Saturday, January 26, 2008

If Beethoven Was the Springsteen of His Time...

A college friend once said he'd tried to get some of his peers excited about classical music by pointing out that in his opinion Beethoven was the Bruce Springsteen of his time: a powerful new voice who built on existing forms and then transformed them to create a whole new sound. The analogy popped into my head this afternoon, and I posed the question to myself, in the format of those analogy questions on standardized tests: Beethoven is to Springsteen as Mozart is to ... whom?

Delighted by the concept, I jumped right in. My rules were to go with my initial impressions, not to think too deeply about it, and not to do any googling at all to see if anyone else had come up with similar analogies. My choices are naturally colored by the fact that I came of age in the 70s. Here's what I came up with:

Beethoven... Bruce Springsteen (power, whole new sound)
Mozart... The Beatles (genius of melody and harmony, prodigious output)
Palestrina... Simon & Garfunkel (pure sound, brilliant counterpoint)
Brahms... U2 (rich darkness, power, religious elements)
Telemann... The Eagles (tuneful, cheerful, not too complicated)
Vivaldi... The early Doobie Brothers (joyfully, drivingly rhythmic)

Anyone else want to expand the list for other composers and modern musical eras? Suggest alternatives? Take it in new directions? Dive right in!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Splendid Table's "Locavore Nation"

On the way back from driving the rest of my family to the airport early this frigid morning (-11 F. on one digital display we passed -- they were happily on their way to Disney World for a few days), I turned on MPR to find that The Splendid Table has a 6 a.m. airing on Sunday mornings. Not a fact I'd ever had occasion to learn before. Anyway, the show has launched a project called Locavore Nation: "A year-long effort to discover what it takes to obtain, prepare and eat a sustainable, regionally based diet." Something like 5000 listeners across the country have signed on for a challenge to eat mostly local, in-season, preferably organic food for 12 months; 15 of these will blog about it. Minneapolis blogger Sareen Dunleavy Keenan made me smile with her account of buying half a cow (organically raised and grass-fed) from friends in Illinois; the beef car-pooled the 460 miles to their home with a student heading for the U of M, making efficient use of food miles. (Hmmm, I should have the Florida-goers bring back some citrus for me.)

I want to clarify something I wrote in my last post, Extreme Eating, Glocavores, Luddites and More: "I don't think everyone should eat only foods produced within 100 miles of home; I think we should support important regional products that we value, whether they're from our own region or elsewhere." As I hope was reasonably clear, I've got no objection to anyone's deciding that they want to eat only foods produced within 100 miles of home. What I meant is that I don't accept that as a universal goal, to be urged upon everyone. Eat more locally? Yes, absolutely. Eat only locally? Certainly, if you want, but consider the potential negative repercussions of that decision as well as the positive ones. Strike a thoughtful balance, making food choices (or other choices with an environmental, economic or cultural impact) intentionally rather than purely out of habit? That's where I'm trying to be.

As Wendell Berry put it:
Eaters ... must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used. This is a simple way of describing a relationship that is inexpressibly complex. To eat responsibly is to understand and enact, so far as one can, this complex relationship.... Eating with the fullest pleasure -- pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance -- is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.
"The Pleasures of Eating" from WHAT ARE PEOPLE FOR? Copyright © 1990 by Wendell Berry.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Extreme Eating, Glocavores, Luddites and More

This week's Time features an in-your-face column by Joel Stein, called "Extreme Eating." He declares the local food movement out of control and goes shopping at Whole Foods for an anti-local meal:
To prove how wrong the farm-to-table movement is, I cooked a dinner purely of farm-to-airplane food. Nothing I made was grown within 3,000 miles of where I live in Los Angeles. And to completely give the finger to the locavores, I bought the entire meal in the local-food movement's most treasured supermarket, the one that has huge locally grown signs next to the fruits and vegetables: Whole Foods.
After describing a shopping list of Spanish almonds, Chilean sea bass, Greek olives, French brie, Scottish smoked salmon and more, he concludes:
My distavore meal was more a smorgasbord than a smart fusion of cultures, but I still ate the way only a very rich person could have dined just 15 years ago. The local-food movement is deeply Luddite, part of the green lobby that measures improvement by self-denial more than by actual impact—considering shipping food in containers is often more energy-efficient than a local farmer trucking small amounts that are then purchased on a separate weekend farmers'-market trip you take in your SUV. So I'm going to keep buying food from my foreign neighbors. Because it's the only way we Americans learn about other countries, other than by bombing them.
Somewhere else not too long ago, and it's not coming up in a web search so I can't link to it, I read a piece advocating for a "glocavore" stance as opposed to a "locavore" one. In addition to supporting our local farmers and contributing to their sustainable care of local land, the writer made the case, which I strongly join, that we also have an obligation to our global community. We're a wealthy nation. We do good by supporting sustainable ventures around the world that maintain valuable ways of life or crafts or foods, not just ensuring the health of our own economies.

I don't think everyone should eat only foods produced within 100 miles of home; I think we should support important regional products that we value, whether they're from our own region or elsewhere. I do think we should be thoughtful about our consumption when a food is well suited to our region but we are buying it from California or Chile or South Africa instead. For example, we grow beautiful winter squash here in Minnesota, which are by their very nature "good keepers," but the winter squash I've seen available in stores recently come from another part of the country. By asking for local produce of this type, we let farmers know there is a market for their goods and encourage them to produce more, rather than giving over more farmland to commodity monocultures like soybeans and corn.

A point Joel Stein made in his Time commentary is one that I've pondered. We have easy access to a variety of food that throughout most of human history only a very rich person, perhaps a monarch, could have eaten. We're extraordinarily fortunate to live in such a time -- to have out-of-season produce and a wealth of food choices available all year round and affordable, at least in modest quantities, to most people in developed nations.

Perhaps we shouldn't expect that to be the norm forever; quite arguably it is an aberration made possible only for a relatively modest window of time as a result of cheap oil. Some who feel most strongly about the importance of eating locally appear to be those who believe we are rapidly approaching a post-oil society. They believe the oil will be gone, or will be too expensive to use on transporting from coast to coast so many goods that can be produced much more locally, and that we're going to be in deep trouble quite quickly if we don't have strong local food networks in place.

I'm skeptical -- not of the view that oil will become scarcer and more costly (that's inevitable), but of the view that this will mean the end of much of that our consumer society takes for granted. I think the economic powers-that-be have far too much at stake to let that happen. I think the threat of such a change will be (is, in fact) incentive enough, finally, finally, finally, for alternative fuel sources and technologies to be developed to replace oil on a huge scale. Maybe in 20 years all those coast-to-coast trucks will be hydrogen-powered. Or solar powered. Or hybrid hydrogen-solar-electric powered.

If that happens, do the reasons to support local foods go away? No, I don't think so at all; there will always be important reasons to encourage people to care for their local soil and enable those who want to to make a living raising food in a sustainable way to do so. But reducing the carbon footprint of long-distance food transportation might make us a bit less guilty about enjoying the fact that we really do eat like kings. Let's just work to share that good fortune with all.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Not to Neglect the Lowly: Possum on Woodley St.

I was driving east on Woodley a little before 7:00 this morning, and saw an opossum scurrying compactly across the street -- quite near where I saw a fox do the same some months ago. I usually only see them dead on the highway, and that not often, so this was rather a treat (in a humble sort of way).

They're not viewed as lovely animals by most, but if you look at their faces rather than their tails, they do have a certain sweet charm. And they are North America's only marsupials, which is rather interesting and should garner them at least a little respect.

The Opossum Society of the United States advocates for greater understanding of these misunderstood beings, noting that increased development of formerly rural land infringes upon possum habitat and pushes them into greater contact with humans. Reasons to tolerate them include this nice little piece of advocacy from the OSUS:
Whether rural, residential or in the wilderness, opossums are a benefit to any area they inhabit. Their diet includes all types of bugs and insects including cockroaches, crickets and beetles. They love snails. They also eat mice and rats. The nocturnal opossum is attracted to our neighborhoods by the availability of water, pet food left out at night and overripe, rotting fruit that has fallen from trees. The opossum in turn helps keep our neighborhoods clean and free of unwanted, harmful garden pests and rodents, which may carry diseases. The opossum has earned the title of "Nature's Little Sanitation Engineer."
Remember that, next time you see one flattened on the highway, and mourn just a little.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Eagle Over St. Olaf

There was a magnificent bald eagle soaring directly over Highway 19 where it curves around the St. Olaf hill at around 1:00 today. I was coming back into town after a meeting in the cities, and drove right under the beautiful raptor, which had caught my attention from some distance back. It wasn't flying very high, and I was tempted to pull over for a better look (someone on the opposite side of the road had already done so), but I let the opportunity pass.