Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Work Before You (and me)

“Don't waste life in doubts and fears; spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour's duties will be the best preparation for the hours and ages that will follow it.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (AVM).” To say that it had a profound effect on my already intense desire to be self-reliant is an understatement. To be fair, I have wanted to move to a farm for several years. I have known that space to grow our own food, raise our own livestock and produce our own energy, was something we would need not just desire. I had embraced it as inevitable since reading the book, “The Long Emergency.”

I have always been one who, both out of necessity or personal drive, would pick up a book or tool and try it myself. “How can it cost that much? Surely I can figure this out on my own and save some money.” More times than not, I did learn how to do the process myself, but I am not sure how much money I saved in the long run. I don’t mind too much though; I now have a quiver full of skills that make me feel better prepared to deal with what ever comes up. It is my way of finding security while never having much money. We all have our coping skills.

AVM fed my natural propensities and educated me along the way. I found myself chomping at the bit to buy a farm, meanwhile struggling to maximize the space we now have. I don’t want to want, and in the process be unhappy. I love our house, our yard, our little pool, our gardens, our space. I just want more of it, space that is. But not wanting to be ungrateful, pining away the months till we could afford it; I stopped looking at local real estate listings for acreage far exceeding our .23 we so fully inhabit.

In the meantime, I will not stop pushing our family into wiser purchases, especially regarding food. Label reading now takes up the majority of the grocery store experience. It is a complicated and often frustrating excursion down a very long lane away from natural, healthy and local food supplies. Our family has tried to eat healthy food for sometime now – not always organic, but at least whole grain. Now we have added the local component and it is amazing how many questions we seek an affirmative answer to, before we can throw it into the cart, guilt-free. Is it healthy? (Whole grain, organic, or fresh.) Is it organic? (No chemicals used in its production.) We really do wonder at how we have become a society that is okay with eating chemicals! Is it local? (Was it raised in our county, or state or how about even in this country?) We were recently shopping at Trader Joe’s – a store that has long been a favorite for healthy, and yet not too expensive, food choices. I picked up a bag of dried cranberries – they were grown in Massachusetts. They would have been shipped to California to the Trader Joe's packaging plant, wrapped up in plastic, (manufactured from petroleum products) and then shipped back to us on the east coast. That’s a lot of fossil fuel for a pound of cranberries. I decided not to buy them but to look up where in Massachusetts I could buy direct, hoping to save the environment- one purchase at a time. I don’t want to knock Trader Joe’s; they are trying to do their part in providing healthier food options for our families, and future generations, at a decent price. I just can’t reverse what I have learned. I can’t not know, that I am part of the problem of fossil fuel dependence, risking our local economy, our national security and the health of the planet for my children and grandchildren, just by my buying habits, and not change. I am not above being a hypocrite on occasion, but this is beyond my ability to ignore for convenience or habit.

Little by little, we are determined to make different choices with our dollars and sense. We spent $45 for an apple masher but I wouldn’t spend .45¢ for an apple that isn’t grown right here in Lancaster County. And why would I? We are so lucky to live in the heart of Amish country, where home-grown often takes on religious affiliation. But still even here, with our ump-teen farmers’ markets, you can find apples from up-state New York, Washington State, or worse, New Zealand. Why? I am not quite sure. We have some really great orchards just down the road. Awareness is growing however. Our local chapter of Buy Fresh, Buy Local is gaining in numbers and influence in our county. We are volunteering to help them to educate others. My daughter and her friends, all twenty-somethings, are hoping to help enlighten their own generation. I agree with Barbara Kingsolver, how can we have raised a generation that is so disconnected from their food and where it comes from? I suppose it was a slow decent into ignorant convenience.

Once you start back up the road to food origin enlightenment, you can never go back. You wake up one day and wonder, with true and deep incredulity, shaking your head all the while - how did we ever get so far gone?

Still, for our little family, we are determined that it is not too late. We are not purists, by any stretch. But day by day, and week by week, we are trying to put our dollars to better use – in our local economy and in better choices for health and our future. “…any year in which no high-fructose corn syrup crosses my threshold is pure enough for me.” (BK)

I do recognize that not everyone will go to the lengths that Barbara has gone and that I hope in time to imitate. I found myself more like Barbara every chapter I read. Toward the end of the book, she wonders how geeky she must seem, by how much she actually enjoys growing, harvesting and canning food. She reflects on what is fun and what is work and how, for her, they are often much different than what society accepts. I am afraid I am cut from that same cloth, wondering how work became a four letter word, especially to our youth. I find it the most rewarding activity available to us. Perhaps, it is due to how often we preform “work” that isn’t connected to the earth or our true survival needs; after all it isn’t hand-crafted, hand-made or home grown. We don’t see or know the beginning nor the end of the products we often spend hours upon hours creating. We simply “work” in an ethereal process, receiving another insubstantial product in return (decimal points on a balance sheet or computer terminal), which we watch dwindle as we trade it for chemical food and unnatural fibrous lodging. Most of it is made from fossil fuels and created in laboratories. It’s sterile and disconnected and it makes us an unhappy and doomed society. That kind of work would invoke multiple expletives. The newest generation can see that the emperor has no clothes and they run.

I am determined that that is not the end of the story for America or our family. Thank you Barbara Kingsolver and Steven and Camille and Lilly. Thanks for the education, entertainment and encouragement. “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” would take an honored spot on my book shelf if it weren’t loaned out continually – it’s the best way I know to help others ascend from the depths of ignorance and mediocre food. We are all learning how to feed ourselves again and in the process coming to understand that work can be rewarding and even fun.

"I believe you are your work. Don't trade the stuff of your life, time, for nothing more than dollars. That's a rotten bargain." – Rita Mae Brown

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