population sizes, what else is there to sustain a nation on?) . The title of Pollan's book is incredibly accurate; I am an omnivore, and this is my dilemma.  

Friday, 22 January 2016

Making Modern Man

Diamond Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. New York (NY): Norton & Company, Inc.

This week’s reading for plants and people was chapters 4, 5, 6, and 8 of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. These four chapters encompass the dawn of agriculture. Diamond explains the possible reasons behind the transition of human society from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a farming lifestyle. He asks the question why farming appeared in certain geographical areas before others and he attempts to answer the question by examining the relationship between the plants and people that resided in those geographical areas.
I found this week’s reading very difficult to follow. Guns, Germs, and Steel reads like The Triumph of the Seeds but without Thor Hanson’s humorous overtones. It felt like I was reading a textbook. I had brought the book with me to school one day and one of my friends asked me if I was reading a new book (I’m a shameless bibliophile who delights in occupying my study time with absorbing books like they’re going out of style). I told her it was for class and she asked me if it was any good. My response to her was, “It’s like listening to the Charlie Brown teacher.”
Despite having a difficult time reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, I did learn some interesting things. To begin with, I never thought about mankind’s transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a farming society. Usually, when I think of the evolution of mankind I think about a time-lapse video. The entirety of humankind’s transition from lumbering caveman to modern man can be summed up into a few short seconds in these videos. Scenes of roman warriors to American pilgrims pass by in a flash and it becomes an accepted fact that we are all descended from at least one Egyptian pharaoh. Jared Diamond does an excellent job in explaining what goes on in-between each scene.
I was fascinated to learn how food influenced the creation of kingships and bureaucracy. When I think about food and professions the only occupations that comes to mind are the ones that fill restaurants and grocery stores. One thing that struck me was the fact that “food production was indirectly a prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel.” (pg. 82) It’s incredible to think of how food gave rise to these three things. Transitioning to farming meant more food. It also meant that the people tending to this food would have to give up their nomadic lifestyle. A more stationary lifestyle meant more children and higher population densities. When more people are living in closer proximity to each other and alongside domesticated animals, it creates the perfect environment for diseases. Diamond’s book made me realize that there were downsides to agriculture as well as upsides.
Another thing that I thought was very interesting was how food production, in areas that we consider some of the world’s richest centers of agriculture and herding today, did not appear until modern times. Furthermore, the time of the arrival of agriculture in other parts of the world varied some thousands of years. Thinking back on the time-lapse videos of humanity’s ascent to modern man makes me wonder if the people who made them had any idea of this fact.
One thing that I really liked about Guns, Germs, and Steel was the chapter titles. During a previous class, our professor emphasized the importance of having a good title. I understand now why she said that. A good title doesn’t tell all. A good title is a hook that pulls you in and makes you wonder what’s inside. Jared Diamond has some good chapter titles in his book. For example: Ch. 5 – History’s Haves and Have-Nots, Ch. 6 – To Farm or not to Farm, and (I opened the book randomly for this one) Ch. 16 – How China Became Chinese. I’m definitely interested in reading chapter sixteen now.
Although I found Guns, Germs, and Steel to be a dry read I am happy I managed to make my way through it. Another piece of the puzzle has been added in my quest to understand the relationship between plants and people. Jared Diamond has done an excellent job in making the picture clearer for me. Man-kind has become so dependent on our relationship with plants that we have undergone an entire shift in our societies. I think Diamond sums this relationship up clearly on page 82. “ At current rates of change, within the next decade the few remaining bands of hunter-gatherers will abandon their ways, disintegrate, or die out, thereby ending our millions of years of commitment to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.”

Saturday, 16 January 2016

More Precious than Gold

Diamond Jared. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York (NY): Norton & Company, Inc.

Pollan Michael. 2001. The Botany of Desire. Toronto (ONT): Random House, Inc.

Summertime heralds four months of good weather, no school, and plenty of time to have fun. It’s a season of long hot days filled with canoeing, camping, and hiking. It’s a season of staying up late to watch stars grace the sky with their twinkling mystery and catch glimpses of shooting stars and constellations. Summer is a season of sticky sweet ice treats and the smell of BBQ that permeates neighbourhoods with the savory scent of grilled hamburgers. Summer is a time that both children and adults alike hold dear. However, to me, summertime means one thing: strawberries.
I love strawberries, but not just any strawberries. I love the strawberries you can buy in the months of June and July. These precious berries are not the large tasteless fruit that are imported to your local supermarkets from the greenhouses of California. The strawberries I love are the ones grown locally in the fields of British Columbia. These little ruby gems are small, dark, and full of flavour which makes them perfect for making jam.
Making jam is a yearly tradition for my grandmother and me. We make all kinds of jam: apricot, cherry, raspberry, and grape. Above all, however, I love to make strawberry jam. It was the first jam I learned to make and the one that I slather onto my morning toast the most often. So, to learn that my favourite fruit, the strawberry, only came to be because some looky-loo took a look around their loo and saw strawberry plants growing makes me feel…slightly off put.
Reading The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan, and Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, brought me back to the beginnings of human interaction with plants. Both authors brought up some interesting discussions about the subject matter. The introduction to Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire presents the subject matter with a plant’s eye view while chapter seven of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel outlines the history of human agriculture with the cultivation of almond trees.
I really enjoyed reading both of these books and I am looking forward to reading more of Pollan’s Botany of Desire. On page xvii, Pollan brought up the very interesting notion of plants “turning people into bees” through the natural progression of coevolution. When I read this, I had to stop and think about it. I, a human being, am equal in my existence in the metaphorical eyes of a plant, to a bumblebee. It was a humbling moment when I process this thought.
Human beings believe themselves to be superior and above all life forms on earth. We separate ourselves from our surroundings. We look into the world with a clinical eye and make detached statements about life. We categorize, analyze, and scrutinize nature all without realizing we too are a part of it. I think Pollan is right. I am a bumblebee “that the flower has cleverly manipulated…into hauling its pollen from blossoms to blossoms (Pollan pg. xiv). Thousands of years of artificial selection, and yet, not once, did someone stop and think. Who’s selecting who?
If only it was a poetic as that. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel gets into the nitty gritty of plant selection. He starts off with a simple question, “how did certain wild plants get turned into crops?” (Diamond, pg.109) From there he took me on a journey through histories crop fields…and latrines. I had read, or heard, from somewhere that seeds need to meet certain conditions before they can grow into plants. These conditions can vary from cold weather, drought, flash floods, or being passed through the digestive system of an animal. I never thought about it until Diamond put it into perspective for me and showed me the relationship between *Ahem* crap and crops.
One sentence that stood out to me above all else, during my reading, was on page xxiv in The Botany of Desire. Pollan writes “for a brief, perverse moment, the tulip became more precious than gold.” I would love to know the history behind this fact. The very idea of this notion is beautiful. I love tulips, I’m aware the people of the Netherlands love tulips, but I did not know that during the seventeenth-century they loved tulips even more than gold. I thought it humorous as well when Pollan followed that sentence with “…another, far less lovely flower has made itself, again more precious than gold.” (Pollan pg. xxiv). I’m pretty sure I know what flower he’s talking about.
Both Pollan and Diamond made me think about the relationship between plants and people. Pollan twisted his view 180° so that I was not a human looking down at a flower, but rather a flower looking up at a human. Diamond, on the other hand, showcased this relationship with the history of crop selection. The two authors regaled me with Darwin and artificial selection but ultimately I was left reeling with uncertainty. Are we really in control of selection and how much of what we know only came about from sheer dumb luck?

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Such a Little Thing

Hanson Thor. 2015. The Triumph of the Seeds: How grains, nuts, kernels, pulses, & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York (NY): Basic Books.

 The four chapters I read (Introduction: The Fierce Energy, Ch. 1: Seed for a Day, Ch. 4: What the Spike Moss Knows, and Ch. 5: Mendel’s Spores) from Thor Hanson’s Triumph of the Seeds introduces the very vital topic of seeds. Thor Hanson delivers this topic through his humours recollections of his struggles to understand what seeds are and what has made them triumphant over other methods of plant reproduction (i.e. spores). Hanson’s narrative guides us through why seeds are important by balancing scientific explanations with entertaining real world experiences.
The introduction eased me into the world of seeds with Hanson’s comical, and somewhat futile, attempts to crack open a seed. I was not expecting the book to start this way. I was prepared to read several chapters worth of scientific jargon that I would have only the slightest of understanding of due to my good fortune of taking a botany class the semester before. I was pleasantly surprised instead to read the unusual and funny attempts of a botanist’s struggle to break into a seed by heaving his hefty chrome office desk onto it…several times. I was even more amused when a neighbouring professor marched into his office, while he was flailing away at the seed with a hammer, and demanded to know why he was causing such a ruckus. This event happened on the first two pages and it’s what compelled me to read on. 
The following pages delved deeper into the mystery of the seed and brought up several questions I had never thought to ask myself. Why are seeds so tough and how do plants grow from such small things? I can understand Hanson’s interest in the subject matter when I take a moment to think of the tall trees that grace the slopes of the valley I live in and the fruit trees within my backyard. I can remember, as a child, planting seeds with my mother in our garden and harvesting the vegetables that would grow from them. For such a small but important thing, we certainly take advantage of seeds. Hanson summarizes the importance of seeds with this: Seeds nourish, seeds unite, seeds endure, seeds defend, and seeds travel.
I really enjoyed and appreciated Hanson’s ability to tell his story without boring me with too much science, however, there were times when I was reading that I found my attention wandering. Usually these sections were filled with detailed scientific explanations of some aspect of plants.  However, Hanson drew my attention back when he inserted humours bits of writing that had me rereading the scientific passages so that I could understand the punchline. For example, on page 6, Hanson is describing the form of an almendro tree. “Mature individuals often exceed 150 feet (45 meters) in height, with buttressed trunks 10 feet (3 meters) across at the base.” Usually such a sentence would make my mind wander because it was just a fact that at the time, did not seem worth paying attention to. However, after my eyes skip over “a Marge Simpson wig,” (6) I know I have to go back and reread the passage to understand the comparison. Humour seems to be an effective tool for maintaining one’s attention and I wonder if it was intentional on Hanson’s part.
One of my favorite passages that I read was on page 56. I could immediately feel myself standing alongside Hanson in the bottom of the desert canyon where he was looking for fossils when I read the sentence “soon the canyon echoed with hammers ringing on stone as people reached the coal and dug in.” It is a lovely bit of imagery which persists throughout Hanson’s book. Earlier, in chapter one, I am transported to the tropical forests of Central America where I am dodging flying ninja snakes with Hanson on his quest to survey almendro seedlings. I see myself gazing up in wonder at the almendros flowers which are “vivid purple blossoms [that] festoon their crowns and rain down to carpet the ground below.” (pg. 6). Later on in chapter four, I can imagine myself gazing through a microscope at a spike moss with “spores [that] practically glowed, tucked into speckled golden pouches at the base of each leaf.” (65)
After reading this book, I felt a sense of connection. It felt like puzzle pieces slipping into place. Hanson’s Triumph of the Seeds not only explains the evolution and intricacies of seeds but he draws connections between seeds and human lives. I felt this connection in several places while reading and the first, oddly enough, was from the folk song on the page right after page xxv. A week before I had started reading this book I learned how to sing that very same song for choir. Hanson’s inclusion of the song made me realize that seeds are not just vital for human consumption, but they also play an important cultural role. The other sense of connection I felt was in chapter five with Mendel and his pea plants. As a science student, I am very familiar with Gregor Mendel and his experiments with peas. He is considered the father of genetics. I never considered how important a plant could be until I realized that one such plant could give rise to an entire branch of science. Seeds may be small and they may go unnoticed much of the time, but they are by no means unimportant

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Free-Write #1: The 100-Mile Diet

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. Toronto (ONT): Vintage Canada. p. 1-147.

I begin my journey into discovering the relationship between plants and people with Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon's 100-Mile Diet. Before I begin this exploration I feel as if I should explain why I'm here and why I'm doing this, after all this is my blog....even if it is a required part of my course (by the way, the class is called Plants and People - I know, my blog title is creative, right?)
My name is Samantha Suppanz and I am a third year biology major at the illustrious learning institute of Thompson Rivers University. What you are currently reading is my first attempt at my first free-write assignment. I say first attempt because I have no small measure of doubt that I am currently failing at grasping the concept of this assignment. At least, that is what my first year English professor would say if he read this and saw how informal my writing is. However, using a blog is an informal tool, so I believe that in some small way the content of these assignments will be informal as well.

My professor states in the outline of this assignment that an advantage of using a blog is to make the conversation more public. Now, she may just be talking about making the conversation easier to us, the students (i.e. Part 2 of assignment - students must comment on each other's blog) but as I was making this blog I received a notice that I had one view. I had a viewer on my blog, before I had posted a single word, from Alaska. So, what I am trying to say is, I'd like to take this blog to the next level and try to engage an audience that doesn't have a bachelor’s degree or doctorate in science. Who knows, maybe someone will learn something and I’ll have fun doing this assignment. Now then, I feel like that’s the end of my snarky mark-deducting comments and I should continue on to the actual assignment.

As I was saying before,

I begin my journey into understanding the relationship between plants and people with Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s 100-Mile Diet. The first half of the book that I read covers the first seven months (March – September) of Smith and MacKinnon’s experiment to eat locally grown food that was produced within a 100 mile radius of their tiny Vancouver apartment. Each chapter is separated into months that chronical Smith and MacKinnon’s trials and tribulations of local eating. At the beginning of each chapter, a recipe is included on the first page. The recipes reflect the types of local food that can be found in each month.

I have enjoyed reading the 100-Mile Diet so far as it is a unique way to learn about the subject matter. Smith and MacKinnon do not fill the pages with word upon word of scientific jargon that an undergrad, such as myself, would find pointlessly complicated. Instead, they tell a story and each writer takes turns telling it. I prefer Smith’s chapter’s over MacKinnon’s chapters. Even though MacKinnon has a fluid and detailed style of writing, I feel like I can relate more to Smith’s views. Alisa Smith is reluctant to start this journey and she states in the beginning that she does not cook. MacKinnon does all the cooking in their household. As the seasons progress, however, she becomes more involved with the food she a MacKinnon interact with. I feel that I can relate with Smith because I see in her my own journey with the relationship of food and family.

MacKinnon’s chapters do have their own charm, however. I feel that the story he tells isn’t as personal as Smith’s. He brings up the subject of plants and people on a wider level. MacKinnon tells other people stories about food as well as his own journey with local eating. There are several passages that I found well written and descriptive. MacKinnon’s description of food, that he and Smith encounter, is so expressive that I feel like I can reach into the pages sometimes and pluck out whatever vegetable or fruit he is describing. For example, on page 45, he describes a farmer’s market and the produce found within it. “…the first harvest, great and green, heaped beneath sun shelters and spilling from the back of beater vans. The most tender leaves of red lettuce, mustard greens, Swiss chard, tah tsai; emerald frizz of fava bean tips and Bordeaux purple kale… For spring there were leeks as fat as ax handles, and garlic tops, called ‘scapes,’ each with its single puzzling loop-de-loop crowned with a nascent seed head.” On page 145 he describes the bountiful harvest that can be found in late September. “…the longest-ripening morsels were ready for harvest: hot peppers, sunflowers, eggplants, tomatoes, gooseberries, grapes. Melons…. Baby sugar watermelon, muskmelon, yellow honeydew, Charentais.” Each month reveals a hidden season of food.

Despite Smith and MacKinnon’s lighthearted triumphs of discovering their locally grown harvests, there is another message within the 100-Mile Diet that should also be addressed. MacKinnon brings up on several occasions, the effects that people have on food and the environment. Most people’s knowledge of their food stops at the shelves of the supermarket. Who cares where it comes from, so long as it’s there on the shelves and ready to be purchased? Until I read the 100-Mile Diet I never stopped to think about where my food comes from. It never even crossed my mind that some of my most beloved foods like mangoes, chocolate, or even sugar, will travel further across the world then I ever will. In order for those food products to reach the shelves of my local supermarket, they have to travel by train, or plane, or ship; these methods are by no means environmentally friendly either. It is stories like the 100-Mile Diet that serve as a constant reminder that the world I and my children stand to inherit will not be a bountiful place of paradise that my ancestors knew.

Overall, I liked reading the 100-Mile Diet. It’s amusing in some places and descriptive in others. However, it does bring up several serious topics about humankind’s negative impact on the planet. As a science student, and a child that has grown up in an era of understanding the impacts of climate change on the planet, I have heard the truth of mankind’s devastating actions on the environment time and time again. I feel like it’s the same story repeated over and over again. Here’s what our planet used to look like. Here’s what it looks like now. Look at all the plants and animals that have died. Here’s a graph. Look at all the plants and animals that will die. I’m tired of hearing this story. What I want, is a solution. People have suggested eating locally as a solution but until I read the 100-Mile Diet I never thought that was possible. I used to look around my suburban neighbourhood and think to myself, there’s no food out there. No one grows anything here, but I now realize that previous way of thinking is wrong. There is food, you just have to know where to look.