Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Movers and Makers

Lately, I've noticed that gas prices and the state of the economy are at the tip of everyone's tongues. In an ad I heard on the radio yesterday, a woman's solemn voice announced, "We are a country of consumers. But that's okay." But in America, it seems as though we are always pulled in different directions when it comes to consumption: we have to consume to keep the economy going, but our consumption habits are not sustainable. We have built the American way of life by embracing excess, and the talk of fuel prices and economical hardships scare the crap out of us - because in order to change our world for the better, it is possible (and even probable) that we'll have to radically rethink the way we spend our money and our time.

I don't like to think that the downturn of the economy and the tension surrounding petroleum is the beginning of the end. But I do think that the only change that will positively impact the environment is on a much larger scale than building a few green homes or driving a Hybrid. Not to say that these things aren't a step in the right direction - but they're not enough. It seems that the first step in creating change in the world is to change perspectives - starting with young people. If we do need to head towards sustainability, it's important to consider where the things that we need in our daily lives actually come from. Emily wrote a post about local foods recently, and to take it in that same direction, I'd like to mention a movement that I heard about recently: the Makers movement.

My grandfather, who died about six years ago, was an engineer. He built model airplanes, fixed his glasses with duct tape, and often modified things to fit his needs using only household supplies. When the California sun through the sliding-glass door made the house unbearably hot during the summer, he rigged a porch screen using tarps and rope to keep the sun out. After he lost the use of two of his fingers from a jackhammer injury during WWII, he modified his flute with some O-rings and wire so that he could still play. He is probably the reason why I am fascinated with the ideology of the Makers movement: he taught me that it is incredibly empowering to create or fix things using your own hands. And it seems like that idea will be incredibly useful to anyone who wants to affect change on an individual level.

Another, perhaps tenuously connected, but important part of that movement for me is the relatively new online fibers and textiles community. Men and women from all over the country, and some from around the world, share the things that they're knitting, crocheting, and sewing, and often branch out into the realm of cooking, gardening, and other craftsmanship. Not only is the aesthetic appealing, but the practicality is there: yes, it is useful to be able to make socks for your children, or a wool sweater for your father. Some skills like this have been cast off as antiquated or anti-feminist because they used to typically be classified as "women's work", but there has been a reclamation of practical crafts, due in part to the recent trendiness of knitting. And it is comforting for me to know that people have been knitting for hundreds of years, well before the advent of electricity and industry - because that means that no matter the changes that the world undergoes in the next few years, there will always be sheep, there will always be yarn, and I can always knit a sweater to wear on the coldest of winter days.

Emily Goes to the Farm

This past weekend, I drove up to western MA to visit my friend at Overlook Farm, where she is working for the summer. The farm is owned and operated by Heifer International, and all the food consumed on the farm is grown and produced right there, by the workers and volunteers.

I don't consider myself as living a particularly urban lifestyle or that I'm totally cut off from all knowledge of where food comes from. After all, I love to go the local farmer's market, and I buy fresh, local produce at our area grocery store whenever I can. I'm an environmental studies major...of course I've studied different kinds of farming and agricultural practices. But I never realized everything that goes in to truly eating locally and producing all your own food. While I was there, I got to help in both the kitchen and the garden. We cooked dinner for a school group that was visiting: pizza made with homemade dough, beef that had been raised on the farm, and fresh broccoli that had been picked the week before and a salad made with various leafy vegetables that had just been harvested and marigolds on top to garnish it (yes, you can eat marigolds, apparently. They're kind of spicy).

The next day, we went out into the garden, picked beans, beets, turnips, and carrots, gathered some eggs from the chickens, went back to the house, and made homemade kimchi--a jar of which is sitting down in my basement fermenting right now. The idea that it is possible for me (or for anyone else) to make a food that normally we only see served to us at Korean restaurants, was just a little mind-blowing. I instantly started thinking of all the other things I could make, and I realized that almost anything that I buy packaged and processed, I could probably make at home. Now I have plans for making homemade veggie burgers, pickled vegetables, butter, granola, and pesto.

Zac is just finishing up his book on where food comes from, and my experience on the farm makes me realize just how little we know about our food. Sure, a lot of people have read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen, or buy fresh produce at farmer's markets. But there's a lot of food products that we still take for granted and most of us are still willing to buy processed, frozen foods that have traveled across the country multiple times in their journeys to their present shapes. A lot of this has to do with convenience--I am well aware that slapping a frozen veggie patty on the grill is a lot less labor intensive than making your own (and, for those of you who eat meat, it's much easier and cheaper to buy pre-made, frozen hamburger patties than going out and trying to find local or grass-fed beef.) However, I feel like many people, and I know this was the case for me until a few days ago, appreciate fresh fruits and vegetables, but don't really understand how these are also connected to the canned soups and potato chips that we buy at the grocery stores. Maybe that's something that has to be experienced, and not just read about to really understand. Whatever the case, I hope that Zac's book (which hopefully I will get to read soon...but my role in that whole process is a whole different topic, which I might talk about eventually...) will help us realize how various food items are changed and processed by the time they get to us, as well as maybe how we can get more involved in experiencing our food before the finished product.

Ok, there's my thoughts on local farming and where food comes from. Now back to the real work. I'm in the processing of laying out and producing a catalog for another publishing company that features all the books they've produced. But, like my role in the "Big Picture" series for AlphaHouse, that will have to wait for another day.