Synergy

We are all on a journey of one sort or another. We all may not refer to the experience of our daily lives as a journey, but the way the days stack one upon another, and the way the years fall backwards into memory establish a linear organization to our experiences. If our lives are not journeys then they, at the very least, take on trajectories with definite starts and finishes. And our stories and experiences build upon one another in a cumulative fashion. Only mistakenly do we err today in the same fashion as we did yesterday.

A notable start in my life (I have had many starts) was when I began to take note of food that I was consuming. It was a soft start. It came a month before my 18th birthday, and I had just read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and decided to adopt a vegetarian diet. It’s a common story across the planet as that book is powerful in its influence on young vacant minds such as my own. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I was using my own consumption of food to garner a modicum of political voice. At least it was constructive. I completed the year without consuming any meat products, then followed that with another year of consuming almost no animal products whatsoever. I then resumed consuming whatever animal products I fancied, and as a result became much more sociable at dinner parties.

But it would be a crime against philosophy to dismiss the substance of this event and dismiss it merely as happenstance. I distill it to this: I started to take note of the food I was consuming. And with that a seed was planted. I could perhaps more usefully distill that further to “I started to take note…”

I mentioned that this start in my life was a soft start. But its notable because that start led to so many more fruitful starts.  I started to take note of ecology and economy, agriculture and culture, consumption and conservation. But most importantly the delicate interplay of one with any of the others.  A pandora’s box in many ways, those delicate interplays unfolded themselves to my conscious mind more and more over decades.

Joel Salatin said this, “Get in your kitchens, buy unprocessed foods, turn off the TV, and prepare your own foods. This is liberating.” Ostensibly this is new information. Joel is a modern day philosopher/farmer and so is poised for a fresh delivery of this message. Even that designation philosopher/ farmer has only recently found its way into our modern vernacular. Ostensible though, because seeing this ethic in practice is a rarity in modern American life, though the ethic still exists somewhere, maybe everywhere, as an undercurrent in our culture.

It’s a positive message, as he does not mention what not to do or what to avoid; here he is no proponent of any fad diet or political affiliation. This message is simply stated, as is most of his messages through a number of books and articles he has authored. But it requires and holds up to an analysis of subtext. He feels like “we” are not spending enough time in the kitchen, cooking fresh foods, “we” being anyone who comes across this information I suppose. But does that apply to you, or I? And how would he know this? And from where is he drawing that conclusion?

It’s obvious.  “We” as an aggregate culture are currently suffering from multiple epidemics related to diet- obesity, heart disease, diabetes, alzheimers. There are naysayers and skeptics, but the sematics of causation and correlation don’t change the data we can now find almost everywhere.

And if we look a bit deeper into the subtext in Joel’s message we can see that he is suggesting that the epidemic is our aggregate culture itself. And how our aberrant  culture dictates how we live, how it nudges the choices we make, and how it influences our priorities.

Our culture is the problem, or at the very least, our culture is intertwined with some nameless problem so heavily, that the two are inseparable. For some this may be far reaching, but again it would be a crime against philosophy to not to take note of the substance this relationship suggests.

Michael Pollan’s diet advice, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” is now pervasive among the health and wellness community. But the caveat is that Pollan does not include in the “Eat food..” portion of this message most of the processed convenience foods we have become accustomed to consuming in our modern fast paced lives. He is referring to foods that are as close to their natural source as possible- fresh vegetables, salad greens, whole grains, and high quality meats. Could we and should we all eat along these lines? Perhaps. I imagine this way of eating more fresh and wholesome foods would necessitate us to, as Salatin suggested, “Get in [our] kitchens…”

A few decades ago in Italy Carlo Petrini and his cohort started a slow growing movement with food and wine at its center. Its main focus: mitigating the ill effects that our fast modern lifestyle has had on peoples relationship to food. The movement took on many faces and intentions as it grew. But its apex, today’s Slow Food is operating in almost every major city across the planet.

The Slow Food groups are multifaceted in their workings but all keep food and how it relates to our culture at their core. They host large dinners for members of the groups that keep close to the ethic of farm to table eating.  They also create school garden programs that foster green education in public schools. Others facilitate local city farmers markets by coordinating with local city governments and the farmers themselves. Most of these groups also invest themselves with the responsibility of fostering interest in or revitalizing the production of niche farm crops or food products their particular area has been known for.

The purveyors of the Slow Food movement, or authors like Pollan and Salatin are aiming to do one thing: Reverse the trajectory we are finding our current culture on. Or at the very least, to have readers and supporters take note of the way our culture nudges us to make choices that don’t fully support our needs as human beings, and to nudge it back.

Institutions have been created to facilitate our rights to the pursuit of happiness. But could it be that we have mis-interpreted that happiness in some way?

In the past two decades our culture has taken a turn towards the myopic. We tend to overly concern ourselves with the drudgery of our days and seek to appease it with small conveniences that help to satisfy our play by play cravings. But in this end we have neglected to look at our larger needs with a patient and sympathetic eye. While the choices we have become accustomed to make satisfy our needs on a daily basis, they hardly take note of how it behooves our species to operate on this small planet. And with this I throw a few well worn buzzwords into the ring: drive thru, single use, hand held, conveniently packaged, disposable, heat and serve, individually wrapped.

Slow Food, Salatin, and Pollan have been successful in stirring the proverbial pot, because they understand the structure of the pot itself. They understand what is and isn’t in the pot to begin with. They can identify what the soup in the pot needs, maybe a dash of salt, maybe something more. But before they could begin to understand the pots structure, what it contains, ingredients so to speak, they had to just look at the pot. Looking tells a lot. The scientific method starts with observation. When I became a young vegetarian, I started to take note.

In the long evolution of human beings, categorization has served us well. It has offered us the distinctions of edible vs. not edible, healthy vs. not healthy, nutritionally rich vs. nutritionally poor. And more recently the distinctions of high carb vs. low carb, organic vs. not organic, etc.

But in looking back at that proverbial pot, looking into it, there is definitely an ingredient missing. We don’t need to name it here. Naming it would only facilitate it dropping to the bottom of the pot, where it takes its supposed place as a distinction of eating, or perhaps atomically attract its opposing force and become another fruitless dichotomy.

Let’s just imagine the unifying factors of food and eating food without the distracting diet names, buzzwords, categorizations, dichotomies. Let’s imagine how food can bring us together at a table, how the taste of meal can elicit a smile on a face or perhaps conjure an old memory. Lets imagine how the labor of cooking a meal can also be described as love, and it can be freely given to and shared with those close to us. Lets imagine the way that good food can nourish our minds and bodies, and perhaps fill our bodies with good feelings and our minds with good thoughts. Lets imagine any holiday, and the foods that form its foundation.

There does exist a synergy between food and our openness and availability to the philosophy of consuming it- where the food, or even its eating, becomes more than the sum of its simple parts. What could we call this? Which category should we put it in? As I stated in the opening of this article, only mistakenly do we err today in the same way we did yesterday.

I close with a simple question: What’s for dinner?

The start

This space starts with a quote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”. Cliché, I know, but what’s interesting now is how much that quote used to mean to me. The quote is shortened considerably here, but at my first reading the whole of that quote stood as truth for me. Here was a writer that knew what was wrong with society in his time as well as our own. Its message stood as a petition for a reconnection with the natural world, or even a call to head to the hills and leave behind the frustrations of our modern way of life.

But my understanding of that quote has undergone it’s own evolution. In that quote, and in Walden as a whole, does Thoreau concretely answer any of the questions that are drawn by the criticisms he poses? Or did he intend the work to exist as a collection of sweeping generalizations with strong opinions about the decay of the social constructs that he valued and viewed as integral to cultivating human enlightenment? Well, yes and no.

The work is universally understood as a call to action, but what action is being called for? He offers his story as his attempt at reconciliation, but he never offers it as a broad prescription for his audience. Instead he utilizes the motivational nudge to inspire the reader to address their own criticisms within their own environments. To create their own personal blueprints so to speak, and apply the remedies that they see fit. But really nothing concrete.

When I first read through Walden almost 30 years ago, it felt like a fire had been stoked inside of me. The broad strokes of ideology excited me. The frustration, anger and resentment I felt about the mechanisms of the world at work around me was suddenly justified. The environment was damaged, the government was damaged, and nobody seemed to notice or care. I felt like I was right and they, as a whole, were wrong. Because Thoreau said so.

I read through this work again a decade and half later. It seemed to have evolved and was now very different than before. The philosophical undercurrents of the work had changed. Thoreau’s perspective had shifted. The prose had somehow become more delicate in its structure, more nuanced in its argumentation. The ideologies of beauty and peace had somehow come to the forefront. I was almost convinced that the words themselves had been altered, although I knew that was impossible.

Fast forward to present: The work has changed again. In this latest read I wasn’t energized like before. Nor was I in awe of the bait and switch of my second read through. This time the words just sat plainly before me page after page. The structure and messaging was simple: Thoreau went to the woods. He wished to live deliberately. He wanted to see what it meant to live simply. He wrote a series of detailed essays regarding his experience and they were later published into the work I was reading. The End.

But this latest read was more reflective than the previous two. I empathized more with Thoreau the man this time, versus Thoreau the essayist. I felt like that was me in the cabin. That was me rowing on the pond. Of the detailed descriptions of thoughts and motivations: those were my thoughts and my motivations. But then I turned the last page. The story was over. I was now free to take my leave from the cabin on Walden Pond and return to my suburban Colorado home and don my own well-worn jeans and flannel shirt. The journey I had undertaken with Thoreau had run its course.

But something was not right. I felt like there were questions unanswered. Maybe I had left some pages unturned. I revisited the work: words were still plain, structure and messaging still simple, Thoreau was still there in his cabin, the pond sat still with no one upon it. Then I looked at my suburban existence and felt the rub: where was my cabin? where was my pond? How had the quietude I felt at Walden escaped me?

And there I started a my journey, my journey without Thoreau. My journey to find rectitude and reconciliation for this new angst. My journey to find gratitude and mindfulness amidst the confusion – a journey where every step is based in factual evidence received from the natural world, and one that turns away from the sense of obligation that rises from the collective unconscious. A journey to regain my quietude.

What should be right and true in our modern world where everywhere we turn we receive messages about all the things going so wrong? Where do I find the map detailing the right way to go in my days, where I am mostly confronted with rules and laws informing me against transgression? Mostly this space will be dedicated to exploring new ideas and their merit, discussing novel topics and their potential efficacy. Also exploring old ideas and values that perhaps we should not have left behind, searching for the wisdom of the past that perhaps might serve as a favorable guidepost in navigating our modern world to a brighter future.

Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately. I deliberately went back to Thoreau, to Walden, to see if there wasn’t something I had missed before. Some instruction or reflection that would point my way towards peace and understanding – towards quietude. But I went back and found only a book about a man in his cabin. No, that’s not right. I found a book about a man in his cabin on a journey. And there was my start.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” –Walden, Where I lived and what I lived for.