To Market: A Reflection on self within America

"We shall go to the pyre
we shall burn,
But we shall not retreat from our convictions"
-Nikolay Vavilov-
March 1939

I crossed a line, was strapped for time,
And so I bought some grapes;
At dinner time I need some thyme
To compliment my dates.

I went to town to buy a peach,
My dollar in my hand.
I'd heard a ship land on the shore
T'was fresh from port Japan

I drove to town and then to port
So I could greet the ship.
My hopes were high as high could be;
I'd soon have apple chips.

My tires spun upon the road,
With apples from Japan;
A token from the eastern shores
These apples in my hand.

The price I'm told is fair and cheap
For produce of this brand
And so I sighed with great delight,
Despite them being bland.

It was not long- too long ago,
They were in a far off land .
So here they are these apples crisp
These apples in my hand.

I crossed a line, yes just in time
And I did buy some grapes;
along with some pears and apples too
No money did I waste.

I settled in, yes back at home
And much to my delight
I'd pick a garden fresh and ripe;
Oh Japan my pride.

Today our Lover fades away
As rivers turn to sand;
The scent of burning ancestors
Is smelt in every land.

From Mexico to Any Bay
Mono is the land
No hues of green or blues to see
They've fallen from our hands.

* * * *
  • American culture is in state of catabolic decline; all across the nation people are suffering from disease, poverty, hunger and obesity. Globally wars are being waged all over the middle east, the rivers of the world are drying up and global warming is still an unresolved issue. In contemplating America's destructive patterns one discovers that there are at least two major factors which are contributing to its decline; industrial agriculture and constrictive societal roles. In Ken Wilbur's "A Brief History of Everything" he outlines the various social orders and gender relations that are prevalent within foraging, agrarian, horticultural and industrial societies; some are suppressive to humans and nonhuman nature while others are more "equalitarian" in structure (Wilbur 96). In the United States, industrial agriculture has been the predominant norm. However, individual and collective efforts have begun to shift from this style of food production towards others which work cooperatively with our planet, rather than through acts of dominion such as massive logging and irrigation projects. Thus, in order for American culture to shift from globally destructive practices and towards ones which are respectful of nature, both human and nonhuman, an examination and reevaluation of current agricultural norms is needed. 

  • After multiple ventures around the United States and many conversations with other travelers, I have come to understand that no matter which highway is taken, the scenery remains roughly the same; shopping malls, 24 hour diners and gas stations. In my hometown the television news programs used to broadcast air quality reports and remind viewers that on severely smoggy days to stay indoors. Over the course of my life the smoggy skyline has thickened significantly. Today those socially relevant reports have virtually disappeared from mainstream television. I am a native Angelino, born in East Los Angeles but raised throughout the diverse landscape known as "L.A." At this point in my life I am sitting behind the redwood curtain in one of the most northern parts of California, Arcata. Much like Ernest Callenbach's character William Weston, I have ventured into a region that I had only read about but never had a personal connection with. Since I have been here in Humboldt County I have seen that many of its residents and businesses share a focus that emphasizes the importance of both local and sustainable means of production within daily life. While some aspects of this sort of lifestyle were present within the Los Angeles area, access to locally grown produce is not a central focus of the culture. Instead one finds that the region is filled with fast food restaurants, supermarket chains and a plethora of food trucks, carts and stands, both legal and illicit . While these sources provide quick access to a wide variety of food choices, the quality of food is not the always the primary concern of the individual making the purchase or the food distributor.

  • Today American eating habits include food that is frozen, microwavable, carry out, fast, easy and cheap; often times the journey from field to fork is international. If an individual is eating a plate of rice from China, with beans from central America and drinking a cup of coffee from Columbia, it is relatively unquestioned; massive global trade makes it possible. However Barbara Kingsolver, in her article "Lily's Chickens" sees this as an "energy crime of food transportation" and believes that "the global grocery store may turn out to be the last great losing proposition of our species" (Kingsolver 50). Having lived in Los Angeles I have experienced many walks through food deserts. They are places where people live but have very few food options and communal access to fresh non-genetically modified produce is minimal. Perhaps that is why guerilla gardening and urban foraging struck a chord with me, both are supportive of urban nonhuman nature, one adds to the visual aesthetic by adding foliage, the other through a comprehension of bioregions. From personal experience I must confess that both can be considered a bit questionable in terms of legality within the urban landscape. However this should not discourage an individual because these two practices are at the base of modern agriculture, the simple process of tossing seeds and hunting for food. Having done this for many years, I can assure you that these skills are, without a doubt, life enhancing.
  • As Lauren Olimana demonstrated in "Parable of the Sower," seeds equate to life and the individual who knows how to care for the seeds can bring life, even if it is not within does not happen as quickly as one would like. Lauren states "I bought tree seeds too: more oak, citrus, peach, pear, nectarine, almond, walnut, a few others. They won't do us any good for a few years, but they're a hell of an investment in the future"(Butler 366). In this passage she demonstrates a comprehension of the importance of plant life, realizing that having access to food is not only important but is also seen as an asset. The subtext also suggests that an individual can gain something beyond food by actively participating in the cultivation process. In choosing to focus on buying seeds rather than a television, large amounts of guns or more prepackaged food Lauren takes a restorative approach to life, acting not as a victim of a broken society but as one who sees areas which are in need of repair and responds according to the need. She understands that the construct of her society sees labor as disposable and "easy to replace" and would rather not participate in that culture (Butler 367). In reflecting on Lauren's actions I am reminded of my experience with the United Farm Workers, a grassroots organization, whose early strikes revolved around fixing oppressive working conditions within the fields. Due to their plight I have come to understand the importance of examining beyond labels such as organic, or free trade and now also keep in mind the harvesting practices utilized by my produce suppliers.
  • In September of 1962 the book "Silent Spring" was published, which brought to the forefront of American culture some of the known hazards that have come along with modern industrial agriculture. While the book shifted some of the perceptions that Americans had towards the use of chemicals such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, otherwise known as DDT, it did not repair the system which was utilizing the chemicals to begin with. Three decades after Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring," Daniel Quinn's "Ishmael" was published and presented with the Turner award. In his novel, Quinn observes how modern industrial agriculture is in not simply an aircraft with minor structural damage, but is in fact in the midst of a freefall that is "about to end" (Quinn 62-64). He points out that America's dysfunctional agricultural system is a major problem not only for Americans but for the entire world. His narratives focus largely on the problems of America's capitalist culture and highlight where it is situated according to world culture and notions of ecology. Many of Quinn's narratives are spent distinguishing the differences between industrial and aboriginal societies, one major difference is that industrial cultures value that which "works well for production" whereas aboriginal cultures value that which "works well for people." In contrasting the two cultures, Quinn seems to acknowledge that American culture is out of sync with the rest of the world due to its dominant cultural practices surrounding agriculture and consumption.
  • The first wave of modern environmentalists dealt with issues such as DDT, crop dusting and deforestation. Today, environmentalists are still managing many of the same issues, but on local and global levels. In recognizing that the agricultural system itself is inherently dysfunctional, an emphasis on the importance of bioregions, carrying capacity, and the natural laws of ecology have been moved to the forefront. Within ecology the first law is that "all species are interdependent and interrelated" (Lewis 15). This understanding has been integrated into modern dialogues and can be seen on a technological level as the expansion and use of the internet has become one of the major tools utilized to communicate. The expansion in communication has allowed individuals to share information almost instantly, which in turn has enabled immediate action and response to major issues or events while they happen rather than after they occur. The Natural Resource Defense Council and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, more commonly known as PETA were the first organizations which I was involved with that utilized electronic activism. Both of these organizations helped me to better comprehend that even though I may not always be able to see an issue or person, it does not mean that they do not exist or that the concerns are not real. With the assistance of the internet I was allowed to read through various electronic libraries and communicate globally with others who shared my passion, whether it was for environmentalism, civil disobedience, or photography. Ultimately because of the internet I was able to see beyond the realms of my own existence and catch a glimpse into other cultural lifestyles.

  • In his novel "Ishmael", Quinn proposes that there are two distinct world cultures in existence, "takers" and "leavers." Quinn's definition of "takers" consists of individuals or collectives which neglect ecology's first law and instead "threaten the stability of the community by defying the law" (Quinn 144). One finds that in places which have neglected the natural laws of ecology; issues such poverty, deforestation and animal extermination are present. Functional illiteracy seems to keep many Americans unaware of many of the pressing global issues and instead remain focused on the consumption aspects of life. In doing so however, the source of material goods and the ecological impact they have on the planet goes unquestioned. As a result wars can be waged, entire populations relocated, forests can be cut and whole rivers can be dammed. Perhaps it is because of America's general neglect and lack of information that
    "agricultural researchers have bred new varieties of tomatoes that are harder, sturdier, and less tasty than those previously grown." At the same time this has allowed for the vast mechanization of labor, the result of which directly affected a loss of an estimated 32,000 jobs within the tomato industry (Winner 4). The sheer amount of people affected suggests that there is a disjunction between the labor force and the people who consume tomatoes. While the strikes of the United Farm Workers were focused on grapes, I can still hear the voices of discontent that would arise from such a massive loss of working opportunities. Each job helped to feed someone but without one, things such as grocery shopping, rent and general living expenses have to be taken care of through other avenues.
  • Modern western culture, referred to by Quinn as the "taker culture," are captives of a destructive paradigm of action and thought in which dominion and destruction are the laws of the land. This construct is reinforced through a fear of poverty and an illusion of lack and limitation. This fear has allowed for America to become the most overworked nation in the world. In "Time Squeeze: The Extra Month of Work" it states that "as the pace of life accelerated, time became an ever-scarcer commodity, so [Americans] used their money to buy more of it. Cooking was replaced by gourmet frozen foods from upscale delis. Eventually the "meal" started disappearing in favor of "grazing." Those who could afford it bought other people's time" (Schor 18). What the passage expresses is America's wheel of consumption, a process that is systematically separating individuals from themselves as well as their families. This is done through a commoditization of natural resources such a food and water. What is worse is that most people cannot seem to find a way out of this cycle. As I reflect on my own experience with this consumption wheel I am reminded of the countless families that I have known within the various food deserts of Los Angeles, many of which have had to work themselves down to the bone just to stay at the poverty line. This, in addition to major health issues that have developed because of the work ethic, reveals that there is an element of control that the individual is missing from life. Sadly because of a lack of education in edible plants and bioregions, many individuals find themselves starving even though a landscape may be full of dandelion, pine trees, rosemary and citrus trees. In living amongst the food desert people I have come to understand the importance of the ability to identify plants and how appreciate how a simple awareness of an area can liberate one from the a cycle in which human lives are consumed.
  • There is focus on human captivity that Quinn highlights within his novel which suggests that taker culture is being held prisoner to its notions of civilization. Within Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower" the reader is presented with a hyperbolized version of Quinn's dialogue in which many of America's current cultural practices such as store bought water, privatized security services and lack of social mobility have created a dystopian future. Essentially Quinn proposes that "takers" are captive to their myths and that "mother culture" is falling to pieces because of human carelessness. He states "you're captives to a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live" (Quinn 14-16). The world which Butler presents is largely destroyed, with the exception of small pockets of communities and a few corporate towns. Having lived in Los Angeles and traveled throughout Southern California, I must admit that much of the farming that I have seen has been industrial, a focus of both Butler and Quinn.
  • Today many of the major ecological problems within modern American are also, in essence, cultural issues as well. Thus society's goal is not to resolve all the issues which have come about because of modern industrial agriculture and other "taker" practices. Instead, a shift within the perceptions of modern culture and its practices should be reviewed and revised as needed. Throughout his novel, Quinn focuses on the existence of natural laws such as gravity and carrying capacity. The establishment and understanding of natural laws helps the reader to see the faults and weaknesses within the "taker" culture. Quinn's ecocritcal approach allows the reader to see the athropocentrism that is present within taker civilization, specifically disastrous effects it has had on the natural world. According to Quinn, the taker culture stands in contrast against the rest of the world because it neglects the laws of ecology, specifically in relation to carrying capacity, bioregions, and the planet as a whole.
  • It wasn't until I took a trip half way across the continental United States that the statement had made any sense in my mind, "Michael Ray, you are an American." Before that journey, my identity was simply defined as "other"; not Mexican, not Mexican-American, not even "Chicano." I had not subscribed to any of these generally accepted identities because none of them reflected my understanding of self. However, as I sat in the driver's seat of my Honda Accord, driving well beyond the speed limit and having just left a Starbucks some odd number of miles back, I could not deny that there was some sense of truth in the words. More importantly, I had realized that I through my own actions and choices, I too could support or suppress a culture which was mindful of bioregions, carrying capacity and other natural laws. I pulled over as the last song on my David Bowie CD ended and I jumped in my back seat to open my backpack. As I held a flashlight to my unzipped bag, I took note of what I had; a book of native plants of the American Southwest, several seed bombs, a compass, a glass sprouting jar, a package of condoms, and ceramic knife. I smiled, it was a start.

                                                                   Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993. Universos. Web.
Kingsolver, Barbara. "Viewpoint: Lily's Chickens." Organic Gardening, Modern Homesteading,   Renewable Energy, Green Homes, DIY Projects %u2013 MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Web. 05 Dec. 2011. .
Lewis, Corey Lee. Reading the Trail: Exploring the Literature and Natural History of the California Crest. Reno: University of Nevada, 2005. Print.
Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York: Bantam/Turner Book, 1995. Print.
Schor, Juliet. The Overworked American: the Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York, NY: Basic, 1993.  Print.
*Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. Boston: Shambhala, 2000. Print.

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Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King

Today marks the forty-fourth anniversary of the day when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dr. King was a pivotal leader and role model for many, especially those of us who strongly identify with, and dedicate our lives to the Peace Movement. He had much wisdom to share at such an incredibly young age, and there could have been so much more for fellow members of the human race to have learned from his teachings...

There were also many aspects to the work Dr. King had accomplished within his short lifespan, though only a select few were commonly known. For example, how many history books or biographical documentaries have made point to explain the extent of his compassion for all beings? The fact that Martin Luther King Jr. and his family believed in equal regard for all species seems a little-known fact to most. However, we feel that it is one of the most important aspects of their cumulative life's work and overall existence. His death was indeed an untimely and truly unspeakable tragedy, but it is also incredibly inspiring to see his benevolence live on in the hearts and deeds of those he left behind.

Today we offer gratitude & utmost respect to Dr. Martin Luther King and his family: Civil rights leaders, anti-speciesism advocates, and fellow Earthlings.

Blessings to all of those who have made the conscious decision to follow his fine example.

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