Smith, A, MacKinnon, JB. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. Vintage Canada Pub.

This was one of my favourite readings in recent memory. The change in narrative style between both halves of the relationship was completely endearing to me, but I’ve always enjoyed hearing different perspectives on the same issue. Another thing that kept me turning pages was the fact that it was so utterly familiar. Through their descriptive text I was able to visualize who these people are, and just like watching a movie filmed in a place you’ve been it is very fascinating reading about places you know. On their trek to pick strawberries on the bird sanctuary island it took a while for me to catch on to what I was reading. I’ve read books set in places I’ve been before, but it still shocked me when my brain slowly pieced together that the island they were visiting was actually the same island we saw snow geese while birding on a field trip this year. For me this really drove home the larger message behind this book; we’ve become accustomed to consuming imported goods, whether it be foods, electronics, or even stories. Having the authors visit a place I can easily recall gave me that sense of connection that they mention we’ve all lost to the food we consume daily.

This is a divisive topic in my own psyche, which is pretty rare. All the same, I’ll spend the next paragraph giving you some insight into how schizophrenic my brain can get: Just as they felt alien when first deciding to eat only local foods, part of the inertia I would have to overcome to follow their lead would be that seeming isolation from society at large. It doesn’t take long for me to realize though that I’d much prefer to feel closer to my community than to society at large. The next hurdle is the expense. Thanks to mass production and cheap labour, it is cheaper and more accessible to obtain food that doesn’t reach it’s nutritional potential. Some of it could even be debated to be food at all. I’m not proud of the fact that I eat this stuff, but I apparently prioritize finance and lethargy over my optimum health. What would be ideal is if the change makers would realize how wrong all of this importing and exporting of goods can be and embrace local producers, maybe then it would be easier and cheaper for me to eat locally and better. How pathetic is that though? I need the world to change for me to start making decisions that I know will benefit me and my community in the long run? Maybe I just need to get through this starving student phase of my life, and then I can go out and do things properly. Fingers crossed, because I really respect people who chase what is right even though it isn’t always easy. I hope I grow into someone I could respect.

Enough of that though, let’s focus on thoughts I can share with conviction. While reading through this, not once did I say to myself, “I could never eat like them. I would die without______.” I have no real desire to eat chicken knowing how they are mass farmed, and even more so for beef. The thing I found myself most jealous of while reading though was the fact that they live at the coast. I love seafood, and would quite enjoy to make fresh catch seafood my primary source of protein. It is still possible, but slightly more difficult to do while living in the interior. I suppose the most concrete conceptualization that this book imparted onto me is that I feel like what they have done is my end goal of way of life, but that I’m currently in a holding pattern until specific aspects of my life make that lifestyle more conducive.

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It’s an exemplary summer day out at the Shuswap. My skin temporarily cooled by the lake water it retains from my refreshing dip, the bottom of my feet still stinging from the hot rocks. As I sit down on my towel and put my sunglasses back on I’m treated to one of the delights of summer; a heaping plate full of sliced watermelon. I race the other children to the picnic table to try to grab the biggest, juiciest piece with the perfect amount of mouth ammunition. Half way through engulfing that first slice and the competition has already begun. A line is drawn in the sand and we all take turns seeing who can spit their seed the furthest. Few other foods, let alone fruits, are able to provide this mixture of refreshment and entertainment to a child, and you don’t even have to eat the crusts! This idealistic summer snack became a summer staple, and summers were nearly measured by how many watermelons I ate each year. This courtship has developed a marriage between the fruit and the season to the point that eating a watermelon takes me back to summer, and there are few better snacks to choose during the hot months than a juicy watermelon.

As I grew up this marriage carried on and pervaded other aspects of my life, I began seeing the watermelon as a model organism with which to study my own life. This became most prevalent during my adolescent years. The Japanese have mastered a technique of shaping watermelons to suit their shipping needs by growing them in glass boxes. The watermelon grows in every direction until it reaches resistance and stops. I’m certain that I’m not the only person who tried to fit in early on in high school, growing into the confines defined by people other than myself. Teens have the option of trying to fight against the resistance of peer pressure, or they can simply grow into a shape that their peers feel is acceptable. Like most kids my age I resembled the watermelon and avoided resistance, unknowingly growing into a box that wasn’t of my choosing. It was difficult to break out of the square I had grown into, but fortunately I found an effective tool to help me in this.

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Alcohol is a dangerous tool in that the tool can begin to control the operator, but fortunately I was able to wield it effectively and it became the hammer with which I broke down my box. Just as adding a mickey of vodka to a watermelon brings out some of the best attributes of the watermelon; my identity was not shaped by drinking but rather accentuated through it. The watermelon is unique among fruits. It is 92% water by weight, and because of this it is able to exchange a lot of that water for alcohol. There is still a limit to how much it can absorb before saturating and overflowing though. It did take some trial and error to find my maximum, and I “overflowed” more than once while experimenting. Oddly enough, both the average store bought watermelon and I can consume roughly a mickey of alcohol before over saturation. This experimentation awoke a new side of me though; life was full of experiences to be had, provided you were willing and courageous enough to pursue them.

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Many of these experimental experiences involved drugs, but not all did. One common thread they each shared though was that it risked your future in one sense or another. Jumping off a bridge with an elastic rope around your ankles is a much more obvious example of this trade off than the transcendental consciousness attained from marijuana or mushrooms. These do come with a price though, as marijuana has been shown to slow sperm down. This has rarely been a concern for me, and in my younger years it even seemed to be a benefit. The trade off between enjoyment now and fertility later seemed a no brainer. Once again I found watermelon mirroring my own life. Not every child had seed spitting contests, so scientists found a way to make seedless watermelons. Just like I was doing with my risky experiences, the watermelon was becoming more enjoyable at the expense of its future fertility. The watermelon was overachieving when compared to myself since I still had “seeds”, but they were just less mobile than before. I did enjoy seedless watermelons for a time in my life, but I found that while eating the seedless variety I lost that nostalgia for summer that watermelons used to bring me.

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This loss of nostalgia coincided with the next step in my maturation and development; introspection and analysis. Being where I was now as an individual, I was able to look back and see the folly in my early decisions. All that time wasted trying to be someone I wasn’t just to fit in with people who most likely would have enjoyed me anyways. How often did this happen in other aspects of our world? Change for the sake of change, wearing the mask of progress. Those seedless melons exemplified this better than most, what was wrong with the original watermelons that we felt they should change? We should have instead been embracing their uniqueness. The watermelon belongs to the family Cucurbitaceae, consisting of plants like cucumbers, squash, and pumpkins to name a few. Watermelon is one of very few in this family to be sweet enough that we eat it off the vine and consider it a fruit. The melon has been comfortable with being different from the other members in its family; it still shares defining characteristics but is the odd one out. We should all use this example in our lives. Rather than trying to be like the other individuals in our family, we should be proud to be the odd one out. It makes us sweet.

Pollan, M. The Botany of Desire. 2002 Brandon House. p.113-179.

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By far my favourite excerpt from this week’s reading was when Pollan pulled the curtain back on witches and shone a light on them that made much more sense to me than what propaganda has turned them into. Seen as female transcendentalists, using their cauldron’s as an apothecary rather than a stew pot, in canting enchanting poems to meditate on, and taking their broom on journeys to mysterious places, these women weren’t the archetype we assign them now, and the only thing they likely threatened is the livelihood of the church. Rather than have these “Pagan” women continue to experience other worldly visions and come back not telling of the one god, but of how there is a life force in everything, the church vilified them using their power to claim their celebrations and damning their traditions.

I feel that this concept can be carried over to discuss the entire chapter on Marijuana. The church has been replaced (or renamed) by America, but the threat is still viewing the world with a wider scope. This is a threat to the capitalism that America is built on since casual drug users are able to find bliss in some of the simplest things. While some call it apathy and lethargy, I believe that once you see how beautiful life could be it becomes more and more difficult to line up with everyone else to join the rat race and forever chase that dangling carrot of success. They want you to delay your joy, instead work hard now and you may be one of the fortunate few who is able to reap the benefits of it before your body begins to break down. So once the prohibition ended the propaganda machine began to turn its gaze to marijuana. A naturally occurring drug with no physiological addictive properties, no cases of death by overdose, and a proven track record of being medicinally effective. Forced underground and now the leading reason for arrest in the United States, it was once the pioneer of organic. Tracing it back even further, it likely influenced countless mystic’s visions, Shamanic insights, and was the muse for indelible music. Once you see how many lives the wizard in the emerald tower has touched, it becomes very difficult to imagine what the world would look like without this now demonized drug.

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While my own admiration for what this plant can do is quite apparent, I do fully realize that it isn’t for everyone. Certain psyches are susceptible to paranoia, and other people simply don’t enjoy the feeling of being untethered from reality. You will rarely hear a stoner damn sober people for their life decisions, but ask that same person if they’ve ever felt the scorn of someone who didn’t approve of the opposite side of that same coin. Just as the church preaches acceptance, but condemns any followers of other religions, the sober like to attack those who choose to enjoy a substance that has shown no ill effects aside from some lung damage and a more than average mellow demeanor. In this way I see marijuana as the Buddhism or drugs. Accepting of all other choices, but willing to enlighten if you give it the chance. Upon realizing that the physiological output of a high resembles that of deep meditation, the link between the two becomes more apparent.

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Maybe it wasn’t his intent, but while reading Pollan’s chapter I grew a deeper appreciation for weed. Stripped of the negative connotations, and viewed as a tool for experiencing the world in a novel way it can be seen for what it is, and not what it has been made out to be. I intended on writing this while high to see exactly what would come of it, but I ran out while reading the chapter. Instead I went on a rant about all of the negative images that spring to mind when thinking of weed, and how unjustified most of them are. Yes, it can make some people dull and fat from munchies, but alcohol is legal and seldom frowned upon and in my opinion is more often abused than marijuana is. If comparing it to alcohol is too damaging to your sensibilities, compare it to the other drugs on the DEA’s list of controlled substances and ask yourself if it truly belongs there:

 

Schedule I Controlled Substances

Substances in this schedule have a high potential for abuse, have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

Some examples of substances listed in schedule I are: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), peyote, methaqualone, and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“ecstasy”).

Schedule II Controlled Substances

Substances in this schedule have a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

Examples of single entity schedule II narcotics include morphine and opium. Other schedule II narcotic substances and their common name brand products include: hydromorphone (Dilaudid®), methadone (Dolophine®), meperidine (Demerol®), oxycodone (OxyContin®), and fentanyl (Sublimaze® or Duragesic®).

Examples of schedule II stimulants include: amphetamine (Dexedrine®, Adderall®), methamphetamine (Desoxyn®), and methylphenidate (Ritalin®). Other schedule II substances include: cocaine, amobarbital, glutethimide, and pentobarbital.

Schedule III Controlled Substances

Substances in this schedule have a potential for abuse less than substances in schedules I or II and abuse may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence.

Examples of schedule III narcotics include combination products containing less than 15 milligrams of hydrocodone per dosage unit (Vicodin®) and products containing not more than 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage unit (Tylenol with codeine®). Also included are buprenorphine products (Suboxone® and Subutex®) used to treat opioid addiction.
Examples of schedule III non-narcotics include benzphetamine (Didrex®), phendimetrazine, ketamine, and anabolic steroids such as oxandrolone (Oxandrin®).

Schedule IV Controlled Substances

Substances in this schedule have a low potential for abuse relative to substances in schedule III.

An example of a schedule IV narcotic is propoxyphene (Darvon® and Darvocet-N 100®).

Other schedule IV substances include: alprazolam (Xanax®), clonazepam (Klonopin®), clorazepate (Tranxene®), diazepam (Valium®), lorazepam (Ativan®), midazolam (Versed®), temazepam (Restoril®), and triazolam (Halcion®).

Schedule V Controlled Substances

Substances in this schedule have a low potential for abuse relative to substances listed in schedule IV and consist primarily of preparations containing limited quantities of certain narcotics. These are generally used for antitussive, antidiarrheal, and analgesic purposes.

Examples include cough preparations containing not more than 200 milligrams of codeine per 100 milliliters or per 100 grams (Robitussin AC® and Phenergan with Codeine®).

 

And here is what classifies something as Schedule 1:

NOTE: Drugs listed in schedule I have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States and, therefore, may not be prescribed, administered, or dispensed for medical use. In contrast, drugs listed in schedules II-V have some accepted medical use and may be prescribed, administered, or dispensed for medical use.

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Nabhan, G.P. 1990. Gathering the desert. Univ. of Arizona Press.  209 pp.

While reading about the multitude of native knowledge in terms of the curative properties of creosote, my mind continually circled around the same proverbial drain: How many of these remedies would modern science discover, and how many other miracle plants out there have been forgotten as the shamans of their culture were slaughtered without a second thought? Let’s be clear that I’m not singling out European settlement as the only killers of such knowledge. Throughout history cultures were overthrown and slaughtered, rarely did the more intelligent cultures prevail in the stone throwing contest these early wars would have resembled. Just how much of this valuable knowledge has already been lost to us? Information that would have been trivial to the individuals in the know. More importantly though, is the question of how much knowledge could we still glean if we simply start asking the right questions to the right people? This has been a heavy topic in my consciousness since Wade Davis visited our campus last year for a talk. He has taken on this responsibility of documenting rare, isolated cultures and their knowledge of the local plants before the culture becomes westernized and lost, or bull dozed altogether. My respect for this life calling is immeasurable. Most modern researchers would tell you that science is the pursuit of knowledge, but in today’s world of grants and publishing it has taken on a new tone; the pursuit of new knowledge. If scientists were willing to put their ego aside and simply amass as much knowledge as possible, regardless of where it comes from or how rigorously it has been tested, then I truly believe the world would be better for it. I’m not saying that we should start prescribing ancient remedies, but we should document them and test them scientifically to see if there is validity in it or if it is just the placebo effect. You never know where we may find the next creosote plant.

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I’m not certain where to start when reflecting on the opening chapter of The Botany of Desire, maybe that is in itself a reflection of Pollan’s writing style throughout it. He led us to believe that we would be looking into apples, and how they represent sweetness in our culture, but he ended up telling the story of how apples populated North America and eventually became monoculture clones of a very few breeds. The story was entertaining, but seemed unnecessary due to the fact that I couldn’t care less if John Chapman was planting his tart apple seeds for applejack, and taking child wives while he did it. I’ve never been naive enough to believe that the first people to emigrate from Europe to the New World were the cream of the crop. It was all of the throw aways that Europe no longer had use for. Not to say they weren’t industrious and integral to how we live today, but how they chose to live outside of building a future in the New World that we now enjoy seems completely irrelevant. I understand why Pollan did it, he researched Chapman in great detail and had to sit through some seemingly very painful excursions with enthusiasts. It would be all in vain had he not put it to print. 

What I found much more interesting is the plight apples will have to overcome in the future. Being all grafted clones from a select few trees, they are now in real danger of losing the Red Queen struggle. Without sex shuffling genes, apples have become extremely vulnerable to pests and viruses. That is why they are among the top crops for pesticide use. To combat this, “gene libraries” of wild species are being cared for in hopes that they can cross pollinate, provide resistance, but not lose the appeal the apple had before. Whether or not this is possible remains to be seen, but it is reassuring knowing there are people out there doing the good work.

Pollan, M. 2006 The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Books p. 15-119

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Ok, maybe Pollan’s book hasn’t put me off food to the extend that Soylent Green would have, but the questions he investigates felt just as eye opening. He starts at the corn farm, giving the reader the experience of how tough it would be to be stuck under the weight of corn production in America. You’re essentially given two options as a corn grower; grow old school, organic corn and be happy with lower yields but a higher price per bushel, or mass produce hybrids chosen for their ability to produce mass amounts of energy from the nutrients provided in the soil. The problem with the latter is that through a series of events that makes the Emperor’s rise to power in Star Wars seem simple, corn prices have dropped, but the government subsidizes the difference so that corn farmers feel the only way to get out of their debt is to grow more corn. To do this, farmers can’t rely on old methods of alternating fields with corn and legumes to prevent nutrient depletion from the soil, so they turn to petroleum based fertilizers to add the nitrogen to the soil necessary for the corn to produce. To imagine that each time you eat some corn you are actually eating biomodified crude oil may be disturbing enough for you to start growing your own food, but it gets much worse.

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All of this cheap corn being produced by farmers to get themselves out of debt (?) is way more than the human population could consume even if our entire diet was corn (it’s surprisingly close though). This surplus biomass needs to be eaten by something, and as a general rule people hate feeding microbes. One “clever” solution is to feed this corn to animals we farm! Corn does such a great job of converting that fossil fuel into bioenergy that it can’t help but pass this energy on to animals that eat it. Cows in particular are able to grow to slaughter weight nearly four times faster on a corn diet than they would eating their traditional grasses. There are two obstacles to this solution though, the acidity in the corn turns the normally pH neutral rumen of the cow into an acidic soup that eats stomach lining and leads to sepsis and liver infections. This isn’t good for cows, so we found a pharmaceutical that keeps the rumen pH neutral and pump that into our feed lot cows to prevent them prematurely dying from liver infections. The other problem is that cows obviously haven’t evolved to eat corn, and this diet produces more gases than grass would. This leads to bloating and discomfort in the cow, so we found another pharmaceutical to pump into them to avoid this.

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Even with these added costs (more than simply economic), this method still produces slaughter cows faster than any other way, with the added benefit that the intramuscular fat the corn endows the cow with creates the popular “marbling” in steak. That was enough to get me to question eating McDonald’s again, but Pollan isn’t through with pulling us down this terrifying rabbit hole. Because we now have to pump these cows with chemicals to keep them “healthy” enough to make weight, their excrement is no longer considered safe to use as fertilizer. Not only does this lead to feed lots literally built on toxic waste, but it further solidifies corn’s dependence on petroleum to provide nutrients. Do yourself a favour and don’t ask what happens to this toxic, chemically altered cow poo if it rains and washes into a river. Instead just be content with the discomfort these feed lot pictures provide:

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So, well done mankind, right? We managed to help corn farmers out by giving them an outlet for the surplus corn they are forced to produce, and as an added benefit we get cheap, marbled beef. Except that there is still a whole lot of corn left to use. This goes to various mills and factories to be fractionated into various sugars and other corn products. These are literally everywhere, but I’ll save you the horror of that chapter and point you to Pollan’s book. He told it better than I would anyways. The question I’d like to address is “Now what?” This has been happening for years, and as a result these companies producing both corn products and the oil that feeds the corn have become very, very wealthy. To overcome the inertia involved with stopping this steam roller is borderline inconceivable. Google corn products, then imagine what it would mean to cut them all out of your daily diet. Now imagine trying to convince ten other people who eat McDonald’s at least once a week. How successful were you in your imagination? That’s your own imagination, you should be omnipotent, but even then convincing ten of your friends to cut all of these products out of their life seems unlikely. This perverse oil to corn to nearly every food imaginable cycle has almost reached juggernaut status, so then you have to ask yourself what you are comfortable with. You can take the noble route and convert yourself simply for your own body’s sake. Leave everyone else to come to their own conclusion and be happy that you may outlive them all. Or you’ll be so happy with your new beach body that you overexpose yourself and succumb to skin cancer. Conversely, you can try to forget all of this bastardization of food and force down that Big Mac, but I sincerely doubt it will ever taste as good as you remembered. That is the other concept that Pollan only quickly touches on, that McDonald’s isn’t actually selling comfort food, but rather a comfort memory of your childhood. This works because McDonald’s has long since realized that targeting children as the prime demographic is marketing genius. They may not be able to buy the food for themselves, but that only means that you also sell to their parents if you manage to make your marketing strong enough that the child incessantly begs for it until the parent buckles. Selling child portions that come with a free toy, providing video games in the restaurant, and hosting kids birthdays did a good job of accomplishing that. Once they manage to marry their product with positive childhood memories, they have you for life. Or at least enough of it so that they can add another zero to how many burgers they’ve sold. In defense of the McMonster, they have done a lot in recent years to build locations to suit adults more than children. I see many more McCafe’s than I do Play Centers, and that wasn’t always the case. A quick look at the population demographics is enough to realize why this is a simple ruse. By catering to adults now, they are catering to those exact children who grew up with talking garbage cans, video games, Mc Birthdays with Ronald McDonald cartoons and toys in their Happy Meals. These are the children of the baby boomers, with the tail end of the baby boom included in that. Now they can rely on the adult to take the kid so that the child can relive some of the glory days that the parent had there. The results are less than positive.

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I can’t tell you what the best choice for the future is, I’m not even sure what to tell myself. I hope that I’m now informed enough to at the very least limit the corn products I consume, if not for the knowledge of the depravity of its production then for the simple fact that it is unappetizing. I’m sure to see my body respond in positive ways to being properly fueled, and I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that people better than me will one day find themselves in a seat of power and cut the legs off of the behemoth that is the American corn commodity. I wish you all the best with your decision.