Until reading Gene Logsdon’s “The Economy of Eden” January 1996], I had no idea I was an “effete” gardener, a “horticultural dabbler.” Silly me, I thought planting flowers was a harmless pleasure that benefited the birds and insects and brought joy to myself and others. Somehow I had it in my head that food for the spirit was as important (or nearly so) as food for the stomach. I also had no idea I was responsible for laws that prohibit vegetable plots in suburban front yards. I didn’t even know such laws existed. I sure am a terrible person. And you know what else? I naively believed one could present one’s viewpoint without putting down those who didn’t share it. It’s amazing what you learn if you live long enough, isn’t it?
If it seems I missed the point of the article, I really didn’t, but all the hostile name-calling almost prevented me from finishing it.
While I agree absolutely with Gene Logsdon’s explanation of the benefits of a garden economy versus an animal-factory economy, I remain sickened by the persistent belief that all of Earth’s creatures willingly offer themselves for human consumption, as evidenced by Logsdon’s comment on his hens’ “final contribution to the economy: heavenly coq au vin.”
It is disheartening that even the more enlightened among us can ignore the fundamental abuse inherent in a society in which human bodies function as animal grave sites, thus providing continued income for the pushers of animal products (be they factory or garden farmers), as well as for the American Medical Association, whose members will gladly scrape our arteries again and again, at exorbitant cost.
Gene Logsdon responds:
Tonia Williams makes a good point, and in many cases those flowers are excellent in salads or fried in batter.
To Tamar Perla, maybe I should just let the hawks, horned owls, foxes, and other wild animals eat my old hens.
David Romtvedt’s poem “Autonomy” [January 1996] was just what my family needed. My granddaughter recently turned three and is still saying no — something we were expecting her to leave behind with the “terrible twos.” The poem helped us see the value and beauty in her assertive will, although it is disconcerting at time. A copy of the poem is posted on my daughter’s refrigerator.
Ralph Metzner’s “The True, Original First World” [December 1995] is garbage. He says the Lacandones “are not in any real sense ‘underdeveloped.’ ” Yes they are. I am made infinitely richer and more complex for having heard Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony, a work none of them can truly perceive, much less begin to compose. His is the theory of the noble savage in modern dress, a theory that has been recognized as fallacious for well over a century. Can we learn from native tribes? Of course. Are they the shining ideal of human development? Absolutely not.
I agree completely with Ralph Metzner that the remaining indigenous cultures of the world have preserved a knowledge that we have lost, one that is essential for us to regain if we desire a future. I am confident that most of The Sun’s readers sympathize with the Lacandones’ struggle to survive in a shrinking world.
What perplexes me, however, is the fact that, although we can admire the Lacandones’ sustainable way of life, none of us is willing to live the way they do. Who among us is willing to live a life that does not require petrochemicals or money?
This is the central issue that must be addressed by all who profess to care about the planet: how can we move beyond giving intellectual lip service to sustainability, toward a real, practical, sustainable way of life — one that we will still find attractive and satisfying? Until living within the limits of nature becomes more desirable than using up the earth to make ourselves comfortable, no amount of preaching will help.
Ralph Metzner responds:
Like Ronald J. Seidle, I am enriched by having heard Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony, though, like the Lacandones, I must be underdeveloped, in that I couldn’t begin to compose it. Seidle doesn’t say just how he knows “none of them can truly perceive” this work; I don’t believe anyone ever played it for them. (Christian missionaries found many American Indians quite receptive to Western music and art, in some cases becoming adept performers or artists in Western styles.) There are many features of the Lacandones’ environment and culture that I and other Westerners can’t begin to “truly perceive,” although the Lacandones are surely made “infinitely richer” by them.
My concept of “underdevelopment” is apparently quite different than Seidle’s: I argue, along with most economists in the “Third World,” that the concept of “development” is a smokescreen that enables the continuation of colonial exploitation under another name. In my brief visit with the Lacandones, I observed that they neither needed nor wanted most of the products that Western culture was offering them in the name of development (although they had taken up rifles for hunting, instead of bows and arrows). On the whole, the Western model of development has tended to impair and endanger their sustainable way of life, rather than enhancing it.
I don’t consider the Lacandones “noble savages” or “the shining ideal of human development.” Neither do I consider Western civilized humans as a group “noble,” particularly in view of the savage brutality practiced by advocates of the industrial enterprise in their relations with indigenous people, and with poor people in their own societies, as well. I’ve encountered noble individuals in all manner of cultures, as well as individuals filled with ethnocentric arrogance.
A more serious question is raised by Eric Farnsworth. Like the rest of us, I use petrochemicals and money, and I don’t believe we have to “live the way [the Lacandones] do,” specifically; their way of life is adapted to their unique ecological niche. Our way of life, however, is maladaptive not only for us but for the local and global environment, as well, thereby endangering the habitats and survival of countless species. I agree completely that learning to live “within the limits of nature” is the central challenge confronting us. The values and attitudes of indigenous peoples — not necessarily their specific cultural adaptations — can be immensely instructive, and even inspiring, to us as we lurch and stumble toward sustainability.
David Ehrenfeld’s “Forgetting” [December 1995] struck a chord with me. I’d just been reading Harvard biologist and ant expert Edward O. Wilson’s memoir Naturalist. Like Ehrenfeld, Wilson recognizes the value of taxonomy, which he calls “a craft and a body of knowledge that builds in the head of a biologist only through years of monkish labor. . . . [The taxonomist] knows that without the expert knowledge accumulated through his brand of specialized study, much of biological research would soon come to a halt.”
Ehrenfeld is right that the “ultimate reason why we forget important knowledge is the corruption and loss of our societal values.” We live in a society that values money, entertainment, and celebrity above all. “Monkish labor” to acquire and pass on important knowledge is applauded by no one — not politicians, educators, business people, or religious leaders. In this much-vaunted Information Age, we seem incapable of distinguishing between what is valuable information and what is not — or perhaps we refuse to make the distinction.
I’ve received three issues of The Sun so far and find myself deeply touched by many of the essays. Wynne Busby’s “Burying O’Ryan” [December 1995] literally brought me to tears. You see, the day before I read it, I had buried Molly, my fifteen-year-old golden Labrador, in my mother’s back yard. Busby’s essay helped me get through my grief.
Today, I’m grieving again. I just found out that my father has cancer. I’m hoping you can help me deal with this as well.
I enjoyed the responses, in your November Correspondence section, to John Taylor Gatto’s essay “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” [September 1995]. For me, as a teacher, Gatto’s radical views always prompt much thinking — and self-critique. I certainly agree with his identification of the basic educational problems. Over the years, Gatto’s essays have allowed me to understand why the system is what it is. I never felt comfortable with his solution of sabotaging the system. Yet, undeniably, his results were strong.
Then I saw it: Gatto is successful not because his students throw bottles into the ocean, or because they figure out how to win contests, or because he knows the history of American education. Gatto is successful because he loves his students in very real and tangible ways. He doesn’t separate his life from their lives. I realized this just in time to have a very special semester of teaching.
The Readers Write on “Keys” [January 1996] reminded me of an incident that occurred half a century ago.
My eighty-year-old mother was living alone in a Bronx apartment. One evening, on my way home from work, I dropped by to visit and found her waiting outside her door, looking very agitated.
“Hymie,” she said, “I broke the key in the lock, and I can’t get in.”
I succeeded in teasing the broken key out of the lock, and I used mine to open the door, much to her relief. On impulse, I saved the broken key. I have kept it all these years.
Now I am in my eighties. I occasionally look at that key, finger it, and let it encourage memories of a mother long gone. There is a comfort in its touch.