Quotes & Commentery #78: Basho

Quotes & Commentery #78: Basho

It was with awe

That I beheld

Fresh leaves, green leaves

Bright in the sun

—Matsuo Basho

Last year, during the early months of the pandemic, I took up writing these little essays once again. But it was not exactly in good faith—that is, I did not do it in the original spirit of the Quotes & Commentary, as an exploration of my own beliefs. Instead, as has happened to me before, the essays became a vessel to comment upon current affairs, which of course meant the COVID-19 pandemic. I had an awful lot to say about things I know very little about. So now, for a change, I will focus my attention closer to home.

As it happens, I am as close to home as it is possible to be right now, since I am visiting Sleepy Hollow for the summer. There are, of course, a million things I enjoy about being here. Family, friends, and food handily win gold, silver, and bronze, respectively. But over the years, I have come to realize how much I long for the natural environment of my native place—the climate, flora, and fauna of the Hudson Valley. 

Madrid has its beauties, especially in the mountains. Indeed, the Hudson Valley is, by comparison, flat and undramatic. The atmosphere, too, is rather cloudy and thick here compared with the crystalline clarity of Spain. Even if you do find a sufficiently high place, the view can be obscured by the humidity.

But what my hometown has in abundance are fresh leaves, green leaves. It is just so verdant here that, compared with arid Castille, it can seem like a tropical rainforest. Trees—many over one hundred feet tall—cover the landscape, some of them in turn covered with climbing vines. In Madrid, if you want to visit anything remotely approximating this, you have to make a reservation weeks in advance and then drive to the Hayedo de Montejo de la Sierra, a beech forest occupying a microclimate in a mountain valley, where you will be given an hour-long guided tour. It’s just not the same.

Here, by contrast, I have Rockefeller State Park right behind my house. I can go anytime I want, for as long as I want; and that means every day I can. Walking, hiking, or running is obviously good for your body. Research has shown that spending time in nature has positive psychological effects, too. Indeed, “forest bathing”—a kind of tree-based therapy—became something of a fad in Spain a few months ago. It is taken seriously in Japan and Korea. I have no idea whether a walk in the woods can help with severe depression, anxiety, or trauma. But I am quite sure that it can put you in a better mood, help calm you down, or make you think more clearly.

Part of it, I think, is the sensory richness of natural environments. A forest is visually more complicated than most urban landscapes. It is not organized using perfectly straight lines (something seldom found in nature), in neat and orderly rows. Living things are shaped by natural selection, while the land itself is shaped by the geological processes, neither of which result in anything like a suburb or a cityscape. Nevertheless, it is not random or chaotic. Rather, natural landscapes are organized more subtly, on scales of time and distance that are not necessarily perceptible by us.

Forests are also rich in every other sensation, too, though admittedly I don’t spend much time touching and tasting. Perhaps I should. There are wild blackberries and blueberries in this area. But there is also poison ivy and ticks carrying lyme disease, so I tend to stay on the gravel paths. Still, my nose keeps quite active, drawing in all the various fragrances—cut grass, sheep dung, flowers, compost, and most of all fresh air, untainted (for the most part) with exhaust. And I am not inclined to take air for granted these days, since a couple of weeks ago the smoke from a massive fire in Oregon drifted over and turned everything grey, rendering the air harsh and unwholesome. I had a cough for weeks.

Yet it is the sounds that I cherish second only to the sights. The forest is sonically active, especially in summer. Cicadas scream from the treetops, while crickets sing from the undergrowth, and birds of all variety are calling all around. Just today I was lucky enough to see a hawk on a nearby branch, uttering its piercing cry. Madrid, by comparison, is as quiet as a church. The sensation of being surrounded by this chorus is intensely soothing. It is like being submerged in a cool bath. Matsuo Basho appreciated this, too:

In the utter silence

Of a temple,

A cicada’s voice alone

Penetrates the rocks.

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel compelled to give this book top marks, not because it I loved every second of it, and not because I agreed with every one of Pollan’s many opinions, but simply because I cannot imagine a better book about food. For a book dedicated to such a seemingly banal subject as what to eat for dinner, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is remarkably ambitious—so ambitious, in fact, that I am inclined to view my dinner with even more reverence than I customarily do.

The titular dilemma refers to the difficulty omnivores have in choosing what to eat. A panda or a koala does not have to spare a moment’s thought in deciding that question. But for a human, capable of eating everything from fried beetles to foie gras, this choice can be dizzyingly open-ended. Traditionally, culture has cut through this infinitude of options by prescribing a typical diet. But in the United States—a place nearly bereft of culture—we have come to rely on government regulation, food science, and big industry to take the place of these traditional prescriptions. The problem, as our waistlines reveal, is that these make poor substitutes.

So Michael Pollan sets out to investigate the American diet, using four meals as focal points. The first is an order from McDonalds, which represents industrial food. Unsurprisingly, it is a depressing picture. Farmers grow acres upon acres of genetically modified corn, which is itself not fit for eating, but meant to be processed into any number of food products. Much of this corn (along with soybeans) is also fed to cattle, who are not really evolved to eat the stuff, but are fed it anyway because the corn makes them fatter, faster. One of the more memorable scenes of the book is Pollan’s visit to a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)—which is equal parts horrifying and disgusting.

The next meal is a dinner cooked with ingredients from Whole Foods, which represents industrial organic. Pollan takes the reader through the history of the organic movement, revealing how the designation “organic” has come to be defined by bureaucrats in ways that are not necessarily meaningful. The truth, he concludes, is that many of these products are only marginally better than their non-organic industrial counterparts. After that, we get to the centerpiece of the book: Pollan’s portrait of Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin. Salatin uses what you might call deliberately old-fashioned, small-scale techniques to create an ultra-sustainable farm—where cows, chickens, and pigs are used to graze, clean, and fertilize the soil. He sells his products directly to customers.

The final meal (after Pollan eats a chicken from Polyface) is one that he grows, gathers, or hunts himself. He shoots a wild pig, “hunts” some wild mushrooms, and gathers some vegetables from his garden to create what, for him, is the perfect meal. But why “perfect”? Because, Pollan says, this is the only meal he has ever had in which he knew exactly where everything came from, and what it took to get it to his table. In contrast to the meal from McDonalds, in other words—which is made out of who-knows-what from who-knows-where—the food is entirely transparent. This is Pollan’s ideal.

In the end, then, Pollan is advocating that we eat very much how Joel Salatin wants us to: old-fashioned, and small-scale. Perhaps it would be quickest to describe him as a modern-day Rousseauian—someone who thinks that the natural is always preferable to the artificial. He argues, for example, that scientists have not truly discovered what makes soil fertile or food nutritious, so traditional practices are possibly better guides. He thinks we should eat what we can get locally, and in-season, so that we can feel a connection to the land and understand where the food came from. He is, in a word, an anti-industrialist.

Now, that is quite an unfairly simplistic summary of Pollan’s positions. Even so, I cannot help but suspect that he is advocating something unworkable. I simply do not think that we could feed the world using farming practices like those in Polyface. And how could everyone in a major city eat locally? This is not to say that we cannot create more sustainable farms or attempt to reduce food transportation. But I don’t see this as a grand solution. Admittedly, Pollan was writing when the issue of global warming was not as omnipresent an issue as it is today. He has an entire chapter on the morality of meat-eating, for example, without mentioning what has become the primary reason for reducing meat consumption: greenhouse gas emissions.

It would be unfair to end this review without mentioning Pollans many virtues. For one, he is a great writer, able to both paint a scene and explain a concept with style. He is also intellectually broad. During the course of this book, he weaves a story together that includes chemistry, biology, government policy, history, philosophy, anthropology, and of course gastronomy. And he is thorough. He visits an industrial cornfield, buys a cow in a CAFO, spends a week at Polyface Farm, and learns to fire a rifle and identify wild mushrooms. I very much appreciated these eyewitness reports, as I often feel myself quite disconnected from my own personal food-chain.

In sum, if you want to think more deeply than ever before about what to have for dinner—so deeply that you accidentally start pondering the whole cosmos—then I can heartily recommend this book.

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