We have gone over the past few weeks from a cool, dry spring to a hot, dry summer and back again— more than once. Normally, one of the great pleasures of our northern Shenandoah climate is the length of Spring and Fall, two periods where we can spend time outside, working or lapsing, neither hot nor cold. And we get to watch the processes of emergence or senescence in the natural world unfold around us.
This did not seem to be such a season. Those of us who pay attention, whether by need or passion, know that no two seasons are the same—and that the seasons are not a topic free of freight any more. Too hot, too cold; too swift, too slow; any perceived variation from an idealized norm now seems to mean something to a much larger group than just the hunters, the gatherers, the gardeners, the scholars.
Yet it is just this variability that we should notice and learn from because diversity is how nature adapts. So the abundance that surrounds us in the woods or the fields or the gardens, regardless of the particulars of the season, should be no surprise: The heart of this abundance is in diversity.
Even more than politics, diversity is local (though we can take the larger view well enough). Just thinking of food—and this argument is by no means restricted to food—when I look in my garden and I look in the supermarkets, I see two different kinds of diversity, as well as two different kinds of abundance: one local and one global.
My garden displays a seasonal, historical abundance—one we, as a culture, had known for many years up until maybe 30-40 years ago—while the supermarket flaunts the abundance (borne of cheap energy, now nearing its end) of globally sourced markets. These two have very different qualities of abundance as well as diversity.
The local, farm and garden-based diversity is one that produced hundreds of different crop varieties, each adapted to some particular season, use or locale, one following the other in a choreography that was specific and particular to that time and place. In the north they had an endless variety of apples, in the south perhaps peaches and citrus; here in the mid-Atlantic we were particularly blessed because our climate is both cold enough for apples, but also warm enough for peaches, just to name those two. Before the fossil fuel revolution, each season had its splendor: abundance following abundance as each crop came in.
The global, market-based diversity has a quite different character, not without its own appeal. Where a hundred years ago a New Englander might never see an orange or a grapefruit or a lemon, now these are mere commodities; even more so the ubiquitous banana, available at Walmart for about half a dollar a pound. I think it is safe to say that my grandfather, homesteading in the mountains of Vermont in the 1930s, rarely if ever saw such a banana.
Now every supermarket worth its salt—itself once a valuable commodity—now has not only bananas, but jicama and star fruit as well, displayed here in the Northern Hemisphere in February right next to the eggplants and green peppers and Ugli fruit, and on and on.
Let’s ignore (at least for now) the socioeconomic and cultural issues, both positive and negative, that are represented in the produce case at the supermarket. Let’s look at the relationships between apparent abundance and apparent diversity: In its native range, the banana has many forms, each with its own unique character. The modern, global banana is a different thing—even more than the reviled “supermarket tomato,” a commodified fruit—chosen for its production and storage and shipping characteristics rather than its culturally embedded culinary or nutritional merits. Yes, the market has bananas year round, and pomegranates and lemongrass. But at what cost?
This is not always bad: in some cases crops do translate well from one region to another (often based on latitude). But because of the global nature of production and distribution, what we usually end up with is a homologue to the original, and merely apparent diversity in cuisine which is represented in every American suburban strip mall by the (Italian) Olive Garden, the (Asian) Panda Express, the (Mexican) Chipotle, even (Australian) Outback or (American) Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Like auto dealers, these purveyors of (apparent) market diversity are usually found arrayed alongside one another to serve the jaded tastes of the modern consumer.
Yes, this could be considered a kind of abundance, and maybe even diversity. In the case of the restaurants—not our true topic here—though, this is an immense scam, since the ingredients for all these restaurants are produced by the same industrial food system that is our true topic here, and thus even at their best, they are one step removed from the questions that matter. Take a second step (we are not going to) and you come to the whole more general question of franchise versus independent local businesses, not unlike the “community” magazine that was slated to launch this last spring for Jefferson County, WV from hibu, a multi-national printing company, but cancelled at the last moment because it didn’t “stick” with local residents and businesses.
I remember, as a child, the vegetable truck that wended its way down South Samuel Street in Charles Town, just as I remember the ice cream truck. I don’t know how local that ice cream was—or the carbon footprint of the delivery truck, much as I loved it—but I can be pretty sure that the vegetables were mostly local, as the peddler’s offerings (remember that term?) changed with the season.
While this all sounds wonderfully romantic, or nostalgic (and many would make it so), I also remember the petty prejudice and xenophobic insularity of our community in those days. What it seems to me we now have a chance to create is a community, and a food system, that is not only local and grounded in the particularity of our region, but also open to the diversity of our transcendently immigrant American culture. But to do this we have to resist the urge to settle for the mere appearance of diversity that is marketed to us, and instead strive toward a vision of abundance that we create ourselves.
This column orginally appeared, in slightly different form, in the June-July 2012 issue of Fluent Magazine (fluent-magazine.com) which is published in Jefferson County, WV.