Beyond local

Note: This is a column I wrote for the Pioneer last fall while I was on Whitman’s Semester in the West program. The column can also be found on the Pioneer website. I’m planning to post in the next few days about some common reasons people argue against local food and why they’re missing the point, but I thought it would be relevant to post my own critique of the local idea, as well some thoughts on the shortcomings of food package labels.

The importance of eating local foods has been a prominent theme in the environmental movement for the past few years. Eating local makes sense for many reasons—buying close to home is a way to connect people to the farmers who grow their food, and a shorter transportation distance generally means fewer carbon emissions. As we develop local food systems, however, it is critical to remember that not all crops are created equal.
Consider California. About half of our nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown here, mostly in irrigated valleys which rely on the importation of water. In Southern California, much of this water comes from the Colorado River, which has been dammed dozens of times to provide cheap water for the desert farms and metropolises of the American West. California has the largest share of the Colorado’s water, and it uses about 80% of what it takes to irrigate crops. Unfortunately, the Colorado is overallocated—shared between seven states and Mexico, depended on to feed the growth of Las Vegas and Phoenix and subject to increased water loss as climate change warms the West. With water shortages looming on the horizon, California’s farmers may move to mining groundwater, pumping it from underground aquifers at rates that will take centuries to replenish.
A concerned environmentalist living in Los Angeles could easily find local produce to eat. Go to the supermarket, and you’ll find California-grown avocadoes, tomatoes, oranges, carrots and artichokes. But how sustainable is it to eat vegetables grown in a semi-desert with water pumped to them from hundreds of miles away? If local eating requires taking so much water from the Colorado that its waters have failed to reach the ocean for the last three decades, what are we accomplishing?
This is not to say that local foods aren’t a worthwhile goal. On the contrary, some degree of local food production is essential for solving climate change. But locovores need to do more than look at the distance their food has traveled to get to their plate. The same food produced in two different climates can have dramatically different environmental effects. Cattle grazed on Virginia pastures, where it rains, are good for the land and can easily be rotated between pastures to allow grasses to regrow. Cattle grazed in the desert canyonlands of Utah trample biotic soil crusts, increase soil erosion and allow non-native plants to take over the ecosystem. If you live in Utah and want to eat beef, getting it from Virginia might be the more sustainable choice.
Environmentalists are used to screening food by labels. If something is organic, local, grass-fed or all-natural, it’s automatically assumed to be better for our health and the Earth. If we want to succeed in building a more sustainable food system, we need to move beyond these labels and look at the actual impacts our food has on the land it’s grown on. If a crop can be grown in the area where you live without pumping a river dry, building a dam to divert subsidized irrigation water or permanently depleting the soil of its nutrients, it’s a good candidate for sustainability. If not, get it from somewhere that can grow it sustainably or go without it.
Obviously, this approach is not universally applicable—many crops are unsustainable no matter where they are grown, and there isn’t enough choice or transparency in our food system to answer all of these questions. Being in a place to consider your food choices this carefully is a function of education, environmental awareness and affluence, all of which are privileges many people don’t share. But to the extent it’s possible, everyone who cares about the health of the planet needs to ask difficult questions when they to go the store or sit down for dinner. Looking at the package will never tell you everything you need to know about your food. Talk to the farmer, learn what grows well where you live and pay attention to what you’re supporting when you buy food. Our existence on this planet depends on its ability to produce food for us. We need to start taking better care of it.

Climate nihilism

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: with Bill deBuys, Northern New Mexico
I am the last generation to be born and raised on cheap energy with the promise of a better life.
I am the first generation slated to be poorer and die sooner than my parents.
I drive past clear cuts, open pits of coal, landfills, smokestacks belching black clouds into the air. I am seduced by the vision of industry, impressed by the sheer magnitude of the changes we have made on this land. I don’t want a world without city-sized industrial fortresses or Superfund sites, because then I would have nothing left to fight.
I know we’re past the point of saving the planet. I hope we’re past the point of saving ourselves. I’ve always wanted to watch the apocalypse.
I like the idea of fighting a losing battle. Winning is black and white, its narrative a simple recollection of events. The story of losing requires nuance, character, tragedy. I’ve always found the Trojans a more compelling people, Hector a better hero than Achilles. Valor and heroism are determined not by how many victories you win, but by how your defeat finally occurs.
I find the world a more beautiful place with such clear imperfections. I like the causes, but no the effects. I find smokestacks terrifyingly beautiful, but not dissolving coral reefs. I see moral contradiction written on every landscape.
I know industrial capitalism is killing the planet. I don’t want industrial capitalism to go away because I want to see this awful comedy play out until the bitter, bloody end.
I’m tired of being sad and too numb to be angry. Some days, all I want is a house with a garden and lot of books so I can come home to someone I love and put all the frustration and passion and uncertainty I have into loving them, before we make dinner together and ignore the fire raging all around us.

Writing with Craig Childs

We’ve spent the last four days doing a writing workshop with Craig Childs. It wasn’t at all what I’d pictured when I heard the words “writing workshop”. We were camped on BLM land about three hours outside of Moab, Utah. We were surrounded by canyons and desert, miles away from “civilization”. I assumed we’d be using the picturesque scenery as inspiration to write.

Instead, our days reminded me more of my days on Wilderness Awareness School wolf tracking expeditions. We got up at 6:30, just after first light, and followed the sound of Craig’s flute to a series of rocky ledges, where we sat and watched the sun rise. Craig played flute and talked to us about place, about how these canyonlands are the one place on earth he could watch the sun rise every morning for the rest of his life. We sat for an hour, watching the dark rainbow of the sky grow lighter and lighter, ravens flapping by with the eerie precision of their wings. When the sun finally started to come up, it shot beams of perfectly yellow light over the mountains which turned into a glowing halo. And then the sun came, it got light, and we watched.

After sunrise and breakfast, we went hiking. The BLM land we were on was vast and lacking any trails, so we wandered. Craig would pick a landmark in the distance, like “that piece of white rock shaped like a whale”, and we would set off, solo or in pairs or small groups, going over slickrock and down through washes, until we got there. And then we wrote short pieces—stories of what we’d seen, a letter to people 10,000 years from now about what it feels like to be here. But mostly, we walked and walked and walked. We descended into canyons, climbed over boulders, found tracks in the sand, hid in caves, watched lizards scurry under rocks. We got back to camp around 6pm everyday, having spent the entire day exploring the landscape.

I had an amazing time during the four days we did this. Initially, I questioned the value of this time as a writing workshop—there was nothing else I’d rather be doing, but I felt like we weren’t writing a lot. And then I realized that Craig’s instructional methods were a lot more valuable than any traditional “workshop” could have been. We’re all intelligent, educated people, and we all offer good feedback on each other’s writing. If I wanted to write things about the beauty of the desert or the politics of water or anything else we’ve experienced, I have twenty peers and a professor who would give me helpful feedback. What Craig gave us was something far more valuable. He showed us his process—how he, as an author, approaches writing. He gave us tools to develop our own processes and insights. He showed us how to take a landscape you’re passionate about and tell a story about it. And no matter what I end up doing with my life, that’s a skill I want to have.

Letter to a human 10,000 years from now

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
Dear person ten thousand years from now,
Today it rained in the morning. The rocks around me are red-orange, made of sand stuck together, forming ridges and shelves as far as I can see. Here, I walk on my feet and sometimes my hands. The rain adds uncertainty to the land, so I slide twenty feet down bare rock faces, not able to control my speed, barely able to change direction. I almost fall into puddles of orange water pooled in the rock. I walk up sandstone ledges arranged like a staircase, each step a different width, half of them breaking off as soon as I put my weight on them. I let the shape of the rock guide me, abandoning the concept of efficiency. I want to move north, but the rock that way is too steep, and I risk falling, sliding down into a canyon three hundred feet deep. Instead, I go west, finding level ground, rocks that curve upward gradually, gentle enough to walk on.
I wonder if you still go outside, if you see the sky with clouds and with sun. I wonder if it still rains in the desert. I wonder if these canyons, sheer rock faces plunging down hundreds of feet, are still here or anywhere. I wonder if they’ve all been filled with trash or something radioactive, something with a half-life greater than the time between my death and your birth.
I hope you know what it is to be wet, to be cold, to feel so hot there’s sweat dripping off of you back and you can barely stand to smell yourself. I hope you’ve been hurt, feared for your life, known that one misstep might cause you to fall into an abyss, hopelessly trying to fly on your way down. I hope you’ve climbed on top of something and felt free to scream knowing no one can hear you.
I hope you’ve been alive, and been human.

Tracking in the desert

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
In the washes, there are sets of four-toed tracks compacting the dust, no longer than a nickel, made sometime before the rain this morning.
I feel the crunch of soil compacting under my show, step after step as I create a new trail across the desert and I feel guilty for all the fun I’m having.
There is a conversation taking place behind me, four people who used to be in my shoes telling each other stories whose words I can’t make out.
Tracking is a lot like journalism. You’re given pieces of information but left to piece them together, decide what’s relevant, and decipher meaning. You start casting a wide net, gathering as much data as you can. You write down anything you can, ask as many questions as you can think of. You get close, get obsessed, caught up in trying to find the story. You try angles, test theories, try to stay unbiased. Not every government project is hiding a larger social problem. Not every track with four toes and the perfect x above the metacarpal pad is a wolf track. You learn from everything imaginable, and your biases guide what you follow and where you choose to go. There are stories etched deep in every landscape if you look hard enough.
Today, following those coyote tracks, I found myself in a trance. It’s almost meditative, the inquisitive silence punctuated by gasps as you look down to see a print so clearly defined you could frame it and sell it as art. I got on all fours, trying out gaits, trying to decipher what I was seeing. I know the names—direct register walk, trot, lope—but I have so little practice picking them out in the sand. I want to be a better student, spend more time drawing and journaling and seeing everything the land has to teach me. But I like what Craig said today—try so hard to pay attention and you miss things. All of our minds wander. I’m no less holy or motivated because Ke$ha is stuck in my head, because I’m spending half of my walk across the canyonlands worrying about civil engineering. And those things that snap me out of my self-centered thoughts, the things that slap me across the face and make me sit up and pay attention—those are the things I want to learn about. And more of the than not, they’re tracks.

Walking through canyonlands

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Back of Beyond, the Known Universe, Utah
Sunrise is hope, renewal spreading across the horizon. I wonder about the wisdom of silence—we’re struck by awe, humbled at these sights. But maybe sounds can acknowledge what we feel when we see the sun. It gives us life, sustains us, feeds our bodies and nourishes our soul. Maybe we should dance, sing, be joyous.
Feet on dirt—crushing, compacting, like boots on snow. Feet on rock—a soft tap, not quite a click. The same genus as heels on a marble floor, but a very different species. Distant cousins. Water ripples in sand. Warm, not hot. A breeze so small you can barely discern direction. Juniper berries and twigs pool in the rock’s indentations. Pieces of crumbled rock are scattered on the slickrock. Moon soil, full of craters. One piece looks like a tortoise, grotesque, half-formed. It’s hotter. My abdomen tingles, my scalp itches. It’s an early warning. Seek cover, get inside. The crypto is like a minefield and those hills aren’t getting any closer.
I love the ripples on the rock. Water is so clear in its presence and absence. It carves over time, folding the surface in on itself, carving lines, curves, stream channels. It’s the face of time, seemingly permanent until you walk across it, and it cracks and crumbles, brittle sand, easier to change than the wet tide flats at the beach.

Accepting defeat

We’ve spent the last three days in Aspen, Colorado, talking about climate change and renewable energy. Among our speakers was Auden Schendler, head of the environmental division of Aspen Ski Company and author of the recent book Getting Green Done. Auden was by far the most inspiring speaker I’ve heard about the issue of climate change. His point was simple: we’re going to fail at solving this problem.

If we stopped emitting carbon tomorrow, it would take decades for our planet to stabilize. We’re already seeing rising sea levels, glaciers and ice sheets melting far more quickly than they were supposed to. Bjorn Lomborg, one of the most influential climate skeptics (meaning he questioned the urgency scientists were speaking with and the predictions being made, not the fact that climate change is occurring and human-caused), just completely changed his position and said we need to invest $100 billion a year in research and development to stop climate change. Several Pacific island nations like Tuvalu are looking at purchasing land in other places because their entire landmass will be under water soon.

So all this is already happening, and we’re still emitting carbon. US emissions have gone down a bit because of the recession, but once our economy picks back up, our carbon footprint is more than likely to follow. The political climate in the US is such that passing any legislation which will meaningfully impact emissions, like a carbon tax, will be nearly impossible. And even if we could, fixing this problem requires nothing less than redesigning our entire energy grid.

Auden likened our situation to fighting Muhammad Ali in the 1970s. You could cower in a corner, take the punches, get knocked out and dragged to the ER. You know you’re going to lose. You have no choice. But you still fight back, with everything you have. You fight to see how far you can get. You fight even though you’re unprepared and don’t know what to expect. You fight because you can’t just stand there and do nothing, no matter how much the odds are stacked against you. You know you’re going to lose—there’s no nagging worry, no uncertainty, just drive. We can’t fix this problem in the time we need to. Let’s go down fighting.

Starving land (my second epiphany)

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush and wondering what it would be like to starve to death.

I remember myself at six, thrilled when I could convince my vegetarian mother to cook hot dogs for dinner. I stopped eating meat when I was eight, no longer able to stand the thought of killing a cow to feed myself. I saw Finding Nemo and cut out fish too. I lived secure in the knowledge that no animals were being killed to feed me. I lied to myself for eleven years.

I’m looking at an ocean of corn and seeing death. I see Bhopal, India, 1984, where a Union Carbide pesticide plant leaked methyl isocyanate and 2,259 people lay dead in the street while the company denied the chemical had been leaked, then denied it was toxic. Years later, with the death toll estimated at 20,000 the CEO would be convicted of negligence in a US court and fined $2000: the maximum allowed by law, or about $10 per human life. I see a river where walls of concrete stop salmon from spawning and take the water away to irrigate fields growing crops we don’t need or want. I see workers in a “natural foods” plant with neurological diseases from breathing in too much hexane, the gasoline refinement byproduct used to extract protein from soybeans. These are the things we allow in the name of cheap food. This is our hierarchy of values, etched on the land.

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush and thinking about eating a cow. Cows eat grass where they find it, transforming grasslands into a mosaic of sagebrush and bare ground. Cows put the cost of their existence in front of us, and we cry foul at the moonscape of incised channels and cowpies that results. Seeing this reality, we’re willing to stop eating beef. If our fields were lined with billboards showing every Superfund site where pesticides have been manufactured, every rainforest clearcut to grow soy, every mother who has had to watch her child die of cancer caused by exposure to agricultural runoff, would we give up monocrops?

I’m looking into the eyes of a cow and seeing a violation of nature. Here, in the feedlot, nine calories of blood-soaked corn will be shoved down its throat for every calorie I will eventually eat. Here, the water runs brown and pregnant women are told not to drink it. Here, the names Tyson, Cargill, Monsanto and Simplot are carved into the land, deeper than the channels their cows incise.

I’m walking through a farmer’s market and trying to have hope. Know my farmers, have a garden and a goat, learn how to can fruit and buy local—I know how to feed myself. If I become a locovore, grow my own vegetables and only eat grass-fed, organic meat, will I feel any better when the next Bhopal happens? If I never touch another drop of high fructose corn syrup, will it wash the blood of Indian children off my hands?

I’m scanning packages of 99 cent ground beef and praying for revolution. More often than not, this is what food stamps pay for. Lentils and quinoa may be cheap, but they take time, and time is a precious commodity for someone with three kids, two jobs and a green card that expired ten years ago. Sometimes, at 10pm, a mother will come through my line with two screaming toddlers who should be in bed and tell me she just got off work. She buys a gallon of milk, some candy to quiet the screaming, and her food stamp card is declined—not enough left to cover the three dollar purchase. As she counts quarters and dimes out on the counter, I wonder at the optimistic liberals who think we can save the world with local, organic, grass-finished beef that costs $6 a pound.

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush, knowing seven billion people have to eat. In the name of feeding the world, we razed the grasslands, plowed the soil, and replaced rain with dams. Maybe it’s time to cut my losses and accept reality. People live in the Mojave and the Sonoran. They have to eat, so we pipe water in from the Colorado or truck food in from the East. I can’t force Phoenix to relocate, make farm subsidies go away or bring back the salmon.

I’m dreaming of a grassland I have never seen. A carpet of switchgrass, swaying gracefully in the breeze, so beautiful I almost forget I am starving. My stomach aches, crying out for food, but there is nothing I know how to eat here. Panicked, I start to run, and collapse, exhausted. The grass encircles me, stroking my hair, whispering to me, and I know I will die here. Resigned, comforted, I lie down, no longer feeling the emptiness of my belly. And a bulldozer comes, plows up the grass and plants wheat in its place. Someone hands me a piece of bread. I eat, ravenous, only looking up when it’s too late. The grass has vanished, and I wake up from a nightmare where I can eat to my heart’s content.

I’m looking at an ocean of sagebrush and hoping against hope we can turn it back into grass. Maybe we can teach people to keep chickens in the city, turn food deserts back into Eden with a bit of compost and a lot of love. Maybe we can take kids outside and show them the beauty of a pronghorn sprinting, whisper that sometimes at night, you can hear wolves howl here. Maybe we can share our knowledge and our kale with neighbors, take it to food banks, preach it in church, on the bus, and in the classroom. Maybe, if everyone with a dream in one hand and dirt in the other decided to do more than just opt out, we could learn to feed ourselves and take care of each other. Maybe we could make space for wild grasslands in the West.

Off for the river!

Tomorrow, we set off on the river. We’ll be floating on the Green River for three days, doing some service projects involving plants and seeing the site at Echo Park where the Bureau of Reclamation proposed a dam in the 1950s. Conservationists, led by David Brower of the Sierra Club, were successful in mountain widespread public opposition to the proposal, largely based on the fact that there was explicit legislation in place prohibiting a dam or reservoir from encroaching on a national park or monument. This issue came up again with Glen Canyon Dam, which was agreed to under the assurance that Rainbow Bridge National Monument would be protected from the waters of Lake Powell. In spite of its status as a national monument, no measures were taken to prevent the lake from encroaching on it, in part because some conservationists reluctantly admitted that another dam would be required to protect the monument. Building a dam near Rainbow Bridge would have required roads, machinery and many other things which would have disrupted the natural beauty of the place. So today, Rainbow Bridge can be reached by boat on Lake Powell.

Anyway, I’m slightly apprehensive about this trip. I’ve never been on a river trip, with the exception of about two hours of rafting in Costa Rica, and there it was incredibly hot and sunny. We’re spending nights on the river, and while I’m used to being in remote areas, something about putting water in the mix seems like tempting fate. Not that I’m not excited—this is going to be incredibly fun and probably very educational. And when I think of John Wesley Powell setting off on the virgin Colorado in the 1870s with a raft and no idea of what lay ahead, the idea of worrying seems ridiculous. So hopefully, I won’t die and I’ll report back in three days.

The last week…

We’re on the road again, this time towards the Colorado, where we’ll embark on a rafting trip on Wednesday morning. Everybody’s working on our second epiphanies, which we’ll read on the river. We’ll also be learning about the dam proposed at Echo Park in the 1950s, which would have flooded Dinosaur National Monument (so named because there are a lot of dinosaur bones in the area). Conservationists and the Sierra Club were successful in opposing the dam, but in exchange, they agreed to let the Glen Canyon Dam go through without trying to fight it. So now, we’re free to float down the Colorado and see the unspoiled beauty of Dinosaur, and Glen Canyon remains buried under Lake Mead.

We’ve spent the last week in northern Nevada and Idaho looking at grazing on public lands. Most of the public lands in the West are grazed by cattle or sheep. Ranchers generally have a base property where cattle spend the winter, and one or more allotments of BLM or Forest Service land where cattle spend some portion of the spring, summer and fall. Calves are born in the spring or early summer—the time varies depending on the ranch. They’re turned out to graze, brought back in for the winter and generally sold to a feedlot shortly after. At the feedlot, they’ll be fattened for about three months, then slaughtered. Cows heading to a feedlot weigh between 800 and 1000 pounds, and will weight up to 1300 when they leave the feedlot.

Our guests this week included Jon Marvel, the Executive Director of Western Watersheds (an organization which wants to end all grazing on public lands), Mike Stevens, who runs Lava Lake Lamb (a sheep grazing operation near Craters of the Moon, Idaho which sells all-natural and organic lamb to a largely urban market) and Robin and Steve Boies, ranchers who run the Hubbard Vineyard Ranch. I ate my first lamb steak, which was delicious, and learned a lot about the various sides of the grazing issue. I’m still having some trouble figuring out where I stand when you draw the lines in black and white, which some people like to do. But I have some ideas, which I’ll blog about later when I’m not so tired. Eleven hours in a car will do that to you.