Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thoreau, Walden

It has been SUCH a long time since I last went through Henry David Thoreau's Walden, probably not since the end of high school or the first couple of years of university. I wandered into a loosely anti-American stance back then, though it's more fair to characterize it as underdogging. American culture, my thinking went, doesn't need my help, so why feed it? Anyway, it's still a kneejerk I have to watch out for, and I think Walden fell victim to that tendency.

Which is obviously a shame, since it's a classic, but on coming back to it after so long and after such a long term of avoiding manifestations of the culture for which it has totemic countercultural significance - it's a bit tough to see where the fans get hooked. Don't get me wrong, I agree that the historical value of the book is enormous, and that if you have a clear sense of the book's relationship to other works from the time, then it's straightforward to see its role in the broader American culture and in the genesis of popular environmentalism.

But it's always been baffling to me how Chris McCandless, say, or the early 70s back-to-the-landers saw Thoreau as a model, when he's living a mile from town, in a woods full of former building sites (albeit most of them squatted), and when he goes to town regularly. There's plenty of rhetoric about wildness, and discussion about how humans "require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable" ("Spring"), but this story is being lived and told in close proximity to Concord, Massachusetts.

The back to the land movement was inspired by agricultural writers, among other things, so maybe Thoreau's not such a source for them, but McCandless wasn't the only person to backpack into serious wilderness with a copy of Walden. Thoreau's self-conscious separation from mainstream American life is what's being emulated, I assume, and since the mainstream's different now, then self-conscious separation needs to take a different form as well.

A pleasant and an important book, and I'm looking forward to teaching it this fall.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


After my first spam comments in quite some time, I've gone to comment moderation - and dropped the word verification step, since it didn't prevent this particular spammer. Grr.

And the worst part is that I don't even speak the language the comments arrived in. I bet it was good stuff, though.

I wonder if it has something to do with signing up to test Google's AdSense program. No ads have shown up yet, so I guess it hasn't been crawled, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that someone has gamed AdSense to get there first as a spam commenter.

Monday, April 20, 2009

April - some purchases

I've been to a few good stores and picked up a few good books in the last little while, but I've been far too busy to do anything with them so far:
  • Matthew Dickerson & Jonathan Evans, Ents, Elves and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien ($52.50 from the UVic Bookstore - why do academic books cost so darn much, anyway?)
  • Nicolas Dickner, Nikolski ($19.95 at Tanner's Books in Sidney - this year's GG winner for French -> English translated fiction), and
  • Ralph Lutts, The Nature Fakers: Wildlife, Science and Sentiment ($15 at the always reliable Grafton Books in Oak Bay).
Oh, for some free time to read in....

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Peter Lovenheim, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf

Update: Read this article by Peter Lovenheim, entitled simply "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" in the New York Times. A really great little piece, and indicative of the best parts of this book - without the discomfort of having to read about animal slaughter.

Inspired by the book club selection of Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, I got out of sequence and raced through Peter Lovenheim's Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf: The Story of One Man, Two Cows, and the Feeding of a Nation. The book's more serious than its parodic title suggests, but less weighty than its no doubt publisher-scripted subtitle might imply.

A brief summary: journalist Peter Lovenheim experiences cognitive dissonance while lined up at McDonald's with his young daughter, waiting to get both a hamburger and a cow-shaped Teenie Beanie Baby. As a result, Lovenheim decides to follow a cow from conception to consumption, so he buys a couple of calves and finds himself involved with several smaller operations rather than the MegaCorps that supply the fast food monolith. In the end, he has to decide what to do with his calves, with which (with whom?) he's developed a fairly close relationship over a span of about two years. Should he send them for slaughter, or not? and if so, eat them or not?

It's more focused than Pollan's book (only covering one of his "meals"), and it's rather less precise in its assessment of ethics, markets, and capital. On the other hand, it's more of a story, too, so it might be more readable. Not for me, unfortunately, because I got kind of tired of the narrator and his waffling, but if The Omnivore's Dilemma was interesting but slow, this book might work for you. You'll learn quite a bit more about meat operations than you do in Pollan's book (who knew that 30% of a hamburger is probably made of dairy cows rather than beef cows?) - and actually I'm finding Lovenheim's book is having a bigger impact on my habits than Pollan's did.

Which is seriously maddening, because I was so distracted that I kept wondering if Lovenheim was having an affair on one of the farms, or expecting a husband to punch him for spending too much time with his wife! I mean, that's a sign of how engaged I was by how Lovenheim went about addressing the book's central questions.

Enjoyable and fairly informative, but relatively light in its philosophic heft, and yet somehow sneakily effective. Can a book about slaughtering cows be light summer reading, I wonder?

Friday, April 03, 2009

Eric Higgs, Nature by Design

It's been kind of like grad school, the last little while. One of the things that I loved about PhD work at the U of Alberta at the time - as well as when I look back at it now - was that I could almost feel the shape of my brain changing as I read things that stretched it. Rushdie's novels, Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, Jonathan Bate's Romantic Ecology, and who knows what all: my only responsibility was to learn more, and to learn it independently. I doubted my place in the discipline, wondered whether I was doing The Right Thing, but I loved the depth that I was encouraged to work in.

I teach so much now, and have so many of the other usual human obligations (most of them welcome), that it's rare I get to achieve that kind of depth again - and when I do achieve it, it's always a case of my having stolen time and energy from something else, something deserving of all that stolen time and energy.

Eric Higgs' Nature by Design: People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration took me back to grad school, and it feels like one of the most important books I'll read for a long time. I had to start walking to school again, just so I could have an extra 20 minutes of reading time every morning as I stumbled along suburban sidewalks!

Higgs' conception of "focal practice" (a way of taking action that positively focuses external energies and internal perception, if I might mangle a paraphrase) names what I keep wanting to do in my life, in all spheres of my life, with at best mixed success - I'd like to say it's what I try to do, but I'm nowhere near being able to make that claim. After reading this book I'm in no danger of abandoning my job and life, far from it, but I closed this book with an awareness of what rides on all our efforts to live more honestly, more fully, more openly. And I've got to make more room for activist, outdoorsy, agricultural activities. My primary personal and leisure activity, reading, isn't good enough - though I may not do enough of that, either.

I've learned a lot from Nature by Design, and more importantly I've found a lot of threads I'm going to have to spend time pursuing. In particular, I'd heard of Albert Borgmann, but I need to read his philosophic work in detail. A sample of Borgmann's ideas, from among the epigraphs to Higgs' important sixth chapter "Denaturing Restoration":

"The advanced technological way of life is usually seen as rich in styles and opportunities, pregnant with radical innovations, and open to a promising future. The problems that beset technological societies are thought to be extrinsic to technology; they stem, supposedly, from political indecision, social injustice, or environmental constraints. I consider this a serious misreading of our situation. I propose to show that there is a characteristic and constraining pattern to the entire fabric of our lives."(Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life)
Good stuff, right? Of course, I'm blogging that I need to separate myself from technology. I need to think hard about this. Almost every night after my daughter goes to bed, I flip open the laptop, and log into everything: email at two universities, personal email, Moodle, Yammer, Twitter, plus the blogs (both this one and a professional collective one for work). And there are so many other things I'd rather be doing, that I need to be doing, that my daughter and her future need me to be doing. With luck, Eric Higgs' book and Albert Borgmann will help me find my way there more often.

Too melodramatic? Not with the sudden conversion of McMansions into the new slums; with the mainstreaming of peak oil's consequences, reminiscent of WW2's impact on car production in North America (from 3.8 million civilian vehicles in 1941, to 143 in 1943); with the avowedly non-violent calling publicly for what sounds a lot like violence.