Archive for February, 2008

A number of high school kids and I planted a pear tree in the Kresge Organic Garden last weekend, during our visit to Santa Cruz. The tree will grow fruit, in a number of years. And we who planted were welcomed to come and eat the pears upon our return, whenever that might be. Of course, the gardeners said, the fruit would be ours to pick and eat! Though there was no database to track our participation, nor any document detailing our due recognition.

Last week, I invited my new roommates to join a few friends of mine, who had come to our apartment for a potluck dinner. As my frittata was pulled from the oven, bulging with spinach and goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes…they hesitated to sit at the table we’d already piled with breads and cheeses and plates of roasted squash. “How much would we owe you?” they asked. The phrase echoed somewhere hollow in my ribs, and has done so since in my dreams, to be honest. I said “Nothing!” and that it was just a dinner, to be shared. If they really felt guilty about it, they could cook dinner for me sometime (!). I tried to put my rationale into words: As far as I’m concerned, we all save money by using it for each other. And the money spent…is spent well. But the two girls with whom I now live sheepishly made their own dinners, and retreated to their rooms to eat. The idea was too foreign. They do not “share” food in the house. Each of us has our own quarter of the fridge, and our own cabinet. And the concept of shaking this system with a shared meal seemed simply too complicated. We wouldn’t be able to mark it up on the “money owed” whiteboard, along with the rent and utilities.

This Wednesday, I was invited over to an apartment for dinner with some kids I have only just met. We made pizzas together. By the dozen. Margarita classic, bitter greens with lemon and ricotta, sautéed mushrooms with pancetta, potatoes sliced thin with garlic and spinach. When Bekah and I arrived, there was a plate of foods to eat right away – sliced salami and cheeses, sautéed beets, and fresh bread. There was more than we could finish before leaving, three hours later, five hours after the eclipse had begun. The party had gathered to watch the eclipse. And my senses gathered to relish the evening. We typed stories on Ryan’s typewriter, washed the pizza down with wine, exchanged numbers, and breathed in the cool air from the window while our bodies baked in the oven’s company. We talked about cheese for the most part, for that is how we met. And let it be known: the Cowgirl Creamery Staff and the Saxelby Cheesemongers’ Apprentice have made friends. The night filled that hollow space in my ribs, quieting the echoing question, reminding me what it meant to know that nothing was owed.


Back in the Kresge Garden, in Santa Cruz, we recognized that we were sharing in the making of something that would give back to us, no monetary values assigned. When we cook and eat with other people, we take part in a something quite removed from the price of the ingredients.

My friends and I get a lot of our food through our jobs at restaurants, our friends at farms and bakeries, our plots in gardens, or on the (well-stocked) streets where we know to look. We couldn’t ever afford it, really (though we’re working on bringing down those prices), so we find a way to distribute and exchange among each other. Until now, I hadn’t recognized what comes of lifting food away from the monetary value it might otherwise be assigned, and making it something to be shared, freely. It’s hard to describe… You forget where your pockets are. And use your hands more. Some part of your soul is more full. Life is better. It feels wonderful, to share what one has, and to have others share with you.

There are a lot of points to be made here, but I’ll stick with the simplest one, for clarity’s sake: If you haven’t made dinner with your friends in a while (or ever), I encourage you to get to it. Don’t ask them to pay you back. (Ask them to bring wine.) Find a garden to grow the food if you don’t have the money to buy it. I promise, whatever you spend, you’ll be paid back many times over.


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Often the result of attending a convergence, or a gathering of individuals focused on a particular topic, is to leave with an immense sense of solidarity and communal power. Today, however, I left Santa Cruz with a well—rounded sense of satisfaction and comfort. Like I’d been patted on the back for the work I already do, rather than fired up for the work ahead. I realized that perhaps it is the California equivalent. The Eastern rush of adrenaline and power often means we hurry up to wait, and the level-headed, steady pace of California students’ collaboration certainly seems no less productive.

 These students came together this weekend for Strengthening the Roots, a convergence held in Santa Cruz, organized by United Students for Fair Trade, the California Student Sustainability Coalition’s Food Initiative, and The Community Agroecology Network. The event confirmed: as in the East, California students are moving towards the goal of a sustainable food system, one that truly nourishes people, communities, and the earth. On either coast, the urgency we feel in progressing towards this goal is the same. Like the well-paced tortoise of the fairly tale, California may get ahead of us for some of the way, and it was interesting to note why it’s path is different.

In New York, increasing the consumption of local food is like sprinting up a daunting hill. Well-entrenched political, cultural, and natural systems combine to torment our muscles-in-training. Not only are subsidies and agribusiness not invested in the small, diverse farms that populate the New York region, but our climate includes several months in which it is quite difficult for food to grow. And culturally, New Yorkers are starkly divided: city people, suburbanites, and farmers or far-outs. We forget our realms lie side-by-side, and love to think we are independent of each other.

img_1537.jpgIn California, it’s a less-steep slope for more-shapely muscles. The hill is still there, steepened by the same political system, set against small, diverse farms. But the incline is softened by the climate, in which food grows easily throughout the year. And furthermore, California culture tends to exercise a love of natural beauty. The beauty of lakes, forests, vineyards, and ocean are ever-present on this Western coast. The hills make this beauty visible wherever you are, and so even simple topography reminds Californians that theirs is a state populated with farmers. People forget that about New York, or never knew.

For students in both places, there is a race to be run. The Real Food Summit was a mile marker in the Northeast, and one I felt gave a thrilling burst of energy to we who were leading the Eastern pack. The West Coast Convergence this weekend did not quite require that burst – after all, the California contingent is not so out of breath – but they are not so far ahead of us either.

We students all have different styles and motives as we run together (and we do run together, not in competition, but as many individuals, with a common goal). We increase access to healthy foods, because we believe everyone deserves to eat them, or because we hope to slow the increase in numbers of our population suffering from diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. We change the structure of agricultural policy, because we believe commodity subsidies are unjust in a world of free trade, or we believe that diverse farms sustain soil fertility, or we fear for biodiversity in a world of agribusinesses. We uphold workers rights and living conditions, because we know the torment undergone by a single farmworker, or because we are ashamed to encourage the global exploitation we cannot see. Our run is a combination of any of these actions, and many, many more. And naturally, we run at different paces, and on different terrain.

There is a need to unite before any finish line of a sustainable food system is reached, before the steep hill smooths out and our run does not halt but transforms into a dance (a celebration of a life, and the system we have developed together). We may come together to agree upon a numerical finish line, and call our race The Real Food Challenge. We will doubtless come together in Washington before we realize our true numbers. And any such developments will be well-documented here. For the moment, regardless of the banner under which we run, one thing is clear after this weekend’s convergence: The western tortoise is truckin, just like the eastern hare.

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The Wrong Research

At this point it’s widely acknowledged that biofuels made with corn and soybeans are not the solution to our addiction to oil.  Farmers clear huge tracts of land to grow monocrops destined for biofuel production where once natural ecosystems thrived, or where they had grown food for their families.  Multinational biotech corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta provide these farmers with genetically engineered crops (GMOs) that irreversibly destroy agricultural biodiversity.  The machinery and chemicals used to grow these crops have their own destructive effect upon the environment, and the production of the fuel itself produces carbon emissions.


bp.jpgLast year, UC Berkeley accepted an offer of $500 million in research funds from British Petroleum, “to develop new sources of energy, primarily biotechnology to produce biofuel crops.”  For ten years, this money will support the new Energy Biosciences Institute, a joint operation between UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and BP.  The major alternative fuel to be studied is corn-based ethanol. 


The Student Organic Garden where I will be working this Spring sits on a little plot by campus, adjacent to an entire block of land used for testing and experimentation by the Center for Analytical Biotechnology.  We gardeners are grateful to be at the top of the hill, so any runoff produced from the Center will flow away from our food.  But it feels like we’re the pea under the corporate princess’ pillows.  I won’t be at all surprised if our organic operation is threatened soon, by the powers of more “profitable” research.

We haven’t found the solution to our energy needs, and currently, clearly, extensive time and money are being devoted to the wrong research.  I write now not with an answer, but at least with the hope that other universities in this country will see UCB’s partnership with BP as a drastic mistake.  We must ask the brilliant minds of our country to turn their attention towards productive projects. 

This isn’t just an issue of a university acting like a corporation, or organic kids complaining about toxic materials.  It’s about the vast potential of academic research to result in creative solutions to climate change.  We mustn’t waste it!  We haven’t got the time.


Check out:

Professor Miguel Altieri: “UC’s Biotech Benefactors”

New York Times: Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat


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Moving across the country during the election year might have required me to forsake much exploration, and strike out instead for more immediate community interaction and political participation.  My “mental map” of the Bay Area last week was a list of words: of sidewalk chalk, beards, murals, speeches shouted from VWs, black panthers, and protested police.  Yet still I thought it would be better to delay dwelling on the past, to wait on exploring the sites and signs and murals and parks, at least while the present so demanded my attention.  In New York my time usually felt divided between academics, community, and political action, and now (I thought) was the time for the latter.  Today’s politics seem too urgent to allow for a citizen to spend their time on history, and meeting a new city. 

  Yet my nagging conflict was that history and exploration, becoming native to a place, is my politics: being local to the out-of-the-way gurus, full of stories of old landmarks, obligated to my community, friend of the best of purveyors for my grains and ginger, cheese and carrots, coffee and bananas.  Perhaps most important to me politically, as a student, is to be both needed by my community, and to make my needs require them, who supply and produce the products of the policies, treatments, and trade relationships I support.  Yet I foresaw that in moving to California, I would have to jump blindly into politically-gathered groups of students, and let the scattered details of local life I found on campus replace a more deeply rooted connection with a place. 

What I’ve found is something very different than I expected.

  All three of my Cal professors began our first class Tuesday with a brief history of their department, their course, and themselves.  At first I thought it was a symptom of academic ego, of the (somewhat pretentious) assumption that their personal past contributed to the subject about which we had gathered to learn.  The cartography prof described how he had studied in the same classroom we were in, had used India ink and blotters to draw maps, and how his department had created that (yellowing) map of Oakland on the wall, the first of its kind.  The City Planning professor described his experience in the department when he was at Berkeley, and how he’d wished a class like the one we were in had been taught back then…so now, a professional lawyer, he’d come back to teach it.  The Urban Forestry guru breathed slow and heavy like my grandfather, and gave us a handout on his decades of experience with Asian foliage.  Upon hearing of my interest in Urban Agriculture, he rattled off the names of several individuals who’d researched with him on campus over the past thirty years, and wondered if I might like to consult them. 

  On Thursday, students across the country held a daylong event to Focus our Nation.  Focus the Nation is a project of the Green House Network, and this week over 1000 colleges and universities organized a day of climate-related education and activities, as part of a national teach-in on global warming solutions for America.  At UC Berkeley, the day included a panel that ended with a city official who reminded us of the powerful movements that have shaped our nation’s history.  Fifty years ago: Civil Rights.  Forty years ago: Vietnam.  In the last decade, whether we like it or not: Anti-Abortion.  We must initiate a movement, he said, with the old kind of demonstration (against something) and the new (on how to make change).  “And not just personal change,” he said, “but policy change!  Don’t just get on your bike – get off the campus!  Take over the streets!  This is Berkeley!”  And everyone clapped and agreed.   It is as though they all know the powers-that-be will be behind their insurgence.  The same way the Save the Oaks people, living in the trees on campus, shrug and shiver and say the “police are just bewildered about how to get us out!”

  The next night, several different student groups organized a night of “Art and Activism” on the Cal campus.  This event began too with a panel.  Though sitting in mixed order, the participants represented six consecutive decades of Berkeley alumni.  White, Asian, Black, and Latino, they spoke about participating in the Free Speech movement and acting with the Third World Liberation Front, using hip-hop to express their frustration in the ‘80s, and feeling the campus clam up in confusion after September 11th.  They reminded us: that action must include dancing.  Dancers danced, and poets read, slamming war, abuse, and intolerable silence.  The panel had explained the relationship between arts and action, and the way we use art, we need art, to imagine and express the world we might create, the world we hope to live in.   I thought of movements made, and murals, and felt something seeping through my skin, reminding me of a history I don’t really know.  It was just there.  And this decade was a part of it, just as it should be.

Yesterday I went on a field trip with my Landscape Architecture class, to explore the forestry of San Francisco.  I had stood at the top of the Twin Peaks two weeks earlier, but had not of course considered the trees scattered throughout the view, and how few of them there are.  Most of the trees in the city are not native, because it used to be prairie grasslands, inhabited by the Ohlone Indians.  We touched the type of grass that used to cover the peninsula where San Francisco has risen.  We visited the Dolores Mission, one of the first built by the Spanish padres, and stood under the olive tree, a species the Franciscans introduced here.  We checked out the Coast Live Oaks in the Golden Gate park; noticed the conspicuous lack of planting space around the city’s post-gold rush residential buildings on Cape Street; the London Plane Trees of City Hall Plaza, planted in the spirit of City Beautiful, after the Chicago World’s Fair; Presidio where the Army planted a forest of Eucalyptus, Pine, and Cypress trees before the World Wars; streets and neighborhoods and parks designed in the ‘30s and ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘90s.  We learned the controversial details of the planting of Canary Island Date Palms by the Embarcadero.  I learned when the earthquakes and the fires were, by what trees had been planted in their aftermath.

  New York has Onion Tours and tourist plaques, movies made about our historical gangs, and marquees proclaiming the “oldest” establishment of each neighborhood and community.  But the past has often been built over and forgotten.  And I expected the Bay Area history too would be hidden in its own way, in the gardens perhaps of the baby boomers’ backyards.  But instead, it peeks out at you from panels, calmly coaches you in classrooms, looks down at you from every tree.  In my courses, at the campus events, during the field trip in the city: history and politics and culture were not separated or distinct.  They were not angry, did not demand that I divide my time into periods of learning and fighting and living day-to-day.  They hung in the air, and asked me, somewhat casually, to dance.  

The primary vote is tomorrow.  And the future of our nation is very desperately in need of young people to commit themselves, and vote for their lives.  Yet whether Obama’s elected in November, or Clinton, Romney or McCain, the nation will not transform itself by naming a new president.  And the answer is not to fight harder.  Politics, particularly in relation to our climate, must cease to be a battlefield.  It is simply urgent, and there is no more time for sides and divisions.  We must let our values seep under our skin like music, take history and the present on our arm, and dance into the future.  Politics must be our ballroom.  We must demonstrate, yes, but demonstrate dancing, rejoicing in the wonderful change we will create, the waves we will surf, the world we will imagine, and enact through the art of our movement.

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