The scenes above are ones I could scarcely have imagined when I moved down here in the pre-Trump era.  Ostensibly to oppose Charlottesville’s plan to move the Robert E. Lee statue, located in the newly-named Emancipation Park, to a different site, a large and motley collection of “Alt-Right” partisans arrived on August 11th to make their intimidating presence known on the University of Virginia campus, and then to engage in large-scale thuggery the following day, along with running street battles with local counter-protesters.  In an act of domestic terrorism, one of their number deliberately drove his car into the crowd of counter-protestors, injuring many and killing Heather Heyer, age 32, whose courage and life was celebrated at a memorial service at the Paramount Theater the following week.  A truly tragic and ominous day.

Click here for an impressive video, Charlottesville: Race and Terror,  of that fateful day (not sure how long this link will work, but try…)

While the issue of the Robert E. Lee statue became obscured in the following outrage over President Trump’s reluctance to address this display of racial superiority and violence, and was mainly a pretext for a public display of racism and violence, I do feel that the issue of what to do with the monuments to the Confederacy remains an important one.  For me, the Mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, has laid out the case for change very powerfully in the speech linked below:

click here for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s moving and impassioned speech


censored-russia      putin

Whodathunk?  Imagine: my blog blocked in Russia!  143.5 million Russians won’t know what’s going on in my little corner of Nelson County!

This Breaking News insight comes from an interesting article in today’s New York Times, The Future of Internet Freedom, by Eric E. Schmidt and Jared Cohen, about government censorship of the internet and, more hopefully, the evolution of technologies and practices that can enable users to undermine and get around this censorship.  At one point the authors note that all WordPress blogs have been blocked at times by the Russian government.  Since my blog is a WordPress blog, that means me and Nelson County Rocks!  What a dastardly deed!

Seriously, another article in today’s Times points to what I fear may be an even greater threat, offering internet users fewer opportunities to resist.  In “As the Web Turns 25, Its Creator Talks About Its Future,” Tim Berners-Lee talks about the increasing corporate takeover of the internet and the increasing violations of the principle of net neutrality. Something that threatens us all.

As a longtime Sierra Club member, I was both dumbfounded and appalled by the cover story of the July/August issue: “Thoreau Was Wrong: On The Trail It’s Speed That Inspires.”  The article, it turned out, never mentioned Thoreau and was not nearly as bad as the cover suggested, even if I fail to share the author’s enthusiasm for running barefoot on mountain trails.

But the sheer pretentiousness, stupidity and outrageousness of the magazine cover was highlighted by the fact that about the same time I came across the following quote by none other than the founder and first President of the Sierra Club, John Muir: “‘Hiking’ is a vile word.  You should saunter through the Sierra.”  So did the Sierra magazine editors consider Thoreau a safe stand-in for John Muir?

Muir notwithstanding, I do use the term “hiking,” but I’m increasingly shifting to “sauntering,” both as a literary choice and as an outdoor practice.  Here in the Blue Ridge we do have extraordinary vistas, but so much of the beauty and fascination of this place is found at the micro level, often right at foot level.  “Sauntering” captures a mode of this type of discovery.

So saunterers of the world: Unite and throw off the chains of speed and faddishness!

Note: The Muir quote is from Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (Little Brown, 1981), p. 120.

Recently I stepped on a metal rake I had stupidly left lying pointing up on the ground, and the laws of physics produced an egg-sized protrusion on my forehead, which thankfully went down with icing and is only barely noticeable now.  Our friend Phil Welker (a former English teacher) then sent me the following Robert Frost poem, made doubly meaningful by the fact that my family spent many summers in Ripton, Vermont, only a short distance down the road from Homer Noble Farm, Frost’s summer residence.

The Objection to Being Stepped Upon

At the end of the row
I stepped upon the toe
Of an unemployed hoe.
It rose in offense
And struck me a blow
In the seat of my sense.
It wasn’t to blame
But I called it a name.
And I must say it dealt
Me a blow that I felt
Like Malice prepense.
You may call me a fool,
But was there a rule
The weapon should be
Turned into a tool?
And what do we see?
The first tool I stepped
Turned into a weapon.

Given the tragic and scary news coming out of Japan these days, I can’t help wondering about a similar irony and possible lesson.

Witnessed on the day President Obama signed into law a bill
expanding health care coverage and outlawing such industry
practices as denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions

No author has informed and influenced me more in recent years than Michael Pollan.  As I became interested in gardening, his Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education captured the tension (also, as Pollan says, a false dichotomy) between nature and culture that is inherent in the enterprise and bedevils every gardener.  His Botany of Desire provided, as its subtitle states, “A Plant’s-Eye View of the World,”  both putting claims of  “domestication” in perspective and showing how dangerously problematic the collaboration of corporate and plant species interest can become.  Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma then integrated these themes into a broader canvass that included a devastating critique of industrial agriculture and a lament for the loss of a coherent food culture in the U.S.  And most recently, Pollan critiques the faddish and corporate-influenced nutrition industry in his In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, which also includes a vigorous defense of the pleasures of cooking and good eating.  I’ve learned much from each of these highly readable books, and recommend them to all.

In the past month or so,  Pollan has published two pieces in the New York Times that are perhaps less likely to have caught the eye of readers of this blog: hence this post.  The first, Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch, is a fascinating analysis of how it has come about that Americans as a whole spend more time watching cooking shows than actually cooking, something that only a decreasing minority actually engages in.  This has meant that corporations do the cooking for America, with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, food poisoning, environmental destruction, global warming, and a variety of other ills as the consequence.  Pollan ends with a claim that cooking matters hugely, and that it can be a fulfilling activity, not the “drudgery” that food industry advertising has claimed to liberate people from.

More recently, on the day after President Obama’s speech to Congress in support of health care reform, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Pollan entitled Big Food vs. Big Insurance.  Pollan argues that the “elephant in the room” of the health care debate is the American way of eating, which is very likely the single most important cause of both the cost of health care in the U.S. and the dismal health status of Americans.  He also argues that any health care reform that eliminates the ability of insurance companies to discriminate against people with “pre-exisiting conditions,” to drop subscribers at will, and to charge different rates, will set in motion a new dynamic in industry and politics–one that will for the first time pit a new interest of the insurance industry in addressing issues of diet against a government-subsidized food industry that promotes a kind of eating that makes people sick.  Who will win in such a conflict may be uncertain, but Pollan certainly succeeds in placing the health care debate in a broader context of both food and politics.   You can read both pieces  by following the hyperlinks above.  Also recommended for those interested in food policy is Pollan’s letter to the future “Farmer in Chief” last fall (2008).

FoodInc_movie_poster-large fresh_poster_sm

The desire to escape as much as possible from the industrial food system and to participate in an alternative food culture was central to our retirement vision, and so it has been particularly gratifying to see two excellent films appear that both critique the system and explore alternatives:  Food Inc and Fresh.  Both film websites provide trailers and other resources, including book lists.

With author Michael Pollan and sustainable farmer Joel Salatin as maj0r figures in both movies, it is not surprising that they overlap a fair amount.  Still, the feel and the details are quite different.  Food Inc is more of a critique of the industrial food system and its truly devastating consequences, while Fresh tilts more towards documenting promising changes that point towards an alternative.  Overall they reinforce and complement each other nicely and Monika and I recommend all readers of this blog to see both!

Our only real complaint is that while both films make clear that it is public policy that subsidizes and creates the distortions of  industrial agriculture, both films end with a message of individualized consumer choice: vote with your food dollars for healthy and sustainable alternatives.  This is certainly good advice, but it ducks the difficult issue of policy reform, without which systemic change is unlikely.  It also sidesteps the contradictions of praising a company like Wal-Mart for stocking organic yogurt while ignoring the degree to which Wal-Mart is the antithesis of other values of the alternative food movement, such as local production and decent labor relations.

Still, it’s nice to see that food activists are finally getting a hearing, and to see evidence of change even here in Nelson County, where there is now not just one, but three weekly farmers markets and a broad array of organic and sustainable farms.  And it’s nice to have our property butt up against a pasture for grass-fed and free-range cattle!