Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Nuclear island

When I was 7 or 8, I read a book called Brother in the Land, which was about 3 siblings who survive a nuclear war in England, only to have to deal with nuclear fallout and the Purple People Eaters (obligatory post-nuclear cannibals). Scared the s^%t out of my little preadolescent self. I then figured out that nuclear war was not just fiction but potential reality (and real reality for anyone living in Hiroshima or Nagasaki).

Well, what's a 7 year old to do about such things? I promptly retreated into fantasy by creating my Nuclear Island (after reading Swiss Family Robinson). This was the island that my family and friends would retreat to in the event of a nuclear holocaust, where we would be safe and protected. It would have a handy protective shield around it (think Starship Enterprise) to keep out the nuclear fallout and automatically filter the rain.

I made lists of people who could come to the Island. I usually limited them to 100 people, which was about all the people I knew in the world. To help me fall asleep, I made mental lists of people who would be invited. Much more helpful than counting sheep. Comforting.

I also drew a great map of the Island. I made a neighborhood, with little houses for everyone and a street that only connected the houses. What else was essential for my Island? Well, obviously a library, and maybe a bookstore too. I think I put in a Big Splash water park (Why not? It's my Island). But what makes me laugh now is the fact that I put a GROCERY STORE on the island.

Where food comes from

As a 7 year old, I had no concept of how food came into existence. From my perspective, food came from the grocery store. Where did it come from before the grocery store? Well, that wasn't ever a question that occured to me. I mean, my family did have a garden. But that grew tomatoes. Everything else came from the grocery store. Even if I thought about it, I wouldn't know how ice cream or pasta was "grown" and then manufactured.

So folks, this is what we're dealing with. Those of us in the permaculture/peak oil/climate change/foodie mini-subculture sometimes forget about the wider group of people out there. There are literally millions of people in America who don't cook for themselves (beyond packaged or frozen entrees), much less grow any of their food. People who don't know that apples grow on trees and potatoes come from the ground. People who don't know that meat is made from animals. Their knowledge comes from our failing public schools and from television, neither of which discuss much about food except that it's making us all fat.

So when we talk about the People of America growing their own food, or even just their own fruits and vegetables, understand we're talking about people who are going to need A LOT of support. People are going to need to know what soil and seeds are. How to use a shovel and a hoe. What and when and where and how to plant. What types of fruits and vegetables will grow in their climate. How to weed and mulch and water. How to protect from bugs and other critters. How to harvest and preserve and process and cook and bake. Literally everything, starting with the fact that food is grown from plants or taken from animals.

Oops! I almost forgot: How to stretch before gardening so you don't throw out your back on the first day of spring. Very important.

Growing food in a garden, in my experience, is not easy. Maybe some things are easy, depending on your climate. But it takes several years to figure out the basics, build soil, make some mistakes and learn some lessons, and get some understanding of what grows well where you are. And what makes it hard is that everything grows differently! Carrots don't grow like tomatoes, which don't grow like apples, which don't grow like spinach. Surprise, surprise. :) Basically, the average person just can't grow all of their fruits and vegetables, no matter how hard they try, in the first year or two of gardening.

So put that idea in the back of your mind and let it sit there for awhile. I will be, as I try to figure out how we're going to go from a system where about 2% of the people grow all of the food for everybody, using tractors and combines and industrial-sized everything, to a system where a lot more people will have to grow at least some of their own food.

In 1840, 69% of the American population was counted as part of the farm labor force. In 1990, it was 2.6%. That's an enormously huge change, and we're going to need lots of somebodies showing everyone else the way if we're going to reverse course.


MeadowLark said...

I loved this post, but I have to ask: do you REALLY believe that some people don't know an apple comes from a tree? Oh please say that was "artistic license". Wouldn't that be horrific?

And speaking of "need to know" stuff: two things I haven't seen on people's lists, although I'm sure they have them - 1) sharpening tools for garden implements and 2) bellows.

TheCrone said...

I have been trying to remember the name of this book for months! It was one which made a huge impact on me when I read it as a teen.

Off to the library today to get it out for my teen to read :)

Wendy said...

It wasn't too long ago that I was "one of those people." I mean, I knew where food came from, mostly, but there were things I was pretty sure I could never make in my kitchen, because, in my mind, those things had some "mysterious, magical" ingredient, and then, I found a homemade pudding mix recipe, and all of the mystery and magic of boxed mixes just evaporated.

I think it would be a good idea to approach the school board or the town council about classes to teach things like, where food comes from. I haven't done it, yet, but it's a good idea. I just have to get up the nerve to do it ;).

Hausfrau said...

Wendy - I certainly don't cook everything from scratch! I've also thought about approaching our local elementary school about putting in a Learning Garden, but I haven't gotten up my nerve yet either.

eatclosetohome said...

Meadowlark and Wendy- are you reading my mind? :) I was going to wonder aloud if people do know, theoretically, that potatoes grow on a farm, but that they assume there is something magical or difficult or some kind of crazy machinery needed to turn a potato farm into mashed potatoes. And yes - if you want to make Tater Buds, that is beyond the scope of home production. So you have to learn a totally different way of going about your food.

Our society trains specialists. They have special training, special equipment, and special mysterious knowledge that is too complicated for non-specialists to understand. Do you really understand computers, cars, banking, or electricity? Of course not - the "experts" know that. Our exposure to them are in the form of tours where we are impressed by everything it takes to [fill in the blank].

Our farmers are food specialists. People who cook at home are seen more and more as specialists, with knowledge (and time!) far beyond that of mere mortals.

I don't think the people of this country are stupid, and I think taking things back to the level of "This is a potato. It comes out of the ground" could be perceived as insulting. I'd really love to see a good study done asking people why it is that they don't garden, cook at home, etc. We might be surprised to find out it's something as simple (and seemingly unrelated) as "Because McDonald's is on the way between school and flute lessons."

MeadowLark said...

Ohmigosh... you are sooooo right. I have a feeling that might be it! Homecooking is perceived as something difficult and maybe even 'magical'...

I know that when we first moved back here I didn't cook very often. Which is odd because I loved it, but it seems that 3 or 4 nights of the week we'd have something easy. I blame it on having to work and having kids at home. It seems like I would get home, have to get laundry going, unload the d/w, start dinner, read to one, help the other with homework and with all the noise, haste and confusion - well, a package of hamburger helper took no thought at all. :) These days, the kids are out of the house and I cook all the time, but there are still days that I get home from work and simply can't make one single more decision. Now I can open a jar of home-canned soup, but a year ago? Nothing.

Hausfrau said...

Eatclosetohome - I like your points about specialists! Still, I think you'd be surprised at what people don't know.

I don't think that not knowing how a potato grows (for example) makes a person "stupid". It simply makes them ignorant of that fact, a fact which they really don't need to know anyway - at least not until they want to start growing potatoes.

There are people out there that think that no one could possibly be "stupid" enough not to know the simplest things - like the difference between a mutual fund and an ETF. Or how to conjugate the verb bring. Or use chopsticks. I exaggerated a little in my post, but I'm trying to point out that people tend to lose sight of the fact that others don't necessarily have the knowledge that they take for granted.

Wendy said...

Hausfrau - I think you make a very good point, and what I was trying to say, also: that we tend to take for granted what we know and assume that most people know the same things.

When I was fifteen, I was supposed to be helping my uncle weed his garden. He guided me over to a row and said, "Pull the weeds." When I tried to inquire which were weeds, he gestured toward the leafy green things irritably, like I was making fun of him. All of the plants were green, and I didn't know one from the other. They all looked the same to me. My uncle assumed that everyone knew a potato plant from a weed ... well, until I pulled out one of his potatoes, and then, he realized the fallacy of his assumption ;).

Hausfrau said...

Wendy - exactly!