"A book of verses, underneath the bough,
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread -- and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness --
Ah, wilderness were paradise enow!"

-- Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald

Sunday, August 26, 2012

This Woman's Work

I love this essay by Mary Rechner, "Why I Hate Food -- A Polemic."  Rechner's point is that "foodie-ness," home vegetable gardening, and related activies like urban homesteading divert people -- particularly women, and more particularly women artists -- from potentially more significant work.  Good food is good, she's clear, but obsession with it is "decadent and boring," a new way for women to deny themselves Woolf's "Room of One's Own" -- literal or mental space for important work.  Challenge the status quo, don't feed it.

Gardening and cooking are wonderful hobbies, but they are also not "the answer" from an environmental standpoint.  Knowing this has recently influenced my thinking about my own career.

In my day job, I'm an environmental scientist: regulating drinking water wells and septic systems, protecting groundwater, and getting places cleaned up that were contaminated by past practices.  My jurisdiction, about 600 square miles, is half suburban and half rural.  I work in the suburban part; I commute from the rural part where I live.

I'm in the Corn Belt.  A big part of my job is trying to fix the environmental impacts of farming.  The fertilizers and weedkillers used on corn (and other "high input" row crops like potatoes) get into the groundwater that is our drinking water supply and into the Mississippi River, whence they cause the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Regarding farming and food, many well-intentioned and educated people have been seduced by what I call "Twelve Perfect Heirloom Tomatoes," the belief that the single, simple answer for both personal nutrition and the quandaries of modern agriculture begins and ends with "fresh, local, organic" produce.  I love that stuff, too.  I grow some of my own vegetables; the tomatoes I eat are either my own or locally grown.  However, annually growing twelve perfect heirloom tomatoes, or twelve dozen for that matter, is neither a food supply nor a household livelihood.  If I only ate seasonal produce here in Minnesota, half the year I would have nothing and for several additional months I would eat only dandelion greens.  Growing organic produce for local markets can be a profitable livelihood but it's more challenging than it might appear and its applicability for feeding the world is questionable.

The relationship between food production and the environment is a technical, economic, and political web.  Sustainability, if it is to be achieved, will come from a shrewd mix of technical, economic, and political strategies.  The low-tech, intensive labor to produce those twelve perfect heirloom tomatoes might be part of that mix, but that labor might also divert attention, resources, and creative energy away from realistic, large-scale problem-solving.

I've recently had the opportunity to think about early retirement.  I could stay home and work in that garden, write, and explore arts like bookbinding, which which I've recently become fascinated.  Rechner  is particularly concerned about women's under-representation in the highest levels of artistic achievement, but truthfully I suspect my artistic talent tends to be deep but rather narrow.

Many days, my day job kind of sucks.  I'm a medium-sized fish in a medium-sized pond.  I spend a lot of time and energy on bureaucratic nonsense in order to get my staff and myself the time and resources to do what we're trying to do.  The internal and external politics are complex and often stupid.  Support from my administration is lukewarm at best.

And yet, I will stay.  Getting up in the morning (always running late) and going to that particular office offers me my best shot at making the world a better place, to heal a larger world than I can by producing twelve perfect heirloom tomatoes or even a perfect haiku in a precious chapbook.  I'm working on several state-level groups to create and enact new strategies for protecting groundwater from agricultural impacts.  My office has had recent successes in cleaning up some especially large, recalcitrant contaminated properties.  I feel I'm the person (at least from the available pool of candidates) to keep the people I manage both funded and working in effective directions.  

On my own time, I'll continue to garden, write, and take on new arts and new crafts.  If I get fired for taking on one fight too many or too big, I can always refocus on the smaller world.  In the meantime, "America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel" -- to the grindstone, not the plow.  

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A small medium: 1 X 17 X 285

A small medium:
large ideas at times,
rarely complex ones.

In the spring of 2010, we took a hiking trip in the Grand Canyon.  The trails required us to concentrate on our footing, but at the same time we were always mindful of the beauty that surrounded us.  After the trip, I wanted to apply that experience to my daily routines -- to focus on what was in front of me, but be aware of what was around me.  I am fortunate to live somewhere that is often lovely and always interesting; I wanted to keep myself aware of the loveliness, the entertainment, and the good fortune.

During the same period, I was adjusting to a large tangle of responsibilities I had been handed at work.  (In that sentence, I thought "responsibilities," but first typed "personalities."  Well, yes.)  My mind was often racing, often somewhat incoherently, from topic to topic and problem to problem.

I learned some meditation practices.  I could never quite "not think," as is the goal of meditation, but I learned to better manage the frustration and anger that kept me thinking in circles.

In the course of this, I set myself a challenge of posting a haiku every day on Facebook;  I posted the first on August 10, 2010.  This was after decades of writer's block I went through after college -- I wrote extensively for work, but I could never get past a few pages in my personal writing.

In this challenge, I fail, but I'm learning not to get stuck by my constant small failures.  I do average several a week.  I have rules for myself, although they're not the rules the haiku purists prescribe (of which I'm skeptical for anyone not writing in Japanese).  Write from personal experience; focus on a single image or idea until I can express it in the 5-7-5 format; let it go: post it once it fits the format, even if I don't love it.  (Occasionally I do rewrite verse later.)

I've been deeply grateful for the encouragement people have given me.  Without it, I would have stopped.  (Maybe it's shallow to be like Tinkerbelle and require applause to go on, but there it is.)  I know my verse are sometimes not very good, but other times they are.

Thank you for your kindness.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Queen of Entropy

Today I reign as
Queen of Entropy; where next
to aim my powers?