***This blog may contain content that some readers may find disturbing. Reader’s discretion advised.***
Marine debris- noun. Human-created materials that end up in the ocean or Great Lakes intentionally or unintentionally.
Plastic. Contrary to what Aqua praises in her 1997 hit, it’s not fantastic.
It has become such a problem that National Geographic dedicated their June 2018 issue to the movement of #Planetorplastic, urging people to be more conscious of their plastic consumption and raising awareness of this indestructible material we’ve created in our throwaway culture. News reports consist of whales and other marine animals dying of suffocation or starvation after eating plastics bags. Or an account of a straw getting stuck in a turtle’s nostril. Or seals with plastic six-pack rings around their necks. Marine organisms are, unfortunately, the canary in the coal mine to our ocean’s health.
On the islands of Midway, dead albatrosses have been cut open to reveal the truth of our ocean’s dire state. Chris Jordan, a filmmaker, and his team led ALBATROSS, a documentary that focuses on the albatrosses of the Midway islands. I was aware of this project while it was in the making and its screening could not have come in a more timely manner that aligns with the marine debris crisis.
Oregon State University hosted a screening and though I walked in late, it didn’t take long for me to catch onto what was happening; I knew the all-too-familiar fate of animals who consume indigestible plastic particles. In addition to documenting the success of albatrosses that were able to continue their life at sea, the filmmakers capture final moments of albatrosses that weren’t able to continue their life journey beyond the islands. A man, who I presume to be Jordan himself, mourns and sheds tears for those who didn’t make it. He then shares what seems to be a silent prayer, asking the bird for permission to expose to the world what it’s done to it. Scissors are used to perform an autopsy of the avian. Among the bodily slime, shards and fragments of plastic ranging in all colors of the rainbow are picked out of its digestive tract. The genuine emotion that is shown for the birds on film evokes the possible feelings within the viewer: sadness, fear, anger, disgust, despair, or hope.
The solution seems so obvious; reduce waste, avoid single-use materials. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. And to whatever solutions that are out there, it’s not that simple. Recycling requires lots of energy and doesn’t necessarily compensate for the rate of which materials are being produced, not to mention that many parts of the world don’t have the infrastructure to host recycling facilities. Reusing jars to fill with bulk items can be costly for the consumer, who may not have the financial stability to engage in that lifestyle. Biodegradable plastics likely won’t decompose in a landfill given that the conditions aren’t right. Sure, each little step does make a difference but it’s also important to realize that the answer isn’t as easy as it seems.
For those who do want guidance on what they can do to help, I have some suggestions on my blog mentioned below. But I’m not here to preach what everyone must do to save the world because I think it’s condescending and unnecessary. I’m here to bring awareness to the topic, albeit on a slightly pessimistic level. My research will look at how marine debris is communicated over online communication platforms such as social media, websites, and blogs. There’s no doubt that the message is clear; marine debris is a global crisis and it’ll take a global effort to combat the problem. But what effect does an image have on someone’s decision to make conscious efforts or even care about the topic for that matter? There might not be a way to know and I think that will the hardest part to accept.
Over the course of the past two terms, I’ve been trying to find a research topic (as one does in grad school), and though I went through multiple iterations of similar ideas, I’ve recently taken note of my interest in narratives in which stories that are told can be incredibly powerful and yet malleable. Documentaries, in particular, include video clips and music which are framed and edited to deliberately tug at our heartstrings. These carefully made media pieces are a type of window to a world we normally wouldn’t have access towhich then makes us feel things that we usually don’t. There is intention with every second that plays on the screen. And because we label some films to be documentaries, we believe the things that are said to be true. After all, the Google definition of a documentary is “a movie or a television or radio program that provides a factual record or report.” But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that documentaries are made by people with certain perspectives and worldviews. It’s even possible that facts are selected out of context to sway others into believing the desired message. To deceive people into thinking what you want them to believe seems taboo but it happens all of the time, as it is an inherent trait of telling a story.
Oregon State University celebrating 150 years of excellence being one of two schools in the nation with land, sea, sun, and sky grants. During the two-week long observance of OSU’s Sea Grant, there was a screening event of “Saving Atlantis,” a film created by researchers, some of whom are OSU affiliated, and filmmakers around the world to spotlight the increasing concern of declining corals and the humans that rely on that ecosystem. For those who would like a run-down of the coral crisis, here it is. Climate change and other human-induced damage poses multiple challenges for corals. Rising sea levels makes it more difficult for the symbiotic algae living in corals to photosynthesize. The deeper the coral is located in the ocean, the farther away from the surface the algae can collect sunlight to produce energy. Tourism and recreation attracts people, which is great for a country’s economy, but detrimental to the corals if not properly managed. Broken coral contributes to a loss of natural coastal protection from storms and inclement weather. Local artisanal fishermen harvest in the reefs for they know what species live in certain parts of the coral, but destruction and loss of corals equate to poor ecosystem health, and thus lower populations of fish ultimately affecting those that rely on fishing as a method of subsistence.
Since I’ve been honing in on narrative and rhetorical analysis, I’ve been even more open to considering different viewpoints of a given topic. This isn’t to say that saving corals is not a priority because it certainly is important. However, it’s important to remember that context and framing are key. The narrative of “Saving Atlantis” isn’t anything too outworldly, but in this day and age where visual media is a source of information, it’s essential to be critical of any persuasive media that you come across. For example, take a look at the cover image for the documentary below. What does the cover say? What message does it imply? What tone does it give off? Though I’ve seen the film, a first impression might read as people in coastal communities in developing countries (because they’re always the ones getting the brunt of environmental issues) looking outwards to find help in saving the corals that they rely on. The title can refer to people in developed countries needing to step in and play the role of the savior. Monochromatic blue hues feel somber.
It is said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, though its cover can be designed to attract you, especially if it only got its looks to get your attention. But can you see the substantial responsibility the framing of a narrative can have?
I’m curious to know if the saying, “Timing is everything” holds true. If the film wasn’t created or if it was shown at a different time other than for the Sea Grant festival, would it have the same impact? Was it simply a coincidence that the film was presented during the Sea Grant festival or was there meticulous planning involved? Unfortunately, the corals serve as the canary in the coal mine, and we may be at the brink of a point of difficult return. The message of saving corals and Atlantis has to be done somehow. I suppose the urgent recovery that needs to be done has to start one step at a time. We can’t make changes at hyperspeed, and so we can only make do with what we have which also happens to be a powerful choice—allowing ourselves to use media to assist with our own decisions rather than drive our beliefs.
There’s a certain smell produced when unencumbered sunlight hits a fresh tomato. The UV rays penetrating the thin skin and stirring the juicy insides create an aroma so pleasant and unique, it must be the olfactory expression of a perfect summer’s day. On summer Saturdays at the Chapel Hill Farmers Market in North Carolina, I would stand guard over a host of tomatoes lined up like a battalion of soldiers ready to boldly sacrifice their lives for the sake of a sandwich, salsa, or bisque. As the only employee of Dig It Farm, besides the rather resolute owner of course, I knew the story of each tomato there from seed to salad. I mixed our soil and delicately placed each individual seed into our soil trays. The owner, Dave, and his shining orange tractor tilled and shaped our rows when the weather permitted it. We both pounded metal bars into the ground and wound trellis twine around them in a labyrinthine fashion, trying in vain not to get tangled in our own web. Eight hundred tomato plants meant eight hundred squats to place them in the ground. Who needs a gym then there’s food to grow? I listened to an audiobook of “The Tale of Genji” to distract my mind from the searing Carolina sun and heavy humidity. My fingers would stain with a strange dark green pigment as I trained the tomato vines up our trellis twine and relieved the plants of unnecessary suckers. Picking the tomatoes was always the most satisfying step in this arduous process, although sometimes my prying thumb or finger would sink into a putrid and decaying tomato that smelled like the nightshade version of rotten eggs. The hours of diligent work, profuse sweat, sticky fingers and mosquito-induced madness would all pay off, however. The warm and comforting smell of a fresh tomato ready for the cutting board was absolutely worth it.
“Four dollars per pound!? No tomato is worth that!”
-Shocked customers at the market
Perhaps no voice resounds as strongly within the local food community and small farm movement than Wendell Berry’s. At a time when the farming practices in the United States were transitioning from a centuries old art to a mechanized industry, Wendell Berry staunchly opposed this change through his lifestyle and his words (Dunn & Sewell 2016). When agricultural focuses shifted towards quantity, Wendell Berry focused on quality. When the former Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Earl Butz, told farmers to “get big or get out,” Wendell Berry insisted that farmers are not mere components of an agricultural machine. Agricultural machinery continues to dominate the furrows and fields of the United States. While agricultural machinery can certainly help with agricultural drudgery, these titanic machines are not cheap. Farmers can expect to pay between $330,000 and $500,000 for a single combine at list price (Dodson 2014). This does not include the pesticides and fertilizers that go hand in nozzle with large scale monoculture projects. In Missouri, Clarence Cannon Wholesale Water Commission spends about $130,000 per year to buy activated carbon to filter the pesticide atrazine that flows from large-scale farming operations into rivers and streams to make it suitable for human consumption (Swanson 2013). How do the fish fare without carbon filters? If a farmer went back to the horse and plow, however, they certainly could not compete with the automated mega-farms receiving government subsidies. Farmers are compelled to take on the debt associated with this mammoth machinery if they want to continue the work that they love. Since 2013, American farmers and ranchers have witnessed a 45% drop in net farm income (Harvie 2018). As the price for milk in the U.S continues to decline, some farmers have received resources for suicide prevention from their dairy cooperatives in an attempt to prevent them from escaping their debt through death (Smith 2018). While the missives were well meaning, they certainly portray the dismal state of American agri-business.
“It all turns of affection.”
Wendell Berry’s ethos could not be any more different. He understood that “eating is an agricultural act,” and all sedentary humans have a duty to connect with the land and the hard-working farmers that allow our agricultural societies to function. Human beings are not separate from the land that provides them with food, and these forces must be reintegrated. Ethical farming is a compassionate act that not only feeds people but rejuvenates the soil, and the soul. Most customers at farmers markets can certainly pay $4 for a mega tomato, however, this is certainly not in the cards for every consumer. Perhaps the government should subsidize mega tomatoes over mega industry.
Dodson, D. (2014, November 2). How much is that combine in the window? Retrieved from http://www.news-gazette.com/news/business/2014-11-02/how-much-combine-window.html
Dunn, L., & Sewell, J. (2016). Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry [Motion picture].
Harvie, A. (2018, February 20). A Looming Crisis on American Farms – Farm Aid. Retrieved from https://www.farmaid.org/issues/farm-economy-in-crisis/looming-crisis-american-farms/
Smith, T. (2018, February 27). As Milk Prices Decline, Worries About Dairy Farmer Suicides Rise. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/02/27/586586267/as-milk-prices-decline-worries-about-dairy-farmer-suicides-rise
Swanson, A. F. (2013, July 05). What Is Farm Runoff Doing To The Water? Scientists Wade In. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/07/09/199095108/Whats-In-The-Water-Searching-Midwest-Streams-For-Crop-Runoff
In celebration of Oregon State University’s 150 birthday OSU is hosting a yearlong celebration that included a week in February dedicated to celebrating OSU’s many years of stewardship on the Oregon Coast. One of the main festivities was a day-long, student tour of the marine laboratories that are integral to OSU research and marine management. Two tours were available to students, the North Tour, which included a trip to the research vessel Oceanus in Newport and a trip to OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Astoria, and the South Tour. I went on the South Tour, which included two stops heading down the coast and a third at OSU’s furthest most field station in Port Orford, Oregon.
It was blustery, rainy and cold, but the coast was beautiful as always. After a three-hour bus ride through the towns and mountains that divide the valley from the ocean we arrived at our first stop, the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Due to rain and high winds we could not walk on the dunes as originally planned. The walk would have included viewing of work done by the Watershed Invasive Species Program to remove invasive coastal grass, such as Scotch Broom, European beachgrass, gorse and other nonnative plants; observation of sites used by the Western Snowy Plover for nesting; and the up-close examination of a kaleidoscope of dune sand, multicolored because of the variety of rock that build the dunes. From the high vantage point of a viewing platform, we could see all these aspects of the dunes from afar, except for the plovers, who only reach about six inches long. The dunes are stunning and massive, extending for forty miles along the Oregon coast between Florence and Coos Bay. Wind sculpted sands stand a towering 500-feet high, and they hold a forest that has not always been there. Over the last sixty years, the dunes have transformed from open sand with isolated tree islands and sparse vegetation, to a thick swath of shrubs and trees, due to a misguided restoration effort that took place in the 1940s that promoted the planting of invasive beach grasses and other plants that would help corral the shifting sands. Although the sight of the twisted pines and blowing grasses is mesmerizing, it has altered the face of a sandy treasure that took 55 million years to form from geologic sediment being washed to the coast from the mountains to the east. Through the hard work of volunteers and park rangers, invasive species removal, and indigenous species protection has become a priority.
. . .
Watching from the dunes
A plover darts through the grass
Sand stilled under foot
. . .
The second stop of the day was in Coos Bay, where we toured the Charleston Marine Science Center and spoke with University of Oregon graduate students about their research with barnacles on the Oregon coast. The Charleston Marine Science Center is a small education center that houses an aquarium and a museum. It sits right along the harbor of Coos Bay, offering not just simulated marine experiences, but a view out at the real thing, including curious seals vying for crab on the docks.
. . .
Basket star twisting
Through the simulated reef
Seals surface outside
. . .
The third, and final stop, on our journey down the coast brought us to OSU’s southernmost marine research field station, in Port Orford. Port Orford is a sleepy little fishing village with an eye-opening view of the tumultuous Pacific Ocean, rocky cliff-faces and windswept sea stacks. The station serves as a hub for student learning, scientific research, and community and economic opportunities aimed at fostering coastal stewardship and sustainability. The station includes research on whale activity, scuba excursions, studies done in partnership with local fishermen, and many other integral marine projects. The scientists at Port Orford stressed the importance of community involvement, and partnership between disciplines. These collaborations will not only help researchers and academics to enhance their projects, but can also further sustainability and environmental efforts for the good of the planet and all those who share it. In a playful moment of the presentation one of the researchers mentioned how they would like to work with a poet, and how the research there could inspire marine style haiku. The research being done at Port Orford is inspiring inside a stanza and out, it is a small but impactful facility for furthering the stewardship of OSU and a wonderful place to end our day of touring.
“The humanities—including the study of languages, literature, history, jurisprudence, philosophy, comparative religion, ethics, and the arts—are disciplines of memory and imagination, telling us where we have been and helping us envision where we are going.”
(Report of the American Academy of Arts & Science’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences to the U. S. Congress in June 2013)
People often ask me what I do:
What are you studying?
Why are you studying it?
And, most frightful of all, the dreaded, how?
When they ask these questions, my heart starts to work a little harder, saline liquid beads on the surface of my skin. I feel an ominous Should hover overhead whispering to me that I should be able to answer these questions about what I feel so passionately with much more sophistication—without such somatic distress.
Over the past year or so I have encountered inquiries of this nature many times, and each time my answers become more nuanced, but also unfortunately sometimes more rehearsed, closed off even. To be fair, the answers aren’t easy ones. I’ve gotten my hands around the what and the why of my studies a little better over time.
What am I studying?
To expand, I might say I study the role of humans in those systems. I’m mostly looking at the science that humans do concerning the ocean, but there are many more players in that story than just humans.
Why do I study this?
I love the ocean.
Once again, to expand, I might say that environmental thinking and decision making is profoundly influenced by what goes on at the intersection of science and values. If I want to be a better steward of the ocean (and I do), I need to locate myself and my work somewhere at that intersection.
But what does the work look like? How do I study the sea I so deeply respect?
The answer is, like most things in this world, complex. And, as any quest one undertakes, it changes all the time and is in a constant state of flow and growth. As I move through graduate school in the Environmental Arts and Humanities program, I continue to learn, explore, and refine how I plan to do this work.
Firstly, I have discovered that (perhaps naively) I consider myself an interdisciplinarian. I find it difficult to choose one discipline to which I belong or one set of methods that I prefer to use. Although, I would say that I use techniques from several disciplines of the humanities in my research.
I also agree with Stanford’s description of humanities research:
“A hallmark of humanistic study is that research is approached differently than in the natural and social sciences,
where data and hard evidence are required to draw conclusions. Because the human experience cannot be adequately captured by facts and figures alone, humanities research employs methods that are historical, interpretive and analytical in nature.”
That being said, I am drawn to methods from the history and study of environmental science and technology and am learning how to apply historical (like working with primary sources) and analytical (like actor-network theory) methods to explore human-ocean interactions.
Secondly, because I am an artist and visual person, creative practice plays a crucial role in how I approach and synthesize my research. Incorporating photography, painting, and poetry have added depth to my understanding and exploration of human-ocean interactions in a beautiful, intellectual, and synergistic way. Practice-led research is still an emerging methodology and has been used and defined by many people in different ways. My use of practice-led research means that there are two outcomes to all my work: a creative piece and a written, scholarly piece. The production of these two deliverables seems to be the one defining factor that ties all versions of practice research together.
Smith and Dean’s book on practice-led research claims that “creative practice—the training and specialized knowledge that creative practitioners have and the processes they engage in when they are making art—can lead to specialized research insights.” I don’t know that I am using practice-led research in the exact way they define it, but because it is an emerging concept, I find that how I move forward, and how my creative work informs my research will be valuable to better understanding and legitimizing the incorporation of artistic practice into traditional academic research. In any case, I am still learning what creative practice-led research means to me and my other historical and analytical work. The creative pieces that are produced are valuable in and of themselves as part of my process, but they also serve as useful and communicative forms of putting the environmental science that is the subject of my study into context for broader audiences.
What am I studying in graduate school?
Why does it matter to me?
I think it is more important to know how it unfolds.
Even after telling you all this, I would be lying if I told you I have it fully mapped out. Perhaps that is the real reason I’m here at OSU—to figure it out. To question the human experience and the role it plays on this grand stage we call planet Earth. To learn how to engage with issues that demand attention and how we can do that using historical research, critical analysis, and creative practice in new ways.
Included work from the top:
“Coupled” Acrylic/Mixed Media from Pteropods Realized*
“Measuring the World” and “Measuring the World 2.0” Acrylic/Photography/Mixed Media**
Still Photo from R/V Atlantic Explorer as an Artist at Sea**
“Collection” Photo Collage from Pteropods Realized*
*Pteropods Realized is partially funded through NAKFI and in partnership with the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science and University of South Florida
**R/V Atlantic Explorer work partially funded through NSF and the lab of Dr. Stephen Giovannoni with support from the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Science
Hearing the words “art” and “science” in the same sentence always gets me excited. But like many interdisciplinary people who question where their loyalties lie, I’m caught in between the realms of art and science. As a trained scientist who grew up with a side interest in the arts, I’ve always felt like I was the middle-person between the two fields and it is as if I feel that I have the duty to bring the two together. Though that ironically implies that I recognize the two to be separate when I want to be breaking the stigma that they are their own entities. Talk about a hypocritical identity crisis.
At the end of October, I was in Florence, Oregon for a very graduate-student-like event; a conference. State of the Coast is an annual conference held at coastal Oregon locations and discusses topics pertaining to the coast. From fisheries to technology, there is a topic for most everyone to attend. There’s also student posters and artwork to browse among as they decorate the Florence Events Center. I get excited to attend because not only do I prepare to network with people with similar passions as mine, but I also get to see what my friends are actually doing for their research despite sharing an office with them for a year (“Oh so that’s what you’re doing? No way!”). Lately, there has been an integration of art with the scientific feel of the gathering. This where said identity crisis comes in.
Last year I presented a poster as a M.S. candidate in the Marine Resource Management graduate program at the Salishan Lodge in Gleneden Beach. Since my transfer this past summer to be a M.A. candidate in the Environmental Arts and Humanities graduate program (yup, a whole 180 degree flip; learning lots but it’s pretty great), I was able to showcase a piece of mine that I completed as a part of a summer course I took. It felt a bit odd to be on the “other” side of things- going from a science field into a humanities field and showing my art in a place where I’ve shown my science, but it was neat to still be a part of an event that is blending the borders between art and science together which is essentially what I want to do for my graduate topic and hopefully career.
So where do I fit in? I sometimes feel the strain of being the middle-person trying to bridge two fields that have been separated over time. It’s already been a struggle to identify as an artist; am I a scientific artist or an artistic scientist? I settled with the latter because if you think about them as much as I do, there is the slightest difference. But then again, is there? I’ve been grappling with this internal conflict and I’m coming to terms that I belong right where I am; in a wondrous pandemonium of two fields that are fueled by creativity and curiosity. Between two realms that are remarkably resilient and formed by infinite imagination. In a place where I now have twice the amount of support, ideas, and friends.
“Every environmental disaster is also a social disaster, every civil emergency is rooted in the ongoing social emergency that we are experiencing in this country.”
– Alene Goldbarg, USDAC Chief Policy Wonk
My training as an artist was primarily focused on creating cultural artifacts and then finding an audience to share them with. As I’ve expanded my creative practice, I’ve come to question the value of art that is centered solely around the individual creating the work, rather than taking into account the needs of the community that it is intended to serve. But it can be very challenging to conjure a bridge between self-expression and ethical social engagement out of thin air.
Recently I rewatched Art Became the Oxygen: Citizen Artist Salon, a webinar from The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture. (The USDAC is “a people-powered department—a grassroots action network inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging,” and not affiliated with the United States government.) One truly moving moment from the salon was Arlene Goldbard’s statement that protest isn’t separate from beauty and meaning—that artistic expression can provide the means to call out what isn’t working, and imagine what might be possible instead.
A direct line between creative practice and climate change was drawn by Rachel Falcone, who had been covering the housing crisis in Brooklyn and ended up using her background in oral history to document the stories of the people affected by Hurricane Sandy. After the storm had passed, she went to a community hub in Red Hook where people were getting food and charging their devices. As community members shared the imagery on their phones and talked about the emotional and psychological impact of witnessing the devastation, she realized that the story of Sandy was far too large for her to sit for hours with every person to document their oral history of the event. Instead, she had the inspiration to set up Sandy Storyline, which invited anyone impacted by the storm to share their stories via text or voicemail, and, a few weeks later, through a website. The living archive is now at www.sandystoryline.com, and features writings, recording, and photographs that people have shared over the years.
Another strategy for addressing environmental destruction was shared by Amber Hanson, a South Dakota-based artist and filmmaker. She had been invited as an assistant muralist to make a community-based mural in Joplin, Missouri, with lead artist David Loewenstein and fellow assistant muralist and filmmaker Nicholas Ward. One week before their project was due to begin, an EF5 tornado destroyed a third of the city. They weren’t sure if it would be possible to move ahead with their plans, so they made a site visit to check in with the community and design team, who expressed the feeling that “now more than ever we would like this project to continue.” Ultimately the project offered people who had experienced the tornado the opportunity to come together and share their stories while imagining ways to rebuild Joplin, a process captured by Hanson and Ward in the documentary “Called to Walls.” As proof that beauty can come from chaos, the local design team that helped to create the mural later formed a collective to create public art throughout the city of Joplin.
Hanson and Ward also traveled to Standing Rock to deliver supplies and document the events taking place. The filmmaker’s goal was to counteract the representation in the media of dangerous protesters throwing pipe bombs, and to focus their lens on how art and culture were being integrated into the camp and movement through dance, painted signs, and moments strategically designed to be captured and shared with the rest of the world. Their trip resulted in a short documentary featuring a Dene graphic designer and movement artist who creates artwork intended to catalyze movements. They also met Desiree Kane, a Miwok artist, journalist, and producer, who was the main media coordinator at the camp. She has written several articles about her time there, one of which is featured in the USDAC’s “Art Became the Oxygen: An Artistic Response Guide.”
The last speaker was Mike O’Bryan, Program Manager in Youth Arts Education at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Central Philadelphia, who spoke about values-driven leadership, trauma theory, and building on cultural strengths and assets. One of the final points he made is that the dominant culture does not always know how to value the diverse cultural wealth that ethnic communities bring to the table, including linguistic capital (the intellectual and social skills attained through communication in more than one language or style), navigational capital (the skill of maneuvering through social spaces and places that have not traditionally been created with people of color in mind), and resistant capital (the knowledge and skills fostered through oppositional behavior that challenges inequality). These are all forms of expertise that will be crucial in transforming the power structures of our world. If we want to halt ecological devastation and create a more equitable society for all, we are going to need to learn to value the contributions of everyone engaged in the struggle.
In the following discussion, all of the presenters and commenters agreed that this is long-term, ongoing work. It’s not helpful to drop in, do just enough to make yourself feel important, and then abandon a community that believed you were making an investment. The good news is that there are people who are already forging this path, who have not only developed best practices around artistic response to social crisis and environmental emergencies, but have actually created a toolkit to help the rest of us get started (Art Became the Oxygen, an Artistic Response Guide). I would encourage anyone who is interested in this work to read the guide and watch the recording of the Salon. It has inspired me to keep moving towards a more constructive and contributive model of creative engagement, and I hope it will impact others in the same way.
There is only one night a year where plant breeders and chefs manage to pull themselves away from their work, put down their hoes and knives, and come together to share in the literal fruits of their labor, some of the most unknown and unique foods grown in the Pacific Northwest. This is the night where the flavors of tomorrow are decided. This magical night is the Culinary Breeding Network’s Annual Variety Showcase, and the fourth annual meeting was held this year on October 2nd.
I have attended all but the first variety showcase hosted by CBN, and I hope to never miss one ever again. I’ve been working for Gathering Together Farm for the past six years, but before that I had never even set foot on a farm, having grown up in an apartment in a Portland suburb. Before I found farming, I was a very academic person and pretty much only acquired knowledge through academic avenues. Now that I have spent significant amounts of time both in highly academic settings and farming seasons, I know that I want to do work that embraces both, as the two very different knowledge-building styles used by these different disciplines help to bring the bigger picture into focus.
This is what is so valuable about multiple perspectives. Not only would diverse work like that make me feel fulfilled as an individual, but I also believe that interdisciplinary approaches are necessary if we are to tackle the larger problems facing the world today. That is why I am going for a Masters of Arts in the Environmental Arts and Humanities while continuing to work at a farm and maintain a farm of my own. I cannot even properly ponder the solutions to the problems of the world until I understand its innerworkings from a variety of perspectives. Diversity of thought is just as important as having biodiversity in our food system This is a concept that I think the Culinary Breeding Network is very successfully incorporating into the seed to table movement. The goal is not just to think bigger; it is to think bigger and smaller all at the same time, to maintain in one’s awareness the micro and macro factors that must be taken into consideration simultaneously.
There were four of us representing Gathering Together Farm at the showcase this year. We kicked out all our last-minute farm tasks, brushed the dirt off our clothes, and hit the highway. Though we started our morning out in the fields harvesting vegetables, we soon found ourselves riding an elevator up to the sixth floor in The Nines in downtown Portland. After name tags were pinned on, coats were hung, and goodie bags complete with heirloom seeds were dispersed, we were finally free to wind our way toward the source of an amazing mixture of aromas filling the floor.
Turning around the final corner of the hallway we were somewhat suddenly hit with the roar of over five hundred chefs and farmers talking over good food and drink. The banquet room was lined wall to wall with tables, and a central stage had more tables encompassing it as well. Behind each table stood a plant breeder and a chef and the occasional helper or two, and through their combined efforts each partnership displayed an either completely new or nearly forgotten food experience for people to try. With about thirty different showcase tables in total, the room was full of new flavors to be experienced, and even fuller with the couple hundred fellow food-lovers eating, laughing, and taking advantage of complementary wine. After all, these are all people who work sixteen-hour days. Farmers just work the morning shift and chefs work nights.
It took us hours to walk the perimeter of that room. There was not a dish that went uneaten nor a question that went unasked. To be able to taste something completely new to you and then to be able to ask the chef and plant breeder responsible for that flavor experience any questions you want—that’s the dream. And I don’t mean to mention this just because it’s always nice to have a good time; what I’d like to emphasize is the fact that this process of variety tasting and selection is not some difficult process that would be too much work than it’d be worth to incorporate more heavily into the food system at large. It’s incredibly enjoyable to do work like this, so much so that it doesn’t feel very honest to even call it work. Here’s a photo of me “working.”
I happened to find one photo on CBN’s website of Kyler and I at the 2017 Variety Showcase. We’re standing in the background behind the celery poster. Kyler and I both work for Gathering Together Farm in the office and in the field. To the left behind the potatoes poster is Alex Stone, a plant breeder from OSU who works with GTF doing trials, primarily on winter squash. We were tasting puree of different squash and rating them on various traits such as sugar content and flavor. Though I chose to include this photo primarily because it’s the only one that I am in, it brings up another great point regarding the Culinary Breeding Network. These informative posters are just some of the literature that was at this event, all prepared in an effort to create better communication between plant breeders, chefs, and eaters. Historically farmers have not always known the best ways to communicate their product to the changing public, and the public has simultaneously become more and more removed from farming, but CBN bridges the communication gap creating a much more inclusive audience. And that’s really the goal, to reach more people. Because everyone at the Variety Trial already knows how important the work being done is. It is what all of them will do with that work to share with the those who do not yet know about these concepts, that is what it’s all about. And the Culinary Breeding Network does a great job of this. For example, they created the following graphic to represent the many interdisciplinary aspects of their work.
Despite my extreme passion for vegetables and good food in general, I think that I am primarily impressed with the Culinary Breeding Network as it does such a beautiful job of taking so many social issues into account while working on a single project, as seen in the graphic above. The food revolution that is so prevalent in the Pacific Northwest has lots of false prophets who claim to be “the answer” to “the problem.” But the truth of the matter is that organic is not enough; buying local is not enough. The food system is so vastly complicated that there is simply no way that a singular narrative could solve its problems. You must incorporate a seemingly infinite number of considerations into whatever work you do if you want to be truly successful in achieving your goals. CBN’s primary goals are represented as the outermost layer of the onion, as described in their mission statement (1):
“The Culinary Breeding Network consists of plant breeders, seed growers, farmers, chefs, produce buyers and others in the food community engaged in developing and identifying varieties and traits of culinary excellence for vegetables and grains. Its mission is to break down the wall between breeders and eaters to improve agricultural and culinary quality in vegetables and grains.”
As you peel the layers off the onion, what was once on the surface—issues regarding heirloom preservation, flavor, and organic breeding—can now be seen through the broader lens of environmental health and farmworker rights. Expose another layer, and these issues can be seen through an even broader narrative regarding biodiversity, open source genetics, and the spirituality of food. Expose even more layers, and suddenly you’re seeing all of these problems in terms of nutrition, breeding methodology, culture, resilience, and social justice. And ultimately, it all comes down to the climate chaos which is already pressing today’s farmers and today’s crop varieties to be more resilient and adaptable than ever.
The only problem is that the majority of the crop varieties that the world depends on have specifically been bred to be less resilient and less adaptable throughout the past century as plant breeders have switched their focus onto traits that society considers more important now—uniformity, visual aesthetic, and the ability to be grown in a monoculture. And that’s not really the only problem, because this small selection of genetically weak varieties that our entire society depends on, that little thing, it is now controlled by a very few profit-based chemical corporations leftover from the last world war. This is a completely new reality for humanity, as not too long ago it used to be the case that there was an enormous selection of genetically strong varieties in society, there was nearly an equal number of farmers controlling those varieties, and those farmers were maintaining their breeding lines by breeding for adaptability, resilience, and flavor.
Throughout history, whenever we see a set-up like this we should feel worried. Putting all your eggs into one basket is never a smart move. There is safety in diversity. Remember the Irish Potato Famine? Why would anyone ever set up a food system where an entire civilization could be so horrendously affected by the failure of a single crop in a single season? In the Andes where potatoes originated this never happened because there were so many different types of potatoes. It wasn’t a big deal when one variety got hit one year. But colonizing powers didn’t understand that. They just extracted the biggest potato they could find and took it home for themselves.
But I digress. What I really found myself thinking about the weeks after this event was less of a what and more of a who—Lane Selman. Lane is the mother of the Culinary Breeding Network. Starting out as an Organic Farming Researcher at OSU, Lane also “acts as Oregon research project coordinator for the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaborative (NOVIC), a project funded by the USDA Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI)” (2). Lane is the middle-man between dozens of chefs, plant breeders, and farmers, connecting a plethora of perspectives on the current state of the food system. She is doing great work for the world by marrying the disciplines of farming and academia. Since this is precisely what I am interested in doing in my time here at OSU and potentially beyond, I ended up thinking a lot about Lane’s work with the Culinary Breeding Network. Standing there that night listening to her and all of the other wonderful plant breeders speak their cause so that it could be heard, I cannot deny a new little voice in the back of my mind that said, “I could do that.”
There is certainly much to be learned from Lane and the many other interdisciplinary crusaders of our times. But for now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite flavors from the showcase. There were many intricately prepared and arranged dishes at the showcase, bright with a myriad colors, textures, and shapes, all of which blew my mind. But this particular dish was just a raw, tiny, pale yellow cherry tomato called Champagne Bubbles. Not thinking much of it I quickly popped one into my mouth and began devouring. But the instant I bit into it I experienced such a unique flavor that I stopped chewing for a moment, closed my eyes, and tried to figure out what it was. And then it hit me! This little tomato tasted like a cooked savory tomato chutney. What!? That little tomato impressed me more than any of the beautifully crafted, delicious dishes that were made that night. Perhaps simply because it was so tiny with such powerful flavor. But perhaps because within it was enough diversity to be an unknown flavor extravaganza all of its own with no assistance necessary.
On November 16, 2017, coincidently the same day as the largest Keystone oil spill to date in South Dakota, I attended the Water is Life: Youth Against Fracking Gas Export in Portland, OR. This event focused on the potentially damaging implications of the LNG pipeline from the perspective of youths from the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa tribes. These ambitious kids where making their way from Northern California, through Oregon to Washington, making stops the entire way to share their thought-provoking perspectives.
Just to offer a little background: The LNG Pipeline or Jordan Cove Fracked Gas Pipeline Proposal is a Pacific Connector pipeline that’s projected to transport 1.2 Billion cubic feet of fracked gas per year. The LNG Pipeline would stretch across public and private lands from Canada to Coos Bay. The following are a few of the most significant risks and impacts:
The LNG Pipeline would violate land owner’s rights: If land owner’s do not accept a small one-time payment for land use the government will grant The power company eminent domain
Threat to traditions and tribal territories: The pipeline poses a significant threat to resources such as fish, water, and cultural resources as well as territories and burial grounds.
present a serious safety risk: LNG facilities and natural gas pipelines are highly explosive, and the Jordan Cove terminal would be built in a region susceptible to earth quacks and tsunamis.
The evening began with a prayer and song sung by one of the tribe members. The women explained that song was her sister’s. It was a song about coming of age. She went on to explain that in their culture when girls reach a certain age they are taught they have a purpose and how to be a contributing member of their community. I realized, I was never taught I had a purpose and when introductions began I realized the significance of that lesson. Most of the speakers were female tribe members and in high school. One young girl explained that after she began to see the environmental changes in her community she became an activist…in 8th grade. These poignant young women (and one charismatic young man), were doing the work of adults, and more than likely working harder for a cause in their community than most adults ever will.
Each speaker gave their testimonial. Each one stood alone on a stage in front of roughly 200+ people, holding a microphone and bravely stumbling over the words of the speeches they prepared. Their courage and dedication offered up a kind of hope that’s hard to find. I was so proud of each one of those young women (and one young man) that I did not know. Their messages were direct, engaging, and they all really drove home the message of how the pipeline will specifically impact their community and culture and how we can drive change in our communities.
This term, I was a teaching assistant for Parks and Protected Areas, a junior-level course focusing on the history, policy, and management of international areas protected for conservation, preservation, and resource extraction goals. The students learned about the philosophies that inspire different types of protection. I taught alongside Ashley D’Antonio, an assistant professor in Forest Ecosystems & Society, who studies recreation ecology. Her goal, and mine, was simple: challenge the students’ assumptions about parks and protected areas.
Throughout my first year in graduate school, it seemed that all the literature I read identified the same underlying cause of our environmental duress: the nature/culture dualism. The idea—grounded in thousands of years of western philosophy—that we humans are separate from nature. Some take it a step further, not only are we separate from nature, but above it, affording humans justification to exploit and utilize what we deem necessity.
American politicians and bureaucrats, through misinterpreted treaty agreements, quite literally separated humans from nature in order to “protect these places” and paradoxically encouraged humans to visit these places. According to western philosophy and fortress conservation, humans can visit nature, participate in recreation and tourism activities, and research ecological processes, but they can’t live with the land, move with the seasons, nor take only what is needed for survival. Living with the land, rather than controlling it, is in direct conflict with the human/nature dualism that grounds western thought. Mind you, not all humans were encouraged to visit; these places were meant to be enjoyed by a particular class and race who needed to escape from their taxing lives in the city.
However, the native peoples who lived in these majestic landscapes—now considered America’s crown jewels—knew that the land could belong to no person. How can the youngest siblings in creation, humans, claim land that belongs to all relations—all spirits, flora, fauna, rocks, and streams? The tribes of Turtle Island saw themselves, and continue to see themselves, as part of the interconnected web of nature and spirit, wholly integrated into the entire network of the physical and spiritual world. An ecocentric belief system and intergenerational traditional ecological knowledge guided the actions of tribes, like the Lakota and Kootenai.
While pursuing a degree in Environmental Arts & Humanities, I have analyzed the oppressive, degrading histories and philosophies of my ancestors. I pursued this degree to challenge the status quo and assist in the transition to a life-sustaining society.
Some of the parks and protected areas students are pursuing traditional forestry degrees, others are interested in intersecting socio-ecological systems, but all were shocked and appalled by the exclusionary practices embedded in the founding of so-called protected areas. In their final papers, the students expressed concern not only for degraded terrestrial and marine environments but also for conservation refugees who are continually excluded from lands that they help conserve and protect.
In this time of political polarization, we face mounting uncertainty concerning human and Earth rights. What keeps the fight alive in me is the outrage and passion I see in younger generations, of which I am part. How would our world change if we all humbly challenged our beliefs of right/wrong, good/bad and acted as students learning to seek justice and equity for all life on our magnificent planet?