Friday, August 26, 2016

Revolution, 2016

The Superior Basin is loaded with field-to-table farmers, hunters and fisher folk. For the majority of those, that's just what comes of being born to multigenerational poverty in rural isolation. Like most people everywhere always, of necessity they play life's hand as dealt the best they can.

The same punishing remoteness that makes so many young locals desperate to escape nonetheless draws a steady stream of refugees to it. For them this modern approximation of an old way of life is a choice. These include all manner of people from neo-hippies to alt-right malcontents who for their own reasons reject the too often mutually exclusive demands of everyday American life.

For still others, the choice of life lived in accommodation with a difficult place represents a profound personal commitment to blaze trail toward a more sustainable future, so that the rest of us might follow. Which happy thought brings me to Claire Hintz, smiling in Mexican mud…

Spring, 2013

Elsewhere Farm is on the far reaches of the Bayfield Peninsula, down a piece from Cornucopia. My visit there in 2013 was intended as the first stop for a suite of essays on the cultural, economic, intellectual and artisanal progress of the greater region, with Ashland and Northland College serving as nexus for the narrative.

The Lake Superior Binational Forum at Northland had been kind to me along my way. I wanted to return the favor. And whether in Canada or the States, I knew no other Superior community in so vigorous pursuit of a sustainable future as is this post-industrial patch of northernmost WI.

That brilliant spring afternoon at aptly named Elsewhere Farm, Claire Hintz fairly dazzled me with her combination of academic knowledge, applied intellect, insight, industry and courage.

It wasn't simply the efficient, 'low tech' greenhouse. Or that with a wave of her hand Farmer Claire purged from this prairie kid vestigial sodbuster notions about working wet land. It wasn't just the warm, inviting home filled with books and specialized paraphernalia, an environment that particularly suits me. Or the staggering amount of wealth Claire noted the locals ship from the region each and every year in trade for food made somewhere else, most often by person or persons unknown.

Not even the Icelandic chickens that make such good sense on so many levels I'm still gobsmacked they aren't more commonplace made my day. Normally, those alone would've sufficed.

As it happened I spent only that single afternoon in the field, officially the last of the Odyssey. Too ill to continue, the next morning I raced back to the prairie and so much for the remainder of 2013. Later, the Lake Superior Binational Forum got stripped of funding, as indicative of our times. I've not returned to the area since and wouldn't know what to write about it, today.

Because of all that and more, the application of high level learning mixed with pancultural common sense then with altogether rigorous determination sown upon the wilds of the Bayfield Peninsula for right reasons made Elsewhere Farm emblematic of the finest, most enduring aspects of our American character. In other words, exactly the sort of thing we collectively like to brag on as indicative of us, but too rarely do we engage the sustained hard work to fully realize. Except there Elsewhere Farms is, just the same.

So fresh and full of promise in spring of 2013, I trust Claire Hintz's orchard has since gone on to bear fruit accordingly. It's important work.


The Industrial Revolution that carried us to here took full flight on the notion of Earth as inexhaustible, thus unassailable in any meaningful way by our puny selves. That's the operative concept from which modern America and its attendant liberties sprang. Earth provides, we harvest then build and call it progress. By virtue of geology and an accident of timing the Superior Basin features a rich array of evidence that it's so.

Most everything we rely on for our lives and good fortune remains dependent on this idea that perpetual harvest makes for inevitable progress.  Even though we know better about nearly all things than we did in the 19th Century, when perpetual maintenance of an industrialized civilization was made our prime directive. And with the greater part of what we knew then since proven silly in light of what we know now, not the least being that human knowledge must be taken for provisional.

What's demonstrably true is we aren't nearly as smart as we like think and what's more, never were.

Algerian Desert Art, Wikipedia Commons

This spring introduced me to the phrase Slow Food. It's generations since most folk in the States had to run down their food at any speed and at first, the term confounded me. Turns out Slow Food's a fresh label slapped on an old idea in the hope overwhelmed consumers pause to reconsider its ancient wisdom anew.

It's strange to me that a concept so fundamental as the first seed sown or the first beast nurtured by humans to make for slower food requires rebranding to maintain relevance, especially in these our hard times. Whatever plant or critter those might've been, today through this transaction of longstanding one is unlikely to know the other at a glance, for what they've each become. Not plant or beast or human too and never again, I suppose.

On faith I'd like to take the essential idea of food and its production as at least second nature to the species by now but apparently, alas. Real food gets renamed Slow Food as cultural Kryptonite to Fast Food and the plainly unsustainable era of human life that label represents. It's a strange world we've made, with Kryptonite aplenty but no Superman in sight. And so it goes.

Back when we were just apprentice Masters of the World, Thomas Jefferson believed mastodons still roamed the American West, though he'd mistakenly thought them mammoths. 

As perhaps the prime intellectual architect of the American Experiment and for his time a mighty bright man all around, Jefferson knew there'd been mammoths/mastodons. But until late in his own life, he didn't know near enough to ever imagine them gone.

Thomas Jefferson, extinction denier so necessarily a believer in mastodon inexhaustibility, died on July 4th 1826. A mere fourteen years later Douglas Houghton marked the birth of the nation by blowing La Roche Verde to smithereens. Steeped in raw opportunity and driven by abject ignorance, America's rush to her industrialized future was officially on.

Knowledge is power unanswerable to wealth or political influence. It bows before no elite, not populist or intellectual or oligarch. No matter that once we took errant self-evidence as proper foundation upon which to build a great land of the free, home to the brave. Since 1776 and until the day we see fit to surrender our hard-earned liberty, what we do or don't do with this bounty of constantly refreshed knowledge rests squarely on each one of us.

By whatever label, the operative concept behind the global local food movement is that when you personally know where your food comes from, how it was made and who made it, you're vastly more likely to live better, longer. All the while contributing to a locally sustainable economy, a notion proven to float most folk's boats along their way. And you'll help stanch the critical bleeding of Earth's now demonstrably finite natural wealth in the bargain.

Because what Thomas Jefferson and the lineage of Nation builders who followed him along the trail of Manifest Destiny didn't know turned out to be a lot. Today, it's common knowledge that the Eden we depend on for our lives and the future of god's supposedly chosen children isn't inexhaustible after all.

Elsewhere Farms demonstrates yet again that the people of the Superior basin possess a generosity of spirit and individual industry that perpetually renews the power of the People. It reveals the politics of division pimped by demagogues of despair as a self-destructive indulgence. This spirit and willingness to work hard for no good money against daunting odds on a landscape that doesn't forgive and for a larger culture that doesn't much care gives lie to the raw cynicism these days driving entirely too much of the national conversation about the state of our American character.

Of course the real world's a scary place. It's why we've spent thousands of years building a civilization of increasingly complex walls, literal and figurative. How is that news to anyone?

Possessed of the talent and blessed with the means to incrementally insulate and provisionally secure ourselves from the vagaries of both nature and our neighbors, we do. But never kid yourself about who pays accrued interest on what and to whom for the pretense of keeping real world consequences at bay, or that the bill's not about to come due in full regardless.

Planet of the Apes

Every dollar not spent today will tomorrow save no one from the fast rising cost of our collective past. Not rich or poor, left or right, agitated, complacent or confused will be spared but that our massive accumulation of strictly theoretical wealth is now devoted to the real life pursuit of critical knowledge and its immediate, practical application.

Consider that, the next time some pandering yahoo grasping for political power whines about intellectual elites. Or scientific bias. Or when some pipsqueak politician in order to justify further reducing the People's share of the People's wealth claims that mere national debt is the most dire threat to the future of America's children.

The Mastodon is dead. So too, is Thomas Jefferson. And that is the news.

Yet critical lessons remain to be learned from the living legacy of each before the American Experiment can ever be fairly claimed a failure by anyone also interested in truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Or reasonable, contemporary facsimile.

Any revolution that can't feed itself over the long haul is doomed to fail, food security being essential to the effort. A far flung and still obscure but not inconsiderable number of your fellow Americans are currently working hard to help remedy that. They come from all corners and cut across every demographic, even if you neither know nor care that they exist.

The change many of you think you desire is already here, though probably not exactly as you'd like it. Tough beans. Evidence abounds. There is but to look, listen, learn and move forward as best we can, united in common cause and finally unbound from obsolete verities drawn of profound ignorance then purposefully evolved over time to best serve a wide variety of vested interests that mostly don't include you.

The facts of extinction proved so radically at odds with his notion of self that Thomas Jefferson could only reject self-evident truth. Evidence strongly suggests a lack of dark imagining is no longer at issue in the American body politic.

Among other things, the Boy Scouts of America taught me to Be Prepared.

So during this radical political season dominated by angry voices arguing over nettlesome choices while otherwise mainlining an apparently inexhaustible supply of toxic trivia, here's a suggestion for everyone thinking of voting for what's been labeled as righteous change but realistically promises only further division leading to deepening chaos:

If like most of us you're unable to feed yourself and your family, or to help feed your immediate neighborhood for the duration as needed, don't.

Truth is, you're woeful unprepared for what you think you want. As are the majority of your neighbors. All the good work now engaged by other citizens to better prepare our postindustrial grassroots for a healthier, more sustainable revolution notwithstanding.

Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it good and hard. And as HL Mencken suggested, you'd deserve it...

1 comment: