Some people travel to eat. I just travel and, meanwhile, I get hungry. Sure, sometimes a certain type of crepe or oversized fruit snack tastes so good that finding and eating it temporarily gives me some sense of purpose in life. But usually I just pile canned tuna on stale crackers and call it dinner.
Then I started traveling by bike instead of bus/train/truck/horse-drawn cart. Now, as I propel myself across the land, I eat to travel.
From my first day of riding, in June 2015, I thought about food as if I were rolling out of the back yard and onto a glacier. When I took off from my sister’s place in Ohio, I was carrying enough peanut butter, Clif bars, vacuum-packed tuna, yogurt-covered cranberries, bagels, tortillas, canned soup, oatmeal, granola bars, bananas, trail mix, apples, and coffee to survive, caffeine-buzzed and sugar-high, for a week. I was thrilled to be alone on my bike, finally exploring my own country, and my only worry in the world (besides, you know, getting raped) was running out of gas twenty miles from my destination. Lest my supplies dwindle, I supplemented my diet with corn dogs, funnel cakes, butterscotch-dipped Dairy Queen cones, and other roadside/county fair sorts of cheap calories.
(Click on a photo to open a slideshow with captions)
Sitting down to a meal at a diner booth or rest stop picnic table, my bike parked nearby (within view whenever possible), I tried to remember that I was not, in fact, starving and that I should maybe chew my food. Curious, friendly folks stopped to ask where I’d started, where I was going, where I slept at night, where I went to the bathroom, and what I ate along the way. They marveled, “I bet you can eat anything you want.” I could, and I did.
But after a month of riding, feeding myself became a chore. I was hungry all the time. I felt like a roaring wood burning stove, running on Fig Newtons instead of firewood. I inevitably got stronger and found that I could in fact pedal up and down hills for hours without washing down a couple of Clif bloks with a 32 ounce coffee. And food is heavy, so I convinced myself that I could probably make it to camp each night with only a three-day supply of food in my bags. But riding across the vastness of North Dakota, dotted with tiny half-abandoned “cities”, I’d look at my map and worry that the next town’s only grocery store had closed back in 2009. Then the wind would shift and suddenly I’d be pushing into a 20mph headwind with 34 miles of hay fields between me and a campground. Would three bagels, half a jar of peanut butter, an apple, a bag of rice, two granola bars, and a half dozen oatmeal cream pies get me there?
Around this time, I started listening to the audiobook of Joel Salatin’s Folks this Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World, in which he asserts that our modern industrialized food system has most of us living lazy, convenience-focused lives, detached from the land, comfortably confident that “food should be somebody else’s responsibility until I’m ready to eat it.” This set-up is new and unnatural: “The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.” We’re being “snookered” by this suddenly indispensable industrialized food system.
I spent several hours a day over the next week or so listening to Salatin read his book to me, just the two of us, riding along the cracked shoulders of lonely highways through southern North Dakota and on into Montana. His arrogance became endearing, his repetitiveness convincing. When I took breaks from the book, I daydreamed about having a little home again someday, its pantry stocked with goods that I’d grown in my big garden, in soil rich with compost made from kitchen scraps and the chicken shit from my flock of happy egg-laying hens. I’d get a box of old canning jars from my parents’ house and relearn how to pickle vegetables and make jam. I’d get to know my local farmers and buy half a lamb, divided into neat paper-wrapped packets, and store it in the deep freeze like we used to do when I was a kid in small town Nebraska. I’d live a life with fewer barcodes and more smugness.
One afternoon, while pedaling slowly up a long, low hill and wondering if, in my future mini-farmstead life, I’d bake bread on Saturday mornings or on Sundays, I realized that I hadn’t eaten in about 25 minutes. I contemplated my snack choices: oatmeal cream pie, organic granola bar, baby carrots. Behind me, I heard the rumble of yet another semi truck. As it approached, I braced myself, turned my head a little to the right, squinted my left eye shut, and held steady as it wooshed past, tossing me a wall of air and grit in its wake. I pedaled on. The truck powered steadily up and over the crest of the hill. The rumble faded and soon the only sounds were my wheels on the pavement and my own heavy breathing.
Three minutes later I finally reached the top, heart thumping, legs burning, and pulled over into the weeds. I’d decided on the granola bar because I could get to it without climbing off my bike. I tore it open and remembered an experience that Salatin had shared with me a few days earlier. He’d described an in-flight airline meal that, rather than decreasing in size as he ate, had expanded into “an unruly pile of plastic, aluminum foil, and paper” as he opened each individually prepared and packaged component, from the plastic-wrapped dinner roll to the morsel of eco-conscious chocolate, whose wrapper had “the cute and typically sad-faced likeness of a koala in need.”
I took a bite of the granola bar and thought about all the wrappers that accumulate in my bags as each day wears on, and the trash that piles up on the pavement outside a grocery store every time I try to squeeze a greedily over-sized load of fresh supplies into my already over-stuffed panniers. As I chewed, I read the ingredients and wondered where they’d all come from. I imagined each little organic component of the bar (rolled oats, tapioca syrup, sugar, sunflower oil, sea salt, vanilla extract, baking soda, rice flour, sugar, raisin juice concentrate, annatto color, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, dextrose, soy lecithin, dry roasted peanuts, partially defatted peanut flour, cocoa, soy lecithin, glycerin, whole oat flour, sunflower oil, molasses) traveling in a truck like the one that, fueled by diesel instead of store-brand cookies, had just blown easily past me. I looked down the hill at the road stretching way off yonder through thousands of acres of golden wheat fields. I imagined a mysterious facility somewhere out there that, with much petroleum-powered humming and clanging, would pool all those ingredients from far-flung places into little snack-sized rectangles of energy which would then be sealed in a wrapper printed who-knows-where and then loaded onto yet another semi truck to travel to a gas station 20 miles from nowhere, where it would sit on a shelf until I wandered in and bought it so that I could power my legs for about…twenty minutes.
I looked at the train tracks to my right and thought of the hundreds (thousands?) of containers and oil tankers and coal cars that clanked past me every half hour, all day, every day, back and forth, empty and full, full and empty. I stared out across the fields and frowned, tired, hungry, and teetering on the edge of a minor existential crisis.
I don’t believe that my life has any sort of high purpose (and I’m ok with that), yet for reasons I can’t quite explain (something to do with my brain and evolution, probs), I was suddenly not cool with just taking taking taking from the earth. Short of having my body composted when I die (a request I made once to my parents, who calmly pointed out that there’s probably a city ordinance against that), my life will be one long, happy, selfish resource suck. Don’t argue with me here; it’s true and I don’t need to feel better about it.
I believe that some day I will live out my romantic urban farmstead daydream. But since I hope to keep on rolling for a while, I decided to try to do things differently, like, now. I took stock of my food supply. Could I figure out a way to replace each type of protein, carb, and Little Debbie snack cake with a version that didn’t have to travel several thousand cumulative miles and pass through half a dozen storage and processing facilities?
I was fired up. And then the only local produce in sight was:
There was nothing edible out there on that beautiful fertile plain. Many of the towns were so small, so depopulated, that the only store was a circa 1987 Coke machine.
When I found myself near a diner or bar around lunchtime, I’d put aside my normal stinginess and sit down for a real meal, an hour of Nascar, and a conversation (since it had occurred to me that maybe I was spending too much time alone). Sometimes the food was surprisingly local, especially if bacon and eggs were involved. But often my meal was just fried locally. I was still getting most of my calories from Hostess Donettes.
When I got to Shelby, Montana, a wind storm blew in and the usual 5-10 mph headwind kicked up to 30-40 mph. I was camped out behind the Comfort Inn on the edge of town with Matt, another bike tourer I’d met a few days earlier. It was emotionally and physically draining just to walk through the wind to the hotel lobby to get my yearly fix of Fox News and use the wifi. So we took a rest day. I looked up farmers markets in Montana, and was downright thrilled that we’d been forced (forced!) to rest on the weekly market day! I’d told Matt about my food/fuel/waste epiphany and he was bemusedly supportive of my efforts. We spent the morning visiting the Marias Museum of History, a knickknack and photo-stuffed repository for the cast-off collections of the town’s most esteemed hoarders. We also lost a dollar each at a kino machine in the bowling alley. Then we sat on benches in the city park and waited for the vendors to show up.
The next day the wind slowed to its usual soul-fortifying 8 mph and we rolled back onto the road, loaded down with zucchini bread and kohlrabi. Matt decided to head north to avoid the wildfires in Glacier National Park. I continued west because I’d be catching a train and metal is fireproof.
I had enough food from the farmers market to fuel my ride through the scrubby rangeland to East Glacier Park Village, a touristy little town 30 miles from the park entrance. I was excited to see a vegetable stand across the street from Brownie’s Hostel – until I learned that the produce was all trucked in from California. I cooked the last of my Shelby vegetables in the hostel kitchen, and then spent the next few days happily laying belly up in my bunk bed and eating peanut butter sandwiches in between servings of local ice cream and huckleberry pie.
I also washed my bike, did laundry in a real laundry machine, and finally decided that I should go see this big park since I’d pedaled all the way out there. I rode a hotel shuttle to Glacier’s entrance and then caught the free bus for a two hour ride over Logan Pass and on to the other side of the park. I bought an ice cream cone in Apgar Village (a tiny community consisting of a resort lodge, a campground, gift shops and crowded restrooms), sat down at the edge of Lake McDonald, and watched vacationing families frolic in the water. The view was spectacular. It didn’t occur to me to look at the time.
When I finally made it all the way back to the park entrance, the sun was getting low and I’d missed the last shuttle back to town. I stood on the side of the road, kicking myself for being a sucker for hazelnut and salted caramel. I shoved down the urge to worry. Smiling pleasantly, I watched a few dozen families drive past my outstretched thumb, the parents giving each other looks that asked, “honey, is that a hitch-hiker?” until a grandfatherly sort of man slowed up, rolled down his window, and said, “I don’t usually pick people up, but get in.”
We chatted as he drove along the winding road to the top of a ridge, past lakes and mountain vistas cloaked in wildfire smoke, down into and up out of wide wooded valleys, over rolling hills, and back towards the plains. He’d lived nearby for years, and spent a lot of time in the back county. He told me about riding horses out there, taking his daughters on trips, hunting elk. I listened. And suddenly, and for the first time in my life, I wanted to learn how to hunt as badly as I’d like to be able to kill a chicken, perform CPR, and flip a bad guy through the air and into a submission hold. I admitted to him that I’ve done plenty of hiking in the woods, but I’d die in the wilderness without a backpack stuffed with oatmeal and synthetic base layers. I always felt like a visitor in the woods. I looked out the window at the trees, thick and dark with evening shadows, and said, “people used to live here,” as if it were some profound revelation; for me, at that moment, it was. He nodded slowly and we were both quiet for a while.
I had no idea how whole communities of people had gone about living in forested valleys or on the rolling plains or anywhere else without a Kroger down the road – or at least a tractor in the barn. As I rode through North Dakota and eastern Montana, I’d seen historical markers along the highways informing me that here is where the buffalo roamed before Euro-American hunters wiped them out, over there is where the US Army massacred a camp of Blackfeet people. In Havre, MT, I’d ridden my bike out behind a forlorn strip mall and peered through a chain link fence at a buffalo jump site. I’d stopped on many hilltops, looked out over the rolling plains, and mentally photoshopped out all the fences and NO TRESPASSING signs. But when I tried to imagine real people going about normal lives out there, just 150 years ago, I saw faceless figures, faded and faraway on the horizon. It all felt like a sad old story that no one wants to hear anymore. I didn’t even know the main characters’ names, much less what they ate for breakfast.
Not that I made a huge effort to find out how people had managed to find dinner in that scrubby sea of grass, or if that knowledge had survived in some form despite loss of their lands , ethnic cleansing, and, well, in some cases, genocide. From Minnesota to Montana, I’d been stunned (and yes, deterred) by warnings from other white people to “stay away from the rez.” Many conversations with kindly old ranchers or farmers about my bike route – which passed through several towns on reservations – resulted in a stern-faced warning: “definitely do not stay there for the night”; “ride as quickly as you can”; “they don’t care about you.”
I wondered why they should. In my 34 years of life I’d spent a grand total of 3 hours thinking about Native Americans (8 if I count eating popcorn while watching Last of the Mohicans and Dances with Wolves). It wasn’t until I rode my bike across those vast plains – hungry, vulnerable, and incompetent – that I began, on a more personal and selfish level, to appreciate the loss to the world that comes with the eradication of millions of people and their individual and collective knowledge and culture. They knew how to eat local before #eatlocal. I was surrounded by a beautiful land that didn’t belong to me and with which I didn’t know how to connect as I passed through.
I took a train across the mountains of Washington. After visiting friends in Seattle and Portland, I rode south through the Willamette River Valley, loaded down with Oregon-grown supplies gathered from various farmers markets in Portland. It was late summer and I supplemented my diet with fresh produce and eggs from friendly honor-system stands in front of farms and country homes. For a whole week, all of my food was grown within the borders of the state I was pedaling through. I felt pretty darn proud of myself.
Curious about what west coast local food looked like before the era of insta-ready farmers market booths, I’d downloaded Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, by M. Kat Anderson. Each night, I laid down in my tent and read a few pages before 50 miles’ worth of fatigue made my eyes go numb. What I learned over the next few weeks (ok, months – it’s a long book) dominated my thoughts as I rode down the coast, and continues to influence the way I think about my interactions with other people and the world in general.
Anderson describes how, rather than passively existing in the wilderness like mystical woodland creatures, the people who lived in what is now California actively used and shaped the landscape for at least 12,0000 years before the arrival of Europeans. Through burning, pruning, harvesting, weeding, sowing, and other specialized management practices, Native Americans altered the development of plant and animal species to the point that many of the flowers and trees that we now attempt to preserve in our hands-off state and national parks would not exist in their modern form without this previous, sustained human manipulation.
Early Native Americans may have been responsible for the long-ago extinction of California’s megafauna; over time, they also developed a land use ethic that demanded a respectful coexistence with all lifeforms and guided the formation of many of the scenic landscapes we now feature in panoramic postcards. Anderson points out that when naturalist and wilderness preservationist John Muir stared “in awe at the lengthy vistas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, [he] was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb, and and greens gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting, and seed scattering.”
Early accounts by explorers and missionaries reported that California’s redwood forests were intentionally burned every one to five years to clear brush, open the view for hunting, and maintain prairie habitat for preferred animal and plant species. Many of the valley oak savannas, coastal prairies, and mountain meadows that we see today would have been swallowed long ago by scrub brush and forest – or maybe never existed – if not for regular burning and manual thinning by various Native American tribes. As I rode past CAL FIRE billboards warning that “Wildfire is Coming” and received texts and calls from friends and family worried that I was absentmindedly pedaling straight into a raging fire, it was hard to imagine a California summer during which fire was considered a source of renewal instead of fear.
There were once up to 100 languages spoken in what is now California, and many of them did not have a word for wilderness. Or civilization. According to Anderson, many Native Americans consider “wilderness” to be a deteriorated state that befalls land when humans abandon it.
“Some native people, displaced during Euro-American settlement of their lands, returned to their homelands years after relocation only to find them overgrown and untended. Maria Lebrado Ydrte, granddaughter of Chief Tenaya of the Southern Sierra Miwok and part of the tribe that was driven out of Yosemite by the Mariposa Battalion, returned to her beloved Yosemite after seventy-eight years. She shook her head and said, ‘Too dirty too much bushy.’ The open meadows she had known in her childhood were covered with trees and shrubs.”
– M. Kat Anderson
Anderson argues that “the concept of California as unspoiled, raw, uninhabited nature – as wilderness – erased the indigenous cultures and their histories from the land and dispossessed them of their enduring legacy of tremendous biological wealth.” As I rolled past “Welcome!” and “Thanks for Visiting!” signs posted at seemingly arbitrary state park boundaries, I felt embarrassingly shocked and disturbed that communities possessing so much complex knowledge, fine-tuned and passed down over millennia, had been thoroughly and intentionally eradicated in just over 100 years or so.
I was supposed to be having a sunshiny fun super rad magical bike ride down the coast and I couldn’t shake the feeling that terrible things had happened right here, and just over there, and probably all along this road, only a few generations ago. History can be such a fucking drag. Whether I was pedaling quickly past another desolate strip mall or stopping at a viewpoint to look out over a stretch of misty, wild coastline, I felt a bit haunted by imagined (and maybe a bit over-romanticized) memories of people that I’d never met and didn’t really know anything about.
My melancholy turned to disgust when I passed through some of California’s agricultural valleys, where I was surrounded by very local food that I was very uninterested in eating. Along the road, stretching to the right all the way to the ocean, and out to distant ridges on the left, were millions of identical strawberries, Brussels sprouts, lettuce, artichokes, and raspberries. Plastic-covered raised rows shimmered like a black sea in the hot summer sun, ready to receive perfectly groomed greenhouse-grown strawberry plants. Nearby, dozens of farmworkers in thick hoodie sweatshirts hustled to pick ripe fruit next to recently fumigated fields still posted with Peligro! DO NOT ENTER! signs. I watched all this produce get loaded onto trucks that banged their way down the road to huge cooling warehouses and processing facilities. From those sprawling, humming buildings, I saw more trucks take off, bound for supermarkets thousands of miles away so that east coasters can eat strawberries in November. This was the food that made it so easy to never eat local everywhere else. And meanwhile, the local roadside produce stands were stocked with avocados, oranges and pineapples from Mexico.
It was gross. My heart filled with angst, even before the hot afternoon when, in my little side mirror, I watched a big truck approach and not make even an inch of room for me. I swerved too quickly to the far edge of the shoulder and hit a patch of silty wet topsoil, slick from that morning’s rain. I went down hard. My first accident in 3,000 miles. (I don’t count getting dumped off my bike by Portland’s streetcar tracks because I wasn’t carrying my bags at the time and because it was funny). As I crouched in the squishy mud by the side of the road, blood dripping down my left arm and leg, trying to figure out why my front wheel was immobilized, I vowed to never again buy a fruit that came in a stupid little hinged container or to ever EVER tear open a plastic bag of goddamned pre-washed spring mix.
I was tired, hungry, and surprisingly bitter considering that I was not personally involved on either side of the not-so-long-ago events that contributed to the development of the California that I was now starting to despise. I couldn’t let go of how, according to Anderson, the fertility of the land that the Native Americans “maintained, enhanced, and in part created…was eventually to be exploited by European and Asian farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs, who imagined themselves to have built civilization out of an unpeopled wilderness.” Near Castroville, I passed a roadside food truck offering up French-fried artichoke. Just a month earlier, I would’ve proudly splurged and spent $6.00 for the chance to support the production of such a unique local delicacy. Now, I glared at the truck’s giant smiling cartoon artichoke sign and muttered, “Fuck you, Artichoke.”
One of the strangest legacies of America’s founding is our national obsession with the apocalypse…We go to a gift shop in Arizona and see dug-up Indian arrowheads, and never think “this is the same thing as the stuff laying around in Terminator or The Road or that part in The Road Warrior where the feral kid finds a music box and doesn’t know what it is.”
We love the apocalypse as long as nobody acknowledges the truth: It’s not a mythical event. We live on top of one.
– Jack O’Brian, 6 Ridiculous Lives You Believe About the Founding of America
Sorry, Happy Artichoke. I know it’s not your fault. Looking back, a few months and several thousand miles later, I think I was deeply disturbed that yet again, I’d learned that there were even more injustices involved in the founding of my country than I’d previously already tried to not think about too much. Terrible acts that I’d been vaguely aware of as historical events, but without much meaning until my hunger forced me to appreciate what had been lost. I was also resisting a nagging suspicion that the early Californians’ arrogant, self-absorbed, and sometimes even well-intentioned process of cultural assimilation and resource grabbing might not have ended with the secularization of the California missions or the decline of the Gold Rush. I was coming to a yucky realization that maybe the same belief systems that justified pushing Native Americans out of the way had shaped the backbone of this country, and that those attitudes live on in our overly comfortable lifestyles, which now rely on the exploitation of resources – human and natural – around the world to support the ever-expanding pursuit of our inherently superior happiness.
I hadn’t yet sorted through these thoughts by the time I finally got to San Diego. Instead, I simply decided that California can go fuck itself, boxed up my bike, and hopped on a train to Texas. Thirty-six hours of staring out the window soothed my nerves. I decided to chill out, try to eat locally sometimes because the attempt to do so made me feel better about myself, and enjoy the ride. I arrived in San Antonio, screwed the pedals back onto my bike, and headed east toward Alabama – right through the heart of America’s food desert.
So. I tried to eat local food while traveling through the US and mostly failed. Turns out that in large sections of America, eating food that doesn’t require massive amounts of fossil fuel inputs is a rather unconventional lifestyle choice, right up there with being a swinger, recycling, and, well, riding a bike across the country. Also turns out that even in my own country, I’m always a visitor. And when I meet someone, I want to learn about what her life is like, not greet her with the judgement implied in that god-awful question, “Is this local?” So that means that when you’re passing through Alabama in early fall, and it’s already dark and cold at 5pm, and a kind campground host drives his golf cart over to your tent to invite you to join him and his friends for dinner and then drives everyone 15 miles to the only diner in the nearest town, you don’t ask if the tater tots are local. You order a second helping and ask about his kids.
I launched my little local food challenge because of some vague feeling that burning fossil fuels is, you know, bad. In exploring some strategies for living a low-carbon life, I’d made this annoying connection between my awesome quality of life and other people’s shitty quality of life. If I can trust a few scientists, it appears that my carefree lifestyle contributes disproportionately to climate change and limits options for other people, by causing higher food prices, disease, and loss of homelands to rising seas and changing weather patterns. This is not some unfortunate, forgettable past event or a catastrophe that might occur in the future; it’s a problem right now and I’m making it worse.
This realization hit me in the heart right next to where I store my useless white guilt – a dusty place that I visit sometimes when I remember how I’ve benefited from being the granddaughter of immigrants who were eventually able to become the right color…and then leave again because I can’t think of a quick and easy way to really help make things better people who aren’t. A renewed sense of responsibility towards fellow humans around the world collided with my unwillingness to change because there are many yummy foods and shiny things that I don’t want to give up forever. The result was bitterness, bouts of anger towards googly-eyed inanimate objects, and a deep and unsatisfied craving for oatmeal cream pies.
But hell. If I am so disgusted by past exploitation and domination in what is now the US, do I want to contribute to a system that continues to wreak havoc, albeit in a more subtle form, on people and lands beyond its borders? No. Yes. Definitely not. Um, well, maybe it’s not really all that bad? I don’t know. This question fades from my thoughts and then comes nagging its way back whenever my nephew wants more Cheez-Its or a new electronic game, or my sweet sister offers me a cheerful bowl of kiwi-strawberry-pineapple-orange fruit salad on a dreary winter day. I’ve found myself swatting the question away, telling myself that one person’s little changes don’t make a difference, that I have a right to live a happy life, too.
At my family’s Christmas Eve dinner, a month after finishing up this round of bike riding, I slurped clean my bowl of borscht and was ready for the next course in our vaguely traditional Ukrainian-American holiday meal. I found myself staring at a platter piled with a half dozen of the largest artichokes I’d ever seen. (We’ve been eating steamed artichokes with Hollandaise sauce every Christmas Eve since my mom decided, maybe 30 years ago, to add something French-ish to our usual Ukrainian-ish holiday meal in a nod to my dad’s Parisian mother – who’d come to Chicago after WWII and turned 97% American by the time I met her). My sister asked how artichokes grow. Someone explained that they’re like giant thistles. I mentioned that when I was in California, I’d ridden through huge fields of them – and had vowed to never eat them again. “And here you are are,” stated Mom*, before I could go on about busloads of underpaid farmworkers and how we were indirectly eating petroleum. I silently tore off a leaf, dunked it in Hollandaise sauce, and scraped it all off with my teeth. It tasted as good as it had every other time I’d eaten it. I took another leaf and understood why people join communes.
I like the traditions in my family. I don’t think everything about my culture and way of life is so awful and destructive that I shouldn’t practice and share any of it. But while my life and my way of life are valuable, they are no more valuable those of anyone else. If I give some things up, my life will be awesome; if I don’t, my life will be awesome. I have the privilege of choice. So maybe some of those traditions and everyday practices could be altered a bit. Culture is fluid, right? Maybe I can step up the process of change, tweak the traditions and lifestyle choices to take into account the far-flung effects of my everyday purchases and travel plans.
I don’t want to return to some idyllic pre-industrial good old days that never existed. I like indoor plumbing, my laptop, and not dying of tuberculosis. And modern technology even might (or might not) slow climate change and help us adapt. But while the scientists work their magic and governments try to implement broad policies, maybe I can also relearn a few things from the 100 billion or so people who lived pretty ok lives before the current era of fossil fuel reliance. Let’s ignore the bits about the old-timey life expectancy of 35 years and focus on the resourcefulness required to live even that long in a wide range of environments before the invention of, for example, fiberglass insulation: if my sister’s furnace gives out this week, I’ll slowly freeze to death in this god-forsaken winter hellhole we now call Ohio. How the heck did the Delawares, Shawnees, Ottowas and Miamis live here? (I had to look all those up). As demonstrated by M. Kat Anderson, practices that were fine-turned for the local environment were passed down through milennia and continue to evolve and combine with newer technologies to meet contemporary needs. Perhaps that sort of deeper knowledge of a place – and an ethic of resource use that doesn’t assume that we can always have everything right now – can help us live in a way that doesn’t drain natural resources or steamroller other cultures, both at home and abroad.
I don’t know what the better choices look like for me, especially since I can’t seem to stay in one place long enough to order a CSA box, much less grow my own tomatoes. Just as soon as I finally finish writing this never-ending post, I can get back to reading the hundred or so books in my Book Club (never mind that I’ll be reading them on my iPad, the production of which probably added a few globs to the toxic sludge pit in the “worst place on earth“). Maybe I’ll start eating out of dumpsters, like my friend Hirsch, who has spent about $2.50 on food during ten years of bike riding around the world. Maybe my best contribution to the world is to continue sleeping in a tent or strangers’ spare rooms, wearing the same seven pieces of clothing for months at a time. Maybe next time I ride my bike to some new place I can pedal more slowly and seek out people who have been involved in both its history and its present, instead of getting spooked by the shadows of a dark past, deciding that we’re all just gonna die anyway, and consoling myself with a Snickers (which sometimes really does satisfy, by the way).
It’s not really just about the food, I guess. It’s about respect for the history of the ground in which it’s grown. Humility about the fact that I can afford to ride my bike and spend hours a day debating this stuff with myself, all because I bought and sold a house that was built on land whose story I’d never thought to learn. The food I eat is a reminder that I need the earth and that my everyday choices – insignificant as they may be – affect my environment and the other people who also rely on it. I’ve just started reading The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, and in the introduction, Edward E. Baptist makes this simple statement: “Things happened because of what had been done before them – and what people chose to do in response.” I want to understand what has been done before, and make choices that reflect my love for the world and all its people.
*I’d like to note that my mom is a thoroughly supportive parent who has always encouraged me to live my dreams, explore the world, etc. She just didn’t want Debbie Downer crashing the family holiday dinner.
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