by Helen Gilbert, Becketwood Member
A-ha! You know that feeling you have when two things you’ve been thinking about, maybe worrying about, suddenly come together and make a new connection? Your mind comes alive and starts seeing some part of the world in a whole new way. I had one of those moments last week that set off this blog post, which is intended as an introduction to a new series of blogs.
A few members of the Environment Committee wanted to explore how the food we eat and the environment we inhabit influence each other. Because I have to eat carefully, in order to preserve my health, I joined in on a meeting. Knowledgeable folks—Carol Spearman, Naomi Jackson, and Carol Masters—were offering ideas for a new blog they thought would be useful, giving information about so many places where food and the environment interconnect: the importance of pollinators, the ubiquity of corn, the pollution costs of global transportation of food, the damaging effects of pesticides, the presence of Round-Up® in California wines, the dangers of GMOs. My a-ha moment came when I realized that these issues are personal to me and my problems with eating. It was a little like the a-ha I felt in the 70s in a women’s consciousness-raising group when we started hearing “The personal is political.” I became aware that their knowledge relates to me, to the way I eat and shop, and “the environment” is not just something out there that I care about in an abstract way.
My caring for the environment is profound, even if I’ve felt distant from it at the same time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt more and more that the legacy my generation and I are leaving is a sad and painful one. As a group, we have lived profligately on the earth with our ever more consumptive lifestyle, using it up and creating pollution and destruction that are heading toward huge climate changes that will cause disruption of human lives all over the globe. That is the despairing side of my thoughts about the environment; I can get into a sense of helplessness and guilt that requires but is not assuaged by tiny steps like reducing my trash, driving a hybrid car, walking when I can, turning off the lights, sending a contribution to NRDC or the Wildlife Fund.
The other side of my caring about the environment is the joy I feel watching a sunset above the turret across the courtyard here, walking through the woods by the Mississippi, and sorting my photos of canoe trips in the BWCA, riding a little dory down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, hiking in the Swiss Alps, watching the Northern lights over a lake in upstate New York. The magnificence of the natural world sustains, enriches, and soothes me, and I want to leave it for those after me, including my grandchildren and their grandchildren, in a condition that they can appreciate in the same way.
All of that takes up a large part of my mind space and mental energy. The issue of food takes up another big part. Until I was 30, food and eating was pretty much just a simple pleasure, with occasional worries about gaining weight and trying one diet or another. I learned to enjoy cooking for my family and guests and took on some of Julia Child’s advice. But at 30, I had surgery for an infected gall bladder, a big deal at that time with a week’s stay in the hospital and two weeks at home recuperating. (My brother, a medical researcher, found out that my problem was probably caused by the huge amount of hormones in the form of birth control pills, which I had taken for years.) After that I began having digestive problems that have persisted.
In the 70s, the food industry began to produce food as a factory product. Women like me wanted more freedom from housework to pursue their own career interests, and meals of easy, processed food seemed like a huge boon for the family cook. I fit their demographic perfectly, wanting more education and time for work away from home, so I enthusiastically opened cans and stirred up Hamburger Helper. As my digestive pains continued, I began to notice that certain foods were causing more trouble, and to suspect that what I ate or didn’t would make a difference. There was no medical support for that perception and very little information available, so I felt like a detective on the track of the food culprits that were giving me grief.
I discovered some common food additives I needed to avoid, and when high-fructose corn syrup became so widespread, I learned that anything containing it made me sick. Of course, in recent years there has been a greater and greater interest in nutrition as an element of health, and more and more information became available, sometimes to the point of total confusion. I developed a way of eating that keeps me healthy but is fairly narrow and hard to provide, primarily simple proteins and lots of organic produce. In reading about all this, I’ve come across some wider concerns and questions: what about the methane produced by beef cattle?
Vegetarianism sounds better, but what if it doesn’t work for me? Doesn’t salmon farming harm the oceans? How can organic farming be economically sustainable in the face of industrial food production? What about food for the people in parts of the world that are becoming drought-ridden because of global warming? And on a very personal scale, how can I enjoy eating out in restaurants? And how can I choose from the offerings here at Becketwood so I can enjoy the social life of the dining room and keep on feeling well?
My a-ha last week involved a feeling that some of these questions have answers, that I am not alone in struggling with food issues, and that certainly a connection exists between what I need to eat to stay healthy and what Earth needs to stay healthy. More information about the connections is not only fascinating but can help us understand ourselves better as part of a huge system of planting, growing, shopping, cooking, eating, and healing that can support the earth and us simultaneously.
This understanding might lead to a form of activism about food production and the food industry that feels very natural and integrated with one of our most personal activities, our eating. The members of the group on food and the environment have already done a lot of research, and intend to do even more, on teasing out the connections between these two issues. Just starting to look around, I see that there is a huge web of fascinating and inter-connected topics to look into, and I expect more a-ha moments. We hope you’ll enjoy future blogs exploring these topics, and that you’ll get involved by offering comments, asking questions, suggesting topics, writing a blog of your own, or joining the committee yourself.