Food reading: Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems

I couldn’t resist another quote from Wendell Berry:

“In nature death and decay are as necessary—are, one might almost say, as lively—as life; and so nothing is wasted. There really is no such thing, then, as natural production; in nature there is only reproduction.” (from Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems, 1978)

Indeed.

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This essay is from a collection of Berry’s work, entitled Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, which is available on Amazon here. (Full disclosure: I’ve got an affiliate account with them, which means I’ll make a small commission if you purchase the book through that link.)

Food reading: Stupidity in Concentration

I’ve begun reading Wendell Berry, as part of some research that I’m doing, and finding, as Michael Pollan says of him, that his writing makes so clear things that should already be self-evident, and it does so in a way that is “always patient and logical, as plumb and square and scrupulous, as well-planed woodwork”. I could share about a million quotes that demonstrate this, but this one is my favourite so far. He’s writing about the stupidity of factory-farming animals, but the ideas here could apply to all sorts of areas:

“If the people in our state and national governments undertook to evaluate economic enterprises by the standards of long-term economics, they would have to employ their minds in actual thinking. For many of them, this would be a shattering experience, something altogether new, but it would also cause them to learn things and do things that would improve the lives of their constituents.” (from Stupidity in Concentration, 2002)

What I love about Berry’s writing is that he doesn’t forget farmers in his talk of the stupidity of the overall system. While its not universally the case, so much of the criticism of our food system neglects to mention farmers — which, unconsciously I’m sure, serves to lump them in as part of the problem. In fact that problem is the overall business model — which, for the most part is something that’s as much imposed on farmers as it is on the people who eventually eat the food it produces.

“It ought to be obvious that in order to have sustainable agriculture, you have got to make sustainable the lives and livelihoods of the people who do the work. The land cannot thrive if the people who are its users and caretakers do not thrive.” (from Stupidity in Concentration, 2002)

Definitely something worth remembering.

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This essay is from a collection of Berry’s work, entitled Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, which is available on Amazon here. (Full disclosure: I’ve got an affiliate account with them, which means I’ll make a small commission if you purchase the book through that link.)

Stillness

Stillness is not the absence or negation of energy, life, or movement. Stillness is dynamic. It is movement, life in harmony with itself, skill in action. It can be experienced wherever there is total, uninhibited, unconflicted participation in the moment you are in—when you are wholeheartedly present with whatever you are doing. ~ Erich Schiffmann ‘Yoga: the Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness’

I must’ve read this paragraph at least ten times over the last two years. It still strikes me every time. Stillness, on the rare occasion we manage to get it right, is dynamic. I love that idea.

Writing and Life and Doris Lessing

There’s a beautiful piece by Melanie Joosten up on the Meanjin blog today about writing and how it fits (or doesn’t) into life. Joosten leans on the writing of Doris Lessing, looking for answers. Lessing, she says, “tackles that familiar feeling of inadequacy — that the artist writes out of an ‘incapacity to live’. She reminds me that writing is a way to make sense of the world and to order my thoughts.”

To my discredit, I’ve not yet read any of Lessing’s novels, but I do re-read her 1965 collection of short stories, A Man and Two Women from time to time. I’ve always been struck by the clarity of Lessing’s observations. I agree with Joosten when she writes: “I cannot think of a more electric writer, one whose words speak of things always precisely of the moment.”

But, before now, Lessing is not an author I’d have thought to look to for advice about how to fit writing into my life. Perhaps I should look to her now. Joosten’s thoughts are very familiar: “When I ask myself what kind of person I am going to be, I realise that ‘a writer’ is only part of it. If one of the ways we live our lives is to seek happiness, we have to understand what happiness means. To me, the happy life is an amalgamation of the creative life and the moral life.”

Retraining as a social worker, Joosten seems to be asking herself many of the same questions I am at the moment. Questions about how I want my life to fit together, how I want to fill my days. I realised some time ago that none of the things I currently do, I’d want to do full time. Both writing and teaching are fulfilling, but somehow more so when I’m trying to do them both, turning my life into a fairly complex puzzle. I feel like I’m just starting to get somewhere with it though, like I’ve perhaps got together all of the edge bits and a small section in the bottom right hand corner. And I’m beginning to understand now why my mum, and her mum too, love to do puzzles. Working so slowly to fill this puzzle out requires patience, and rewards that patience with a steady stream of small satisfactions.

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If you’re interested in reading the full post by Melanie Joosten, you can find it here.

Joan Didion and weddings

I’ve recently found my way to Joan Didion. For all the usual reasons (too many words to read, too little time) her name has been sitting on that list in my mind, and her books on that pile beside my bed for longer than I would’ve liked. I’m so glad I finally did get to her though.

Completely by coincidence, her book The Year of Magical Thinking has been set as one of the texts in the course I’m doing at uni this semester. I haven’t yet started it, but am looking forward to it because of the essays of hers I’ve read. Below are some bits that stood out when I was reading her essays back in February, lying on the beach while I was away on holidays.

It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value of having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. (Joan Didion, ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, Live and Learn, page 113)

However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves. (Joan Didion, ‘On Self Respect’, Live and Learn, page 116)

I’ve always found the concept of self an interesting one. The idea that we carry around the echoes of the people we used to be (and possibly also of the people we might become) is one that appeals to me — and I’ve written about it here before. And I love this description of self-respect: the ability to rest with the uncomfortable aspects of ourselves.

This weekend just gone, I went to Queensland for the wedding of a very dear friend of mine. She and I lived together for a couple of years while we were at uni, and being at her wedding got me thinking about the people we used to be. We each are quite different now to those people, and yet still the same. We danced like we used to. I cried at her, because I was so happy for her; she laughed affectionately at me. Everything was the same, but different, and it was absolutely lovely in ways that I am not eloquent enough to express.

A city’s intricacy

It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its intricacy; its endless life.

    ~ The Hours, Michael Cunningham
    I’ve been trying for months now to articulate exactly this sentiment. I miss the open space of my country upbringing, I miss the clean air, I miss seeing the stars in the sky at night. But this, this layer upon later of human intricacy, is what I’d miss about the city were I to move to the country.

    An example: in a house around the corner from mine lives a man who practises his operatic singing in the middle of the day. Sometimes I happen to be walking past, and it never fails to make me smile—there he is, just the thickness of a wall away from me, singing beautifully.

Back to fiction?

This makes me want to write fiction again, even though it actually comes from non-fiction. Or the pseudo-fiction section of a non-fiction essay…

If the opinions upon any of these matters had been chalked on the pavement, nobody would have stooped to read them. The nonchalance of the hurrying feet would have rubbed them out in half an hour. Here came an errand-boy; here a woman with a dog on a lead. The fascination of the London street is that no two people are ever alike; each seems bound on some private affair of his own. There were the business-like, with their little bags; there were the drifters rattling sticks upon area railings; there were affable characters to whom the streets serve for club-room, hailing men in carts and giving information withouth being asked for it. Also there were funerals to which mean, thus suddenly reminded of the passing of their own bodies, lifted their hats. And then a very distinguished gentlemean came slowly down a doorstep and paused to avoid a collision with a bustling lady who had, by some means or other, acquired a splended fur coat and a bunch of Parma violets. They all seemed separate, self-absorbed, on business of their own.

    ~ Virginia Woolf, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, page 94

People are so interesting.

Cities and food

I’ve spent my entire adult life living in cities. And at the moment I seem to be spending every spare waking moment reading about them — part of some research I’m doing on how cities are fed.

Cities are complex — an extension of the human beings they house, I suppose. I’m finding the research fascinating, even though I’m still in that stage of not really knowing what I’m going to pull out of it. Most of what I’m reading suggests that we should treat cities as living things, allowing room for them to develop organically.

Geoff Mulgan, from the Young Foundation, says their research suggests that we need to practice “designing in incompleteness, recognising that the best cities evolve themselves rather than just following somebody else’s master plan… the more perfectly planned and conceptualised the new city, the more certain you can be that it will fail.” (You can access the transcript of his presentation, The Social Life of Cities, on the Grattan Institute‘s website.)

Allowing for uncertainty and growth, I guess. As a teenager, I was interested in architecture, and briefly considered going down that path when I left school. Design on that scale — and broader still, looking at urban and suburban planning — still interests me. What we see around us, in urban and suburban environments, is very rarely there arbitrarily. Mulgan (and a number of other people whose work I’m reading at the moment) suggests that much thought needs to be given to how our built environments impact our social lives, because one of the very basic human needs is interaction with other humans.

Food, of course, is another basic human need. I think the two can and should cross over.

But enough for now. Back to work for me.

Nostalgia

I’ve been writing this post for weeks, on an off. It seems appropriate to finish it now — a death in the family always lends itself to remembering and nostalgia.

For a couple of months now I’ve been carrying around a little vial of nostalgia, everywhere I go. Sometimes I really do feel as though it’s rattling around in the bottom of my handbag, and when I go searching for something else I come across it.

The thing about nostalgia (at least for me) is that it’s so unspecific. I can’t really say where it’s come from, or even what it’s about. Or maybe it’s that I can say where it started, but then I’m unable to contain it to that. Nostalgia breeds nostalgia.

Sometime last week I found myself sitting on the couch, home by myself for the night, with a huge pile of recipe books, flicking through pages, making mental lists of things I’d like to cook next time I find half a day to spend in the kitchen. As I turned the pages I came across recipes I’d marked months ago, and finally worked out the root of this bout of nostalgia: I love my new house, but I’m also missing my old one. I miss my old housemates, I miss the house itself, I miss Astro the cat, I miss living down the south end of Newtown. I’m not despairing in the missing, it’s just a lingering sense of… sadness at the finality, I guess.

We cooked a lot in my old house. I cooked a lot. It wasn’t a great kitchen — it had a huge oven, but we also spent the last six months in the house cooking by lamp light — but it’s where I really feel like I cemented my love of cooking. I spent hours and hours cooking in that kitchen, sometimes many dishes at once, often on my own. Cooking became a kind of meditation; thoughts about other things popped into my head during big cook ups, but the focus always came back to whatever was on the stove top.

I also spent many hours in that kitchen, sitting on the step between the lounge and the kitchen or perched gingerly on the barely-held-together stool we’d borrowed for a party and somehow never returned, chatting to one of my housemates about life — work, boys, politics, religion, music, books, writing, cats, dogs, babies, family. We cooked, we talked.

The kitchen in that house will always be somehow special to me.

Thinking about that kitchen inevitably leads to thinking about the garden at that house, my little room and the neighbours whose backyards my windows overlooked, the creaky floorboards in the upstairs hallway, the sunny lounge room, the cracked walls, the ballroom-sized bathroom… the list goes on and on. And then spills over into other parts of my life, occasionally going as far back as childhood.

That my trip to Melbourne happened in the middle of all this nostalgia really hasn’t helped things. I miss Melbourne with such a visceral ferocity that it’s sometimes overwhelming. Going back there, I wander around the streets, amazed that I still feel so at home there, even though I’ve now lived in Sydney nearly as long as I lived in Melbourne.

Strangely, I also feel nostalgic about writing (this is far harder for me to explain). Spending time at writers’ festivals, like I have this last month — especially ones like EWF where I spent a lot of time in the company of other writers — exacerbates this kind of nostalgia. I think maybe what I’m trying to do when I write (fiction, at least) is capture that feeling of nostalgia, that little twinge of melancholy. So somehow thinking about or talking about writing brings about those feelings I’m trying to capture. Does that even make sense? I don’t know.

Perhaps this nostalgia, and its settling in for a lengthy stay, is why I’ve found myself wanting to write more fiction. For the last six months I’ve been working steadily on a big non-fiction project. I love it, and I don’t want to put it away, but I think maybe I need to let myself venture a little more into whimsy from time to time.