Sunday, August 4, 2019

Uncertainty, equality, guinea pigs, mushrooms, making pasta, and spring

The mole rats are driving us crazy by eating through our vegetable garden, but we're managing to keep morale up with microgreens, peas, gooseberries, granadillas, guavas and naive determination. Also by rescuing Guinea Pigs. Four of them. And by learning more about mushrooms, and starting to eat more varieties foraged here and there. 

I've been thinking about equality, specifically equality between food producers and consumers. I think this relates deeply to the economy and to who is poor and who is not. As our society has become more and more urbanized, the division between producers and consumers seems particularly profound and problematic, and we have come to undervalue the people who make our existence possible. 

Speaking from a South African perspective, it is incredibly hard to be a producer, so we/they really need help to keep producing good food at a small scale (or even at a large scale). We require capital to start, or some other form of privilege. So the small scale producer arrives as the underdog to the fight. Not only that, we are not always the type of underdog you want to root for. Because the stakes are so strongly stacked against us, we sometimes develop a victim complex. We can be unreliable, defensive, scrappy, a little desperate, tired, rude. And the consumer is accustomed to high quality, palatable (processed) food available for the taking, the externalities to the ecosystem or our bodies rendered invisible by the sheer convenience of the supermarket.

At the same time, consumers also really need transformation within the food system. Those invisible externalities: the damage to our planet and our bodies, an economy based on endless growth-- these things may be invisible but they are still there. So we need a quasi-miraculous shift-- where we still have consistent food but it is local, nourishing, non-exploitative, not implicated in NCDs. Where we're the consumers, we're the overdog, and we want to root for us because... we are all consumers. Yet we can be demanding, entitled, and hedonistic.

Somewhere in between, there is hope of averting the fight completely. Of confronting the worst characteristics of both the producers and consumers and learning that the fight was something completely different from what we thought. I think somewhere there, is a viable alternative to the neoliberal capitalism I have inhaled since birth.

How do we get there when we're here? It's a minefield: who gets land titles? Should we eat animal based products? If we don't, where are we getting our food from-- what is the collateral damage? If we do eat animal-based products, how do we justify it? Who is empowered or disempowered by our eating? How healthy do we have a right to be?

For those of you who come at this from a faith perspective, I like Wendell Berry's take on how faith and food intersect: the recognition that our daily bread is provided, not earned. That, at the same time, meaningful, productive labour is one of the most powerful ways we can be connected to one another and to the earth. That natural beauty can be a farm as much as it is the mountainside or the ocean. At the same time, that our capability, our competency, is not a measure of our worth, nor is it a measure of what we end up having. Rather, in farming (farming the way we farm, anyway) we learn that we are not Gods. We are small, we are stewards, and we are subject to the laws of nature, and nature always takes its share. We are never fully in control. We also learn we do not need too much to live, grow, love. It is this perspective that I find helpful in embracing the death, loss, sadness, and inevitable joy of the cycles of bringing our farm from bare land to fruition. 

I see the trending phrase: "cruelty-free eating" and my hackles are raised. Not because our farm is cruel, but because in life there is always death, we are always making difficult choices that impact ourselves, our families, our communities, our world. To ignore that in favour of a sterilized version of our lives is to avoid deep change, and deep change is so urgently needed.

At the same time, we find ourselves back in the minefield: of what to eat, when, and how. Part of the reason I am gradually retreating from academia is that I find these questions incredibly compelling, but at the same time I really feel one just has to step out into the minefield, or the thin ice, or whatever metaphor you want to use, and just start walking. One can study almost endlessly, and share ideas from our study-- imagine a different world, even. Without diminishing the value of study, I believe that we talk with more authority when we have skin in the game, when we have a lot to lose, when we've tried and failed. 

By walking, you learn what is right for you. Rather than saying that as a cop out (oh I am just too stressed to do x), or to avoid critique, I mean to say that when something is between us and God (or between us and our conscience), we do not move forward to impress anyone or to secure our future. Sometimes I think I write to keep myself accountable to the trajectory and the journey we are on.

Small-scale production, small scale farming is important and more people need to produce food. We need to find ways towards community, and those ways are not always intuitive-- our route is not clear and straight. Yet we are accountable for the time we have on earth-- not accountable to others' measures of truth and justice, but to our own. 

Sometimes producers do not have easy entry into the market, and so there are intermediaries who bridge these gaps, and power differentials loom large. I'm thinking particularly about the phenomenon in Cape Town of trying to "uplift" farmers in the Cape Flats to farm organic veg for middle-class city dwellers. In general, I think highly of both the farmers and the people trying to be the intermediaries.... and yet I have strong reservations about this model, because I dream of producers selling to those with whom they can negotiate, communicate, and learn with. For this reason, I believe that in a place like Cape Town, there is a big need for middle class people to take up the plough (figuratively only... we're all no-till nowadays aren't we?). That, in short, is a big reason we are farming the way we are: farming in a way we always put in the most physical labour, even though we have staff in our nursery. We only understand the value of physical labour if we have been out there and put our bodies on the line. I feel more inspired by models that actively try to link poor farmers to poor consumers-- to bridge that gap. That is the gap that is very difficult to bridge in a sustainable way; but it's important to recognize that in South Africa, the buying power of the poor is massive.

In our journey of farming (part time, but farming nevertheless) we step back, we strategise, we find better ways to do things, we figure out what is essential and what is optional, and we keep going.

When we produce food, there's some level of epicurianism, but there's also quite a bit of frugality, holding back, learning that basic food is good enough. Learning that very basic food is a blessing, that we do not need endless choice, constant supply, perfection. This is where I find myself out of place in foodie gatherings, much as I appreciate the need for foodies. I feel deeply that restraint and care by the middle and upper classes is essential to change in the food system, to changes in capitalism. Food can be lovely, tasty, nourishing. But not every meal. Some meals can be weird and mismatched, with bits of rubbish leftovers, because that is what you had. Sometimes we don't need to eat very much, sometimes we need to eat a lot. 

I do not mean that we should tolerate a life devoid of joy, but that our tastes may need to change in the transition from this food system to another one. We can't turn back the clock, of course. We cannot become our great-great- grandparents. But we can reinvent what it means to live joyfully in this 21st century of climate change. 

Living where we do in the times we do, our future is always uncertain and we can never feel completely at peace with our choices when so many of our (literal) neighbours are hungry and cold. This is at once very scary, disconcerting, and ... well, a real and important reality. The uncertainty forces us to be brave with the resources we have: resources that are not ours forever. They are just ours for a short time- we are stewards, for as long as we can be, with few guarantees. 

Looking out on the aquarium.

Beautiful and poisonous...

first blewitt 
with a lot of eggs from our ducks and chickens, pasta making has become a big part of our day.

cross section of an unopened bit at the bottom, opened alien-looking mushroom at the top.

midwinter- the 12 apostles and the back of Table Mountain. 

Horse dung fungus, or dye ball. I wish it had been more mature as I'd have loved to spread spores over the farm. These fungi form a relationship with almost any trees, and could support our food forest. Still, we are spreading spores of so many different mushrooms, that eventually, those saprophytic relationships will be cultivated.

earth stars shooting spores into the air

giant porcini...

Our first Porcini. We gave this one to another forager, but got another one for ourselves.

Fly agaric- a kind of magic mushroom. We learned that reindeers eat this mushroom, and people in the Northern hemispheres used to drink reindeer pee in order to experience the high without the toxic effects. 

Bubbles finally has friends. There are lot of guinea pigs needing rescue in Cape Town. We took 4 girls, and got Bubbles neutered (he has to be next to them in a different cage for 6-8 weeks though :( . Poor guy.)

mushroom spores.

midwinter swimming...

Taking a shelter dog to an adoptathon. We were supposed to take a puppy but instead got this massive dog who wanted to drive.

a lot of guinea pig cuddles. 

Also got a second hand trampoline. I've been on the lookout for cheap one with a net for about 2 years-- it was worth the wait!

Turkey tail bracket fungus-- apparently medicinal.

The acquarium is a little far away from us now, but we decided to get membership again because it feels like a season where we're going to be getting out more.

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