Friday, May 31, 2013

Barry Estabrooks, Tomatoland

It's a great collection of articles, Barry Estabrook's 2011 book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, plus the undoubtedly publisher-decreed subtitle both (a) offers a reason not to read the whole book, since it seems to give away the whole game, and (b) misrepresents the book's core. An uneven experience, is what I'm saying Tomatoland gives its reader, but it's still essential reading for anyone with some interest in food production.

The book, incidentally, can't be confused with the online Tomatoland, "the world tomato industry internet marketplace" (account required to get past the front page). At bottom, Estabrook engages here in a lengthy indictment of industrial agriculture generally, with the tomato as his case study. Much of what he argues about tomato farming in Florida can be argued about other monocultural agriculture, wherever there's extreme use of pesticides and an intense reliance on chemical fertilizer; it's just that the Florida tomato is the reductio ad absurdum of food farming.

To recap: The soil in Florida contains a lot of sand and extraordinarily little organic content, so the water-intensive and fertilizer-intensive production of tomatoes there is basically outdoor hydroponics on a massive scale. The race to the bottom, price-wise, means that the industry has adopted a plethora of shady, unethical, and criminal practices, and it's hard to see why I shouldn't say that these things are the norm.

Up to 40% of tomatoes sliced into North American's commercial salads and sandwiches, especially at fast food restaurants, come from Florida, so we are guaranteed to have eaten tomatoes whose growth has caused migrant farmworkers to be sprayed illegally with assorted chemicals while they work (proven, not alleged); has caused stillbirths and birth defects among workers' children (also proven, not alleged); and has been watched over by slave labour, in 21st-century America (again: proven, not alleged).

Wait, I can hear you saying: slavery?

The district attorney for Florida's Middle District, which includes the key tomato town of Immokalee (pronounced like "broccoli," apparently), is working on "six to twelve slavery cases" (p.75). Migrant workers are tied to trees, chained for the night inside cube vans, beaten almost to death for attempting to escape (to serve as a lesson), and so on. According to DA Douglas Molloy, "any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave. 'That's not an assumption,' he told [Estabrooks]. 'That's a fact.'"

As Geraldo Reyes tells Estabrooks in a later chapter, too, "it [is] wrong to view slavery in Florida's fields as a series of isolated cases. Rather, he explained, slavery is an inherent part of an economic system built on the ruthless exploitation of its workers" (p.98).

Yummy, green tomatoes!
On the question of chemicals and growing practices, I don't have the heart even to write about them. Let me say only that tomatoes in Florida are picked when they're large and round, but not even the tiniest bit pink; then shrinkwrapped into one-ton pallet-loads of 80 boxes per pallet, they're exposed in a warehouse to ethylene gas in a high enough concentration that they look ripe enough to trick a consumer. At heart, though, they're still green, and we're stupid stupid stupid for buying them.

The book ends with some good news chapters, one on successful near-massive organic farming of tomatoes in Florida (it can be done!), one on the collection of wild seed specimens from South America (we can save the tomato!), one on gourmet local tomato farming outside New York City (tomatoes are for the elites!), but.... Maybe Estabrooks believes in those chapters, but I was broken before I got to them, and in consequence they read like requiems and apologia best used to puff local organic farmers and the upscale restaurants who buy their produce.

Western industrial agriculture is a doomed piece in a doomed enterprise, the early chapters propose, and the late chapters simply cannot overcome the annihilation the early ones have exposed.

A valuable book, but Christ.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Amy Seidl, Finding Higher Ground

At the 2009 ASLE conference, we brought in writer and ecologist Amy Seidl to talk about her then-new book Early Spring: An Ecologist and Her Children Wake to a Warming World. The 2013 ASLE conference is underway this week (hello, everybody!), but I'd imagine that Lawrence, Kansas, is full of people craving the same kind of hope that we were in Victoria, BC, four years ago. Amy Seidl won't be at Lawrence, if the program is to be believed, but I remain grateful for the hope she brought us last time around.

The best news for me is simply that she's still talking about hope in her new book, Finding Higher Ground: Adaptation in the Age of Warming. Technically what she's describing is "practical idealism" rather than hope, which blends both a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges facing us individually and collective as a result of climate change, with an optimism that such challenges can be honorably met through the extraordinarily potent energy of adaptation (as distinct from, but interwoven with, evolution): but it reads like hope to me, and it's an experience I regularly find that need.

Friday, May 24, 2013

George Szanto, Bog Tender

How does one properly respond to another well-written almanac-style memoir that draws on the traditions and modes of nature writing? At length, obviously, but if you've been here before, you know I sometimes don't shut up when I should, so that's not news. Reviews in press both local and national have accorded considerable respect already to George Szanto's Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory, calling it "voyeuristically satisfying," "exquisitely rendered," and "Beautifully written, deeply felt without succumbing to cheap sentiment," and I liked the book well enough, but somehow I couldn't convince myself into writing an entirely serious review. Frankly, there were too many angles to this book where I bounced off rather than reflected.

Herewith, some of those bouncing angles.

Tender is the bog

Am I the only one who didn't immediately understand that "bog tender" should be understood to be of the form "bartender"? There I was, wondering in nerdish bliss whether we were going to hear about how bogs make things tender (cf bodies in Celtic peat bogs) or about how bogs are innately tender (cf biotic fragility), only to discover that, no, George Szanto tends to a particular bog on Gabriola Island.

Szanto's bog, though, is both a material bog whose tending he undertakes determinedly, even if he did have a road built across the middle of it, and a metaphor for the stew of memories rotting productively inside our separate crania. Nature and memory, as the subtitle has it: predictable, but also right.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Robert J. Wiersema, The World More Full of Weeping

I'm an avowed fan of Rob Wiersema's novels, as I've said more than once. He's got the chops to write literary fiction, for whatever the hell that's worth, but clearly he'd rather write something that affects his readers. Before I Wake offered up an intimate portrait of a collapsing family, trying to stand around a seriously injured child; Bedtime Story blends high fantasy (swords! magic! arcana!) with a realist novel about a father's love for his damaged son; Walk Like a Man is a great mix of memoir with music commentary.

Now that I've read it a third time, I can say unequivocally that The World More Full of Weeping is one of my very favourite novels: technically it's a novella, shut up with your definitions already, seriously, shut up, but it does a great deal more with its 70 pages than I need a novel to do before I call it successful.

Brian Page, the 11-year-old son of recently divorced parents doing their best, is missing in the woods, and the whole town of Henderson's out looking for him. Thing is, he might not want to be found -- and he might not even be missing, at least not in the way the grown-ups understand the term. The novel's title is from the Yeats poem "The Stolen Child," which naturally means that we're in the realm of matters possibly mystical, but it also means that we're immersed in a natural world with an absolute claim on our attention.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Timothy Taylor, Blue Light Project

Conspiracies, media corruption, violence, and art: Timothy Taylor's impressively convoluted The Blue Light Project is a mature novel, and that's both a very good thing and a step up from his already celebrated previous work.

The thing is, as much as I enjoyed Taylor's Stanley Park, with its smart Vancouver-focused parody of locavore foodies and corporate restauranteurs and coffee culture, eventually I got to feeling it was a little under-polished. Great setup, great concept, but the satire started to feel too much like failed realism, and my enjoyment started to feel like homerism for a novel giving its readers an immersive experience of my home province.

That's not at all the case with Taylor's more recent novel. Although it takes around a hundred pages before enough of the pieces are in play for you to know where the novel will likely end up, The Blue Light Project is a cracker of a story. (Not that everybody liked it, mind you. And heck, some of the negative reviewers even preferred Stanley Park: madness, that.)
Whom do [people] trust? You can bet the list is short and there's not a powerful person on it. Our cattle are cloned. Our seeds are terminators. Our pipelines are full of blood. (p272)