Perfect Oysters; Imperfect Produce

I rarely open the NYTimes Style Magazine but last year one of its headlines caught my eye, asking, in 23 point New Times Roman,  “With Cultivation Have Oysters Become Too Perfect?

 

The essay summarizes oyster farming’s history (which apparently dates from ancient Rome) and oyster popularity (which has waxed and waned for generations).  The article ends with a description of the way modern aquaculture methods produce a handsome standardized product year-round with fewer of the risks and less of the romance of the wildlings of the past.

 

Come to think of it, that’s something which can said about much of modern life.  Crossing the country in a covered wagon in 1840 must have been a lot more romantic than a commute to work but the per mile risk of dying on the Oregon trail was 0.167% compared to the .000001% risk of driving a mile in 2008.

 

Of course eating a wild oyster isn’t as risky as trekking the Oregon trail but you can still die of cholera or cut yourself on the razor sharp shell.  Meanwhile the farmed ones are checked regularly for pathogens and often tumbled by their growers to knock off those nasty sharp edges and , as one grower brags, tumbling makes their shells “prettier”.

 

 

The Merriam, Webster Dictionary defines “pretty” as “pleasing in a delicate way”.  That may be stretching it a bit as a descriptor of tumbled oysters but it does seem to properly describe a quality present in abundance in the produce section of grocery stores.  Its pursuit has surely boosted the bottom line of pesticide manufacturers – thereby threatening butterflies, honey bees and who knows how many other arthropods – and that standardized perfection is a major hardship for organic farmers since their crops often rank low on the prettiness spectrum.

 

Recognizing that produce falling below the aesthetic standard of grocery chains often was destined to rot in the field or in a farm’s compost pile proved inspirational to the entrepreneurial founders of “Imperfect Produce” whose mission is “to eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone.”

By strengthening the market for fruits and vegetables that don’t look exactly like the archetypal apples and beets on the pages of children’s books the company claims to help farmers, make food more affordable and help the environment by reducing pesticide, fertilizer and water used to grow food that would eventually go to waste.  We signed up a while back and have been entirely happy with the way the food tastes, sometimes even entertained by the way it looks, and consistently feeling self righteous in that we were doing right by the planet……. until we came across an article in the New /Republic.

 

Not so fast, the author said:  sounds like greenwashing. Aren’t these folks just competing for produce that would otherwise be sold to outfits that don’t care about looks like catsup producers and cider makers?   Or, worse, wouldn’t much of that produce otherwise be donated to food banks or scavenged by gleaners? And, since they won’t reveal their sources, aren’t they just another customer for corporate agriculture. Meanwhile those oyster farmers trumpet how their hundreds of thousands of caged and tumbled shellfish prevent coastal “dead zones:” by purging  our estuaries and coastal lagoons of excessive algae from our overzealous use of fertilizer. Side effects, however, are that their mechanized power equipment contributes to our atmospheric CO2 load while the areas they’ve leased from the state are off-limits for recreational use by fishermen, clammers, skin divers, and kayakers.

 

It’s hard to disagree that both perfect produce and pretty oysters accomplish little more than catering to our whims, but some  say the benefits are simply not worth the costs. Both sides have their points but something gets lost in the argument. I don’t think many people find grocery shopping exciting.   All that familiar packaging. All those time-worn logos lining the shelves. The soulless pyramids of carefully stacked identical apples – all precisely the same size, shape and shade of Granny Smith green.  In contrast, there’s actually a bit of adventure when it comes to opening the week’s Imperfect Produce delivery and discovering a corkscrew carrot or, as one happy customer exclaimed, “a sweet potato as big as my head !”.  It’s a feeling not entirely unrelated to slurping a misshapen wild oyster and then marveling at its uniquely ugly shell. As our corporate culture gets better at discerning every detail of what maximizes sales, and as economies of scale wipe out the variety afforded by competition, our lives themselves bit by bit become standardized.  And as each of our whims and caprices are met at lower and lower personal costs our individual skills at doing things for ourselves atrophy. Personal creativity – a quality often stimulated by a surprising turn of events or an unexpected variation – ceases to be necessary or inspired. And the deep sense of fulfillment, and personal accomplishment achieved by making one’s own life better in a uniquely idiosyncratic way is diminished.

 

A while back, on a road trip out West, my son and I stopped for lunch in a small Montana town.  On one side of the street was a modest mom and pop luncheonette; on the other, a familiar pair of golden arches with its predictably satisfying hamburgers.  We talked over the choice and although we both liked Big Macs well enough we took a chance on the luncheonette. The owner turned out to be a talkative woman and rather than repeating a well-rehearsed corporate script she chatted with us about the area as we watched her carefully assemble our sandwiches on the other side of the bar.  Among the things she told us was that off on a side road on the way out of town there was a bunch of folks from The Smithsonian digging for dinosaurs. That unexpected tip led to an unforgettable adventure exploring a bonafide paleologic dig site. Sometimes taking a chance really pays off. Modern grocery chains, oyster farmers and fast food franchises give us predictability. In exchange, we lose something which is easy to overlook but hard to articulate.  An economist might call it an opportunity cost.

 

Chemistry has given us those bins of archetypic apples, but in the process we’ve quietly lost some beautiful butterflies while Harvard labs work on miniature drones to pollinate crops in case bees disappear.  We have food science to thank for those perfectly predictable burgers which have so successfully outcompeted the quirky mom and pop operations. The electrifying frisson one experiences on hearing a sound outside one’s tent while camping in Yellowstone Park disappears if apex predators are exterminated because they may reduce the incomes of ranchers’ by taking an occasional calf,  born, incidentally, on public national forest land leased by the rancher for grazing.

 

H.G. Wells, in  The Time Machine, creates a distant dystopian future occupied in part by the Eloi, one future branch of the human race shaped by progress:  “For countless years I judged there had been no danger of war or solitary violence, no danger from wild beasts,…… no need of toil…….They were…. delicate ones” …of …“childish simplicity, decayed to mere beautiful futility, physical and intellectual inadequacy…..And the little people displayed no vestige of a creative tendency. …….. They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping …..A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another.”  A bit of an overstatement of the point I am trying to make, but beautifully articulated.

 

In his contemporary best seller, Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker takes the opposite tack. Extolling the Enlightenment’s methods of thought and the value of quantification, he exhaustively catalogues  (556 pages, 120 graphs, 1297 footnotes) the undeniable and well-known benefits of the modern age. But since technology and the scientific method rely heavily on measurement, Pinker necessarily gives short shrift to the non-quantifiable.  Ignored in his cost-benefit analysis of the Enlightenment’s methods of thought are the thrill of exploring the unknown, the deep pleasure of creating or experiencing beauty, the joy of a happy surprise, the zen of immersion in the natural world, the pride in triumph over adversity,  the wonder of viewing the stars in total darkness. Yes, many of us are warm, comfortable, healthy and well fed, but like the individual whose only tool is a hammer, we keep looking for nails to pound even if, in the process of pounding, less visible things of great value are destroyed.

 

The crucial challenge of our age is how to deploy our intellectual gifts to escape the addictive power of satisfying our every material whim and caprice at the expense of slowly cooking our planet, driving out of existence a majority of it’s non-human life forms and extinguishing a great many of the profound ineffabilities which are so easily overlooked but much more deeply satisfying.  I do not claim to know the answers to these questions, but in the meantime while I’m working on them I think I’ll go to the grocery, pick up a dozen beautiful farmed oysters and enjoy myself.

 

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What Good are Grizzlies and Gryphons?

Gryphon 3

 

“Everybody knows that the autumn landscape in the northwoods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffled grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet, subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.

Aldo Leopold:  A Sand County Almanac

 

Fortunately, there are still ruffed grouse around, but doesn’t the fact that there are no more passenger pigeons mean that the autumn sky over Ohio is dead – or at least deader than it used to be?  Does the absence of those awe-inspiring flocks of birds darkening the skies matter, now that they remain only in our imaginations?  What does it mean when a natural phenomenon which has the capacity to impress and inspire disappears?

 

Monarch butterflies are under the gun across North America.  If that species winks out one of these years our lives will be just a little bit more drab and uninteresting.  And suppose the unthinkable happened. Suppose all butterflies disappeared – not entirely impossible given the widespread use of pesticides and, now, manufactured plants with built-in caterpillar poisons. Of course, with butterflies gone, those flowers which depend on butterflies for pollination would disappear as well.  A generation or two after that happened would butterflies and their pollination-dependent flowers continue to inspire the decorators of children’s pajamas and the animators of the idyllic countrysides of Disney films?  Would those creative souls turn to images of corn fields and combines?  Or would the non-existence of two symbols  of carefree, natural gentleness gradually cause the feeling we get from a warm summer day to atrophy?  Not entirely, of course, but a little bit?

 

And what about bats?  If white nose syndrome has its way, these creatures of the night could be gone one day as well.  Won’t Halloween lose a little bit of its scariness?  Won’t our mind’s eye’s stereotypic image of a dark threatening place be a bit impoverished?  And even though bats apparently weren’t the inspiration for the widespread vampire myths of ancient cultures they do inhabit Graham Stoker’s Dracula, and the discovery of true vampire bats in the Americas certainly lends a degree of tangibility to those stories and their effect on us.

 

Butterflies, bats and a few flowers gone – no big deal, really.  But what if we had succeeded in eradicating whales by 1850 – the year Herman Melville wrote what many consider to be the greatest American novel?   Would Melville have been inspired to write Moby Dick?   Would our individual and/or collective sense of good and evil, of mankind’s place in the universe, of our conflict with fate be quite as rich without a literary canon which included that monomaniacal sea captain and his enigmatic archenemy?   One can argue, I think, that the existence of whales has played a non-trivial role in what it means to be a 21st century American human and that without Moby Dick ever having been written and read by so many, our spirit and intellect would be just a bit less than it is.

 

Fortunately, we didn’t drive most species of whales to extinction, and there still are butterflies and some bats.  But consider wooly mammoths.  There’s a good bit of evidence suggesting that Homo sapiens and those huge hairy behemoths overlapped for some time after humans arrived in the Americas, though the exact role the latter played in the extinction of the former is still being worked on.  Nonetheless, the woolies are gone.   Wouldn’t we – even those of us working in urban cubicles – wouldn’t we be just a bit more alive if somewhere in the very backs of our minds we knew those hairy beasts with their enormous recurved tusks were still thundering around somewhere on the tundra?

 

Once you start thinking this way, other things come to mind, like those mountaintops in West Virginia being relocated into the valleys to expose coal.  When that state is finally bulldozed as flat as Kansas will stories of the Hatfield’s and McCoys in their respective “hollers” still resonate?   Will sipping Maker’s Mark bourbon still taste the same if we picture those moonshine stills where it was developed exposed for all to see on a prairie?  And then there’s the disappearing Colorado River.  Will our grasp of our place in the universe when we look at the work it’s done sculpting the Grand Canyon over eons remain as secure if we realize that now the Colorado fails to make it all the way to the Sea of Cortez because of those thousands of trickles we’ve tapped off along the way to keep our lettuce growing?

 

Some years ago, my son and I did some wilderness camping in grizzly bear habitat.  During time in the backcountry we did see one grizzly, at a respectful distance, but the knowledge that we might confront one around every bend kept us hyperalert and lent the whole trip an experiential dimension which is difficult to express but, in the retelling at least, was distinctly pleasurable. Of course, I’d be thinking differently if my son and I had startled a grizzly up close.  Very differently, in fact, if he’d been maimed, or worse.  But in the grand scheme the evil of such a rare human tragedy is offset by the spiritual enrichment of all those fortunate hikers who thought hard about but never actually confronted a grizzly.   Experiencing the possibility is enlivening.

 

Like the Eloi of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, do our spirit and awareness atrophy if we come to consider our environment totally tamed and our place in it entirely secure?  Don’t potential predators like the grizzly enhance our personal selves and enrich our collective being – AKA our culture?

 

And then there are the unicorns, Loch Ness monsters, dragons, harpies, sea serpents, yeti, gryphons and the rest of the menagerie of imaginary beasts.  Why have we invented these non-existent creatures?  What makes them such universal characters in stories – especially the formative stories we read as we transition from childhood to adulthood?  Often threatening and  bearing exaggerated combinations of features of creatures we know – fangs, hooked beaks, talons, excessive strength – these iconic creations of our collective imagination have populated our stories from pre-literary oral myths to the science fiction of today.  What accounts for the archetypal universality and longevity of these creations of our minds? Just as our most gripping stories usually involve deep yearning – romanticized love, sudden good fortune, heroism, “happily ever after” etc. – isn’t it likely that the monsters of our imagination owe their origins to some biophilic longing such that our minds create creatures at least the idea of which we need in order to be fully alive?

 

The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book Mortal Questions begins his examination of what it means to be dead by making the deceptively simplistic observation that – setting aside considerations of some sort of afterlife – death can be thought of as the end of the constitutive elements of human life namely “perception, desire, activity, and thought.”   Later he concludes, “If death is an evil at all, it cannot be because of its positive features, but only because of what it deprives us of.”   To the extent that the natural world, with its intricate tapestry of species and its seascapes and landscapes, leads us to think, to the extent that we may actively seek out elements of nature just to experience them, to the extent that they stimulate our imaginations as we read a book or they play a role in our deciding which pair of pajamas might appeal to our children are we not more alive?  

 

So I would say that Leopold was only half right.  His acre of northwood autumn landscape is indeed dead if the grouse is subtracted.  But there’s more to it.  Take away the passenger pigeon, the whale we may never even see but know is there, the bat flitting across our backyard at dusk, the grizzly, the tiger, the raging river, the glacier, the rolling Appalachian landscape,  –  and a part of you and a part of me dies as well.