Restoring Value to the Food We Eat

July 9, 2019

Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food, by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle (Island Press, 2019)

Bob Quinn is a third-generation wheat farmer from Big Sandy, Montana, about eighty miles northeast of Great Falls. He earned a PhD in plant biochemistry from the University of California, Davis, became a leader in the organic food movement, developed a group of closely inter-connected food-related businesses, created an ancient-grain business, and sponsored Montana’s first wind farm.

Early in the book he states his premise, that “economics is not just about what happens in faraway boardrooms or on the floor of the stock market. The real measures of economic health are in the fundamental goods that not only make our lives possible but also make them worth living: thriving communities, meaningful work, healthy land. At the center of this fundamental economy are our staple foods, our daily bread. If we hope to recover honest value in American society, we must redeem the original commodity, wheat” (p. 11).

Late in the book Quinn restates his thesis: “a regenerative organic food and agriculture system is the only way out of the chronic disease problems plaguing this country.” The reform he describes “could dramatically reduce the incidence of four of the top seven causes of death in the United States, lift thousands of Americans out of poverty, and fight climate change—all the while slowing the growth of marine dead zones and reversing pollinator decline” (p. 219).

Quinn is committed to the health and vitality of rural communities such as Big Sandy which in the early 1960s, when he was growing up, was a vibrant community with a population of nearly 1,000. It was, he writes, “a hub of activity” with many of the business and community institutions that people needed for their normal activities and services (p. 16). He shows how new chemically-dependent farming policies and practices have made it difficult for such communities to survive. One of his purposes as farmer, business and community leader, and author is to restore vitality to rural communities all over the country, and especially in places like central Montana.

While doing undergraduate studies in botany at Montana State University in Bozeman, he was introduced to ecology as an area of growing importance. During his graduate studies he deepened his knowledge of plant science and also learned major ideas and values of the way of farming that predated the industrialized agriculture introduced following World War II, and that his own family had practiced for many years.

When he decided to return to Montana and farming, Quinn came to understand that farmers like his father were caught in the changes that came about because what they raised—mostly wheat—had become standardized commodities rather than food. Increasing the volume of grain they could raise by using chemical fertilizers and herbicides, became their goal. The nutritional quality of what they raised lost importance and actually declined. Political objectives and economic policies were intended to reduce rural populations significantly, and the new farming methods impoverished the people so they fled—as had happened in Big Sandy.

As Quinn began his own farming career, he found his father to be simultaneously colleague and debate partner. Their debates helped both men understand what was happening and encouraged them to resist the new agriculture and seek to develop ways of farming that were adapted to their climate, soil, plants, and livestock and could thrive under those conditions.

Quinn established relationships with several farm-related organizations and became increasingly committed to values promulgated by the organic food movement, inspired by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. In order to advance and protect organic farming on the scale required by wheat growers like himself, he became politically active, shaping legislation that would define and protect the kind of farming and food that he believed in.

Along the way, Quinn began studying the energy inputs needed to grow food, comparing them with the energy outputs of the crops they raised. As a result, he found a plant adapted to his climate and soil that he could grow and turn into biofuel that would reduce these fuel imputs. Realizing that wind farms would work wonderfully well where he lived, he created necessary legislation and business leadership to establish such farms in his wind-swept part of the world.

When he was in high school (1964), someone at the county fair gave Quinn a few grains of kamut, an ancient wheat. Years later, when he was well established in his main career, he explored the origin and properties of this wheat. Discovering that it possessed highly desirable properties that had disappeared from commodity wheat, he developed seed stock and networks of farmers to produce it on a large scale. He also developed business relationships to market it around the world (one of which is Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods of Milwaukie, Oregon, whose products, including this wheat, I can buy three blocks from my home in downtown Indianapolis).

Grain by Grain is a personal story of one man’s career as farmer, environmentalist, community leader, and business leader. Quinn writes well, includes much factual material and ethical conviction, and commands the reader’s interest all along the way. The way of life for America’s farmers and food suppliers that he describes is radically different from patterns prevailing today.

Yet near the end of the book he gives a reason why we can believe that Americans may rise up to reverse what he describes as the plundering of the American people by corporate powers. “As value subtraction comes home to roost in our bodies, it may be that concern for our health is what will finally motivate us all to do something about it” (224). In the final six pages of the book he provides evidence that this transformation is now beginning to take place.

Liz Carlisle, who also grew up in Montana, is a lecturer in the School of Environmental Sciences at Stanford University. In the book’s prologue she describes how she became acquainted with Quinn and his work and offered to help him write a book about what he was doing. She helped him with some of the research and writing but left “her first-person voice aside” so that readers would “get to know this green economy cowboy” for themselves (xvi).


W. E. Garrison’s 117-year-old Bicycling Classic Back in Print

March 29, 2019

Wheeling Through Europe by Winfred Ernest Garrison, republished by Nabu Public Domain Reprints

One hundred seventeen years ago, on April 26, 1900 (p. 534), the following notice appeared in the Christian-Evangelist, a religious news magazine published in St. Louis and distributed to more that 20,000 subscribers  in the United States and Canada:

“Wheeling Through Europe,” by W. E. Garrison, will be ready for delivery by the time this issue reaches our readers. During the summer of 1898 and 1899 the author traveled extensively through England, Scotland, Wales, France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. All of this touring was done on a bicycle, and he was thus enabled to see Europe as it cannot be seen by the tourist who rushes through the several countries on railway trains. He has written of his travels in a most entertaining and fascinating style. “Wheeling Through Europe” is a beautiful volume of 263 pages, handsomely bound and illustrated with half-tone cuts from photos taken by the author. Price, postpaid, $1.

Most readers of this notice would have been familiar with the travel narratives in this book because they already would have read them. During the summers of 1898 and 1899, as the cyclist-author was taking these two long bicycle journeys, he had sent reports home to his father, J. H. Garrison, owner, publisher, and editor of Christian-Evangelist, who published them in his magazine. Since his father also published books, the young Garrison (he was 24 and 25 years old when he took these “vacations,” as he called them), it was a logical next step to republish these reports as a book.

During the closing years of that century, W. E. was completing his Ph.D. degree at the University of Chicago, and in 1900 his father also published his dissertation entitled “Alexander Campbell’s Theology: Its Sources and Historical Setting.” It too was priced at $1.00.

Garrison had well-developed ideas about traveling by bicycle, as can be seen in the first chapter of Wheeling Through Europe, which carries the title “About Bicycle Touring.” Traveling by bicycle provides “an unrivaled opportunity for seeing the picturesque in nature and observing the life of people out of the beaten path of travel.” You can tailor your travels to do exactly as you please; it can fit your desires. “But don’t forget,” he adds, “that you are out to enjoy everything, sunshine and shower, down hill and up, smooth road and rough. . .If you can be happy only when physically comfortable, then do not risk a bicycle trip, for there will be many hours when there would be more actual comfort in the aforesaid hammock than in pushing a wheel through the sand of a country road or ploughing through the mud in the premature dusk of a rainy day to reach a gloomy inn before it is absolutely dark.”

The bicycle touring that Garrison describes has an easy-going feel to it that obscures the aggressive character of his travel. In a prefatory note Garrison writes that it “may interest wheelmen to know that the exact amount actual bicycling involved in these tours was 6,150 miles.”

I discovered Wheeling Through Europe in the library of Christian Theological Seminary, where I taught, in the early 1970s, read it with great interest, and in recent years have been turning again both to this book and to other bicycle-related travelogues that Garrison wrote. Soon after this book was published, he discontinued his cycling adventures and focused attention on his career as church historian, academic administrator, writer, and multi-talented senior statesman. While he is known for his many accomplishments, Garrison’s early life as remarkable cyclist has been largely overlooked. Not surprisingly, his book published more than a century ago is held by only a small number of libraries.

This summer, to my great surprise and delight, I discovered that Wheeling Through Europe can once again be purchased from online and local bookstores as a Nabu Public Domain Preprint. A note by the publisher explains that the book “may have occasional imperfections such as missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks, etc. that were either part of the original artifact, or were introduced by the scanning process.” The new publication enlarges the size of the pages (7.5 x 9.75), and therefore the print is easy to read and photographs are fairly clear. The cover photo is not from the original and is not identified by the reprint publisher. Nabu Press is an imprint of BiblioLife in Charleston, South Carolina.

Winfred Ernest Garrison was born in 1874 and died in 1969 at the age of 94. He was elected president of the American Society of Church History for 1927-28. Among his books are Catholicism and the American Mind (1928); The March of Faith (1933), which describes the role of churches following the Civil War; A Protestant Manifesto (1952); Christian Unity and the Disciples of Christ (1955); and The Quest and Character of a United Church (1957). He is described in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (2004).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Bicycling from San Diego to St. Augustine

March 21, 2019

Remembering a solo bicycle journey from California to Florida–March to May, 1999

 

East of Safford, Arizona

Twenty years ago this week, on March 18, 1999, I began a solo bicycle trip that began in San Diego and ended nearly two months later in St. Augustine. During the first half of the journey, I cycled for eighteen days and rested two, traveling through the dry lands of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and West Texas for a total mileage of 1,496 miles, averaging 83 miles per day on the days I cycled. At San Antonia I interrupted the bike trip by driving in a rented car to Fort Worth to lead a workshop for ministers.

Returning to San Antonio, I continued cycling through the wet lands of East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and northern Florida. In fifteen days on my bicycle, I traveled another 1,312 miles, averaging 87 miles, and rested two days. My last night on the road was in Stark, Florida. After attending Mass at a Catholic Church, I rode the final 55 miles, dipped my wheels in the Atlantic Ocean at St. Augustine, and waited for my son to drive up from north of Orlando to take me to his home.

These memories were rekindled on Tuesday of this week—March 19, 2019—when I traveled with my son, who now lives in Fernandina Beach, Florida, to Saint Augustine to wander through the oldest European city in the United States. We had planned to make a three-day bicycle trip there and back, but an unfavorable weather forecast and a chronic sore leg that I am nursing back to health made a one-day trip in his BMW Z4 roadster the better alternative.

We glanced at the ocean along the way on Florida A1A and spent much of our time exploring the Castillo de San Marcos, established nearly 350 years ago to protect Spanish trade routes and the village of St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement in the United States. We also toured the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine which continues the oldest Catholic parish in the United States.

We wandered through the streets in Old Town that have been continuously used since 1572. More like cultural trails than city streets, they were crowded with people walking along, with ancient residential buildings on either side. No automobiles here, only a few bicyclists moving through the walkers as best they could.

A few days before making the trip in 1999, I gave a preview of my plans and purposes to friends at the Surprise-Grand-Bell Rotary Club in Surprise, Arizona. While eating breakfast before I made my speech, a fellow Rotarian, with disbelief in his voice, asked “Why? Why would anyone do such a crazy thing as that?”

Maybe the fact that I was 67 years old and would be riding all alone were reasons for his question. Fortunately, I have preserved a copy of the remarks that morning as I made ready for the longest bike ride of my life.

How better to feel the texture of the southern tier of the United States than to bicycle from San Diego to St. Augustine—from the community where in 1769 Junipéro Serra founded the first of California’s chain of missions to the oldest European settlement in the nation, founded in 1565 by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. This is the plan I have laid out for me and Bluecycle, my faithful two-wheeled steed, for this spring. We will begin our journey on March 18, the day after the festival honoring St. Patrick, and plan to complete our travels in early May near the day honoring St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. Half way through the journey we are to spend a week in Grapevine, Texas, where I am to lecture at a church conference. Read more . . . . . . . Bicycling from San to Saint


“Our Towns” by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows

March 8, 2019

A Bicyclist’s Response to Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows (Pantheon, 2018)

During a four-year period, 2013 through 2016, James Fallows and Deborah Fallows flew back and forth across the United States in the single-engine prop plane that James had bought in Duluth, Minnesota (which is one of the reasons why they chose to study that city; another reason being that Deborah had strong childhood associations there). They visited 42 towns and cities—some large, like Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; others small, like Eastport, Maine and Chester, Montana.

Some of the places they studied are especially interesting to me, including Ajo, Arizona, Fresno, California, and Duluth, Minnesota, because I have bicycled through them, lived nearby, or have historic family connections.

Chapters in the book vary in length, from the twenty-page portrait of Greenville, South Carolina, to the three pages devoted to Guymon, Oklahoma. The shorter accounts usually are subsidiary to the longer ones, sometimes as examples of similar dynamics taking place in nearby locations, sometimes as evidence that renewal may not extend to neighboring communities. The Fallows speak respectfully about the places they visit even when what they describe is less than positive.

This book brings to mind other travelogues across the country. The one the Fallows cite is Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. He was interested in seeing the America he had written about one last time and drove 10,000 miles with one question foremost in his mind: What are Americans like today? I think of Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. He too was traveling around the country, but he stayed on lesser roads, and visited only small towns. Because Steinbeck and Heat-Moon traveled in their own campers, they carried a fairly sizeable volume of personal supplies, were largely self-contained, and could come and go wherever and whenever they wanted.

The Fallows traveled 100,000 miles in their own small airplane but could only stop at places where they could land. They then had to find a way to get downtown where they usually stayed at a motel or hotel. When it served their purposes, they would rent a car, but they also walked and used  bicycles they could rent in the community they were visiting. Read more. . .Our Towns

 


Coming of Age at the End of Nature

February 28, 2019

Reviewing Coming of Age at the End of Nature: A Generation Faces Living on a Changed Planet, edited by Julie Dunlop and Susan A. Cohen; Foreword by Bill McKibben (Trinity University Press, 2016)

As a man in his late late 80s, I had the good fortune of starting my life in a world that in retrospect seems to have been greener and happier—with salmon still swimming upstream in western rivers to spawn, Monarch butterflies migrating in vast numbers every season, and western forests free of bark beetles that infest and decimate. Forest fires of limited scope were part of the natural cycle that maintained the health of forests and the well-being of all creatures, including humankind, who depended upon them.

My grandchildren’s generation, now in their 30s, is living in a world that has suffered what may be irreversible change in the half century since I was their age. Any way we look at planet earth, we stare at sights we do not want to see.

In Coming of Age at the End of Nature, twenty-two members of this generation tell everyone who reads this collection of vividly-written essays what they see, feel, and want as they live their lives on a plant that has already changed and may continue to deteriorate during years to come.

Part I, “Living on Eaarth,” borrows the word coined by Bill McKibben in a book he published before some of the essayists were born. His point was that so many irreversible environmental changes had taken place that a whole new term needed to be used to name the place where we live. The essays in this part of the book are gritty accounts of disheartening experiences—working in Haiti, foraging for food on city streets and alleys, serving as a forest ranger who has to tell tourists that the vistas he shows them have been unchanged for a thousand years despite his knowledge that disease and terrible fires are moving irresistibly from one valley, over the ridge, to the next, in a process that seems unstoppable.

Part II, “Thinking Like a River,” adapts Aldo Leopold’s phrase, “thinking like a mountain,” to encourage “long-term, holistic ecosystem conservation” (p. xvi). One theme that comes into focus quickly is that we need to find new ways of understanding our place as human beings in the larger and more complex natural world. There is no way of restoring the world to the way that it used to be. Eucalyptus trees have adapted to the American Southwest to a remarkable degree, as though they had always been there. It doesn’t make sense to destroy them for the sake of restoring plants that originated in this part of the world.

There is no way to undo the destruction of indigenous peoples nor can all of us of European, Asian, and African descent be returned to the places where our species originated. The distinctions we make between ecology and culture, or nature and culture, are misleading.

Jason M. Brown, a native of Orange County, California, writes that ecology is not a place or a thing we have control over; “ecology is the space between things, including us” (p. 73). In the next essay, based on his experience living in Bangkok, Cameron Conaway writes that “so often we move through life without really being present where we are” (p. 76), and life becomes whole again when we become focused on the life we really are living.

Amy Coplan deplores the separations between ourselves and much of what we depend upon, the sources of our food for example. “Nature is not a wilderness ‘out there. Nature is embedded in everything we do. Nature is us, and we are nature” (p. 87).

Part III, “Mindful Monkeywrenching,” contains essays in which the writers “offer creative solutions to diverse problems, both personal and societal” (p. xvi). An example is Emily Schosid’s essay (next to the last in the book), “Could Mopping Save the Planet? How Day-to-Day Chores Can Bring Big changes.”

In the final essay, Danna Joy Staaf returns to the generational theme with which this review begins. Her essay, “True to Our Nature,” is a letter to her dear offspring. “One of you is two years old; the other of you is still whiling away the months in my womb.” In the first paragraph she talks about creativity, which is one of the foundational features of life, but then writes: “The flip side of life’s generative impulse is, of course, wanton destruction” (p. 208). She soon introduces a hopeful third feature: “Unlike the rest of creation, however, we have the urge to overcome our violent side” (p. 210).

Herein lies one reason why even old men like me have reason to hope. We can believe that the destructive aspects of life of Eaarth will be overcome by new processes of creativity coming to life in the generative still being born.


Climate of Hope

February 6, 2019

Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet, by Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)

Carl Pope, long-time leader of the Sierra Club, and Michael Bloomberg,business leader and “unrepentant capitalist” begin this volume by acknowledging that they are an unlikely pair of collaborators in writing a book like this one. Despite their significantly different backgrounds, however, they are united in the conviction that it is possible to win the battle against climate change. As the book’s subtitle indicates, both men believe that cities, businesses, and citizens can take the lead in meeting the greatest challenge that has ever faced the world.

What brought them together were their parallel efforts to move beyond coal in generating the nation’s electricity. During Pope’s years leading the Sierra Club, this environmental organization responded aggressively to the George W. Bush administration’s proposal that it support the building of 150 new coal-fired power plants. Because of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, only 30 of the proposed plants were built.

In 2001, when Bloomberg became mayor of New York, this city, along with many others, was entering a new era of vitality and growth. Studying the dynamics of urban life, the new mayor identified four reasons why “cities are well-positioned to fight climate change: (1) because of the density of urban environments, the per capita carbon footprint is significantly lower than the nation’s average; (2) because cities are where the action is, they are “the primary drivers of climate change [and] must take the lead in tackling it;” (3) “mayors see fighting climate change as a spur to faster economic growth;” and (4) mayors “now realize that promoting private investment requires protecting public health—and protecting public health requires fighting climate change” (pp. 20-23). As mayor, Bloomberg inspired a coalition of New York businesses and institutions to take the lead in transforming their city.

Pope and Bloomberg are persuaded that “by changing the way we think and talk about climate change, we can lower the temperature of the debate—and accomplish a whole lot more. Cooler heads can produce a cooler world.” They also believe that the “changing climate should be seen as a series of discrete, manageable problems that can be attacked from all angles simultaneously. Each problem has a solution. And better still, each solution can make our society healthier and our economy stronger” (p. 3). Read More … Climate of Hope 2


For the dance of the future climate calls the tune

January 10, 2019

Responding to A Great Aridness: Climate and the Future of the American Southwest, by William deBuys (Oxford University Press, 2011)

 For seven years beginning in 1995, I lived in Sun City West near Phoenix and by bicycle explored much of Arizona’s Central Valley of the Sun and the canyon country north of the Mogollon Rim. In more recent years I have bicycled extensively through the “Sky Islands” east of Tucson and the border region near Sierra Vista, Bisbee, and Douglas. This desert wonderland fascinates and troubles me, which is why A Great Aridness, which I found in the Indianapolis Public Library was a book I had to read.

The jacket photo is arresting. Photos, graphs, and maps accompany the closely printed text of the book, which with notes and index, is 369 pages long. I agree with the publisher’s statement that deBuys writes “with an elegance that recalls the prose of John McPhee and Wallace Stegner [and] offers an unflinching look at the dramatic effects of climate change occurring right now in our own back yard.”

The author explains that the “book had started out, years ago, as a general environmental history of the Southwest, but environmental change intervened. The dynamics of the past never lost their fascination, but the galloping dynamics of the present overtook them, and I resolved to follow the action” (p. 317).

Each of the eleven chapters and the introduction is based on an event—a murder in 1919 at Cedar Springs in Navajo Country, a canoe trip over Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon, and a drive along Highway 79 through the Sun Corridor from Tucson north to Florence Junction. The purpose of each chapter, however, is to discuss in considerable detail some aspect of the climate challenges now facing the Desert Southwest. The most frightening, especially given recent fires in California, is deBuys’ description of the Rodeo-Chediski Burn along the Mogollon Rim in 2002. He includes a persuasive explanation of the fact that our actions intended to improve an existing condition often make it more dangerous.

The author draws extensively upon his research into the history and climatic science related to the events and places that he describes. He deftly describes locations, such as the observatories on Mt. Graham and the steel beams and barbed wire fencing on the border near Apache Pass. Several chapters describe the author’s trips to these locations with people of expert knowledge, sometimes at considerable risk. Although the book bristles with information, ideas, and strongly stated opinions, it pulls readers along from beginning to end.

In coming years, deBuys writes, the Southwest will become hotter, drier, and more vulnerable. He offers three “big ideas”—no big thing happens for just one reason; the human contribution to change in the natural world more often catalyzes than dictates the outcome; and the enormity of the human capacity for adaptation (pp. 15-16).

The chapter on border crossings is especially pertinent, given current political debates in the United States. The border “is an inherently violent ‘structure’ [marking] one of the steepest sets of social and economic gradients on the planet: material wealth and a white-dominated society on one side, poverty and a brown-skinned world on the other. . .As long as they exist, there will always be a current between them, and people will move along that current, irrespective of the risks” (p. 222). deBuys describes the immense cost of building and maintaining these physical barriers, the serious environmental impacts associated with them, and persuasive evidence that they don’t work.

As climate change intensifies already serious problems, he writes, pressures along the border will intensify, raising questions similar to those debated seven and a half centuries ago at the Sand Canyon Pueblo: “do we find ways to accommodate the new waves of homeless, or do we fend them off? Lately the United States has pursued the latter strategy at exorbitant cost while distorting its legal traditions to an unprecedented degree. . . .“If the test of character for individuals is to remain true to their ideals even in times of trial, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that the same may be true for a nation” (p. 235).

In his concluding chapter, written at the Zuni Pueblo, deBuys discusses a report issued in 2008 by the London Geological Society, which suggests that we are entering a new geologic era—the Anthropocene—that is replacing the Holocene epoch that has endured since the melting of the last great ice age. In the earlier era, humans were able to alter ecosystems. What is happening now “is something new under the sun: a cumulative and determinative human effect on core planetary processes, primarily climate” (p. 306).

This book closes with sense of urgency. World civilization has to make dramatic changes if we and the world as we know it are to survive. “Taken together, the fateful combination of present inactivity, rising energy and resource consumption, and climatic vulnerability make it difficult to envision a safe landing for humankind. Still, we know where to begin if we would soften the crash” (p. 315).

Ancient societies were forced to “dance with the facts of place” and so must we, wherever we live. “Climate is not the only such fact, but it is central and implacable. It calls the tune” (p. 312).