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)

Why?!

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.