"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.  

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