Saturday, September 22, 2007

Gary Holthaus Speaks on Sustainable Farming -- and Sustainable Life

Last night at the Northfield Arts Guild I heard Gary Holthaus read to a full house from his recent book, From the Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know about Agriculture, and talk about sustainability. I hadn't read much about him beforehand, and expected the talk to take a mostly narrative and informative tone. Had I done my homework, I would have known to expect quite a bit more: poetry and metaphor and the soft-spoken rage of a wise man of mature age.

The first chapter of his book, which he read aloud, says the ancients got it exactly right when they spoke of the four essential elements: earth (healthy soil), air, fire (sun), and water. All of these elements are essential for sustainable life on earth. "As any farmer knows, everything depends on them," he read. (We have, of course, sadly depleted and/or polluted three of the four.)

He went on after the reading to take questions and to discuss specifics like the nutritional and anti-erosional benefits of rotational grazing, and the practice of "agri-dumping" our government-subsidized corn and beans and cotton into other economies, while American multinationals peddle costly genetically modified seed, bringing prices down and costs up and putting thousands of small-scale local farmers out of business. In India, suicides by cotton farmers are epidemic, as a member of the audience pointed out.

In my additional research this morning, I learned that Holthaus is also the author recently of The Unauthorized Bible: Selected Readings by Gary Holthaus (The Boston Wesleyan Press, 2003). Here are excerpts from a press release on this book:

Holthaus tells near to life stories of real people experiencing modern times in short, sweet prose that is lyrical, universal, and visionary. He speaks tenderly of the Earth and exploited creatures, as those living beings suffering at the hands of global slumlords. He speaks through the voices of Old Testament prophets, of Jesus, of Lao-Tzu, of a Northwest Coast tribal elder, and of other wisdom figures, and what he says through them expresses pure, righteous anger.

The Unauthorized Bible is a social, economic, political and environmental critique of America’s powers and principalities. And, at its heart and in every voice, it roars a spiritual, humane and godly outrage over what is happening to our Earthly ecosystem and to "the poor of the land" (essentially most of humankind).

If someone were to ask Holthaus "by what authority" he writes these things, he would likely say that the condition of the Earth and its peoples are all the warrant he needs to propose an unauthorized reading of the Bible: a gospel of justice, environmental sustainability, inclusiveness, and universalism.

The gift of this book is that it stirs the heart to outrage. It will bring tears to your eyes and fill you with indignation and fury. The Unauthorized Bible will stir a social controversy because it shows us the results or our dismal performance in time and space. Holthaus, as most poets and prophets must, does this without the usual authorizations.

Gary Holthaus received an Individual Fellowship for Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990. He has been a commercial fisherman in Alaska, a big-game guide in Montana, a wheat packer for Quaker Oats, a school teacher and worked "too long," he says, moving steel beams around for Iowa Steel and Iron Works.

The RC Blog has also reported on Holthaus's visit, and includes a podcast of the reading. The visit was sponsored by River City Books, the Arts Guild, and Just Food Co-op.

No comments: