Blog Prompt #1

Jun 2nd, 2014 | By | Category: Blog
Here is the blog prompt from Professor John Elder:
Thanks, everyone, for so boldly and perceptively exploring issues raised in Wendell Berry’s three provocative essays. Here’s hoping that some of the images and questions we considered together will remain helpful throughout the summer. In particular, the ecological concept of the edge, as a fragile but also rich “betweenness,” seems pertinent to our various endeavors as individuals and as a community.
 
In the latter part of the conversation Joe brought in Berry’s wonderful piece “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” It’s a poem that speaks to our discussion of food as both reflecting the environmental challenges of our day and offering the possibility of delight. A couple of lines in it bring this complexity into sharp focus: “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts.” In your own post to the blog please begin with these lines. Do you find in them a a feeling of tension or a release? In your own life and work, at Middlebury, in Food Works, or otherwise, have you consciously adopted practices or habits of mind that foster both your sense of happiness and your commitment to practical engagement? How are joy and “the facts” related to your expectations for the next two months?
 
I hope you’ll view this prompt just as a starting point. Let your reflections take you wherever they will. Each of us will have a different process of exploration and arrive at our own characteristic insights. But in the following weeks, as others respond to your posts and you respond to theirs, a conversation can grow that is, in Berry’s terms on page 8, “to some degree mysterious; it requires faith.”
Please post by next Monday June 9th and respond to a post from another fellow from each site. Try to post before Monday so everyone has a chance to read and respond to your post!

12 Comments to “Blog Prompt #1”

  1. Gurlyn Grewal says:

    “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts.”
    I found these lines to hold a feeling of release in spite of the tension prevalent in the world. They suggest an approach in dealing with injustice in the world. Only by “[being] joyful” after considering all the facts can we do good work. If we become consumed with the facts, we loss hope and will be unable to effect change. But by being optimistic, we have a better ability to fight injustice. Moreover, these lines can represent a way of life. Living for the present allows us to not be burdened by the past or the future. This zen-like lifestyle involves an acute awareness that life exists in the present and nowhere else. So dwelling about the past is not productive.

  2. Benjamin Harris says:

    Hey Abigail, I appreciated your insights because I shared a similar initial reaction in regard to climate change and Berry’s quotation. Since it sounds like you’re very well-versed in climate change science, it was disappointing to hear that, from your assessment, change will need to be structural if we are to reverse environmental decline. Structural changes are much larger undertakings than merely cosmetic ones, and “dismantling” society, as you put it, requires that we drastically alter our comfortable and familiar lifestyles. Sometimes I think that we have adopted a sideways strategy towards environmental solutions through new technologies and regulations, which are relatively easy for industries with deep (bottomless) wallets to implement. While this is not so much of a sacrifice for corporations with resources to spare, if we ask people to change their essential behaviors, they often balk. But as you mentioned that you’ve begun to notice small but significant steps towards progress, I’ve also started to believe more fervently that vast change can occur at the grassroots level. The Vermont Community Foundation (where I’m working) awards thousands of dollars in grant money. Once, I might have lamented the fact that this generosity is far from sufficient in the long-term. Yet now, I see that even symbolic action is better than passivity. Even if the Foundation’s work cannot convince communities to embrace local food, I still think that–as clichéd as it sounds–it’s the thought that counts. People need strong leadership and may not care so much about what is ultimately achieved as long as that leadership shows self-confidence. As long as those courageous individuals at the vanguard of environmentalism and sustainable food systems continue to come forward, I think that people will be happy to follow in the footsteps of leaders who go in new and exciting directions.

  3. Jenna Reichenbach says:

    Re-reading Berry’s piece a second (third, fourth, and fifth) time more thoroughly brought with it much more meaning and complexity for me. Thinking about the line, “Be joyful
/though you have considered all the facts,” in particular in order to respond required more consideration than I had anticipated. My reaction varied through my readings, but I’ve settled on the personal belief that it represents an innate tension. Some of the realities that we face today as a society and as a planet are frightening and somewhat beyond belief. I interpret “all of the facts” as representing negative situations based on the entirety of the poem. I think of poverty, food crises, violence and war, and global warming (specifically GW considering the phrase “climate change” is a much less threatening wording potentially created and emphasized by its top contributors). How can one be joyful while considering all the facts? It seems selfish to feel joy while we are facing such circumstances. On the other hand, I feel happiness and joy every day despite knowing that such inequalities or harming practices and behaviors exist… Berry is perhaps posing a challenge: be as happy as you can be knowing and understanding the realities in addition to doing everything in your power as just one individual to make positive change.

    This past semester, I wrote a paper for a religion class about Unitarian Universalism. I was raised a UU and always consider myself one, but had never fully researched and understood all that we teach and promote. I briefly described our Seven Principles at some point in the paper and not quite knowing how to describe the seventh, I quoted it: “Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part.” This reflection brought me back to our Seventh Principle–it represents the facts that we must consider each and every day and how we must respond to such facts by respecting and acknowledging a personal responsibility for all aspects of our web. As quoted by Reverend Forrest Gilmore on the UUA website, “Our seventh Principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence, is a glorious statement. Yet we make a profound mistake when we limit it to merely an environmental idea. It is so much more. It is our response to the great dangers of both individualism and oppression. It is our solution to the seeming conflict between the individual and the group.” I think that this core tenet of Unitarian Universalism mirrors the tension that Berry illustrates for us while promoting education, response, and solution. It is something that I need to contemplate more fully and make a central aspect of my own life in the next two months and more importantly, throughout the rest of my post-college life.

  4. Benjamin Harris says:

    Hey Katie, I haven’t figured out how to directly comment on your post, but I thought that I’d follow up on what you wrote. I completely agree with you when you say that, “Being joyful can mean complacency in the face of something that needs to be changed.” I realize that my own post advocates for abandoning the hard facts in favor of a potentially naïve “joy,” but I also side with your opinion that optimism can verge on ignorance–and consequently, inaction–if we’re not careful. I like that you make the distinction between joyfulness and hopefulness; both can be bright-eyed, but I feel that the latter is a bit more restrained. There’s an implicit recognition that reality can rapidly turn the hopeful into the hopeless. Maybe holding onto a tentative hope is the ideal intermediate ground between pessimism and optimism. Through this balanced attitude, we maintain faith in progress–our capacity to create change in the food system–but we also remain wary of “quick fixes”. These are the short-term solutions that cannot be made sustainable, or fail to see the “big picture” (for example, recycling and composting are one way to “resolve” waste management, but don’t address all the other issues such as food insecurity and access).
    I also appreciated your comment that, “The personal is political.” It reminds me of something I read in a class this year, the popular expression that, “All politics is local.” As with so many of the deep-seated inequities in society, food security becomes much more meaningful to people if it is “brought to the table,” rather than left for distant representatives to handle. This is where education comes into play because it makes societal issues intensely personal and also charges individuals with the belief that they can effect significant change. Through stressing the importance of family finances and nutrition, the education system can shift the focus of the food industry onto the local. It’s so cool to think that Vermont youth can teach their parents about how to attain food and fiscal security when they transfer their classroom knowledge to the family dinner table. From my internship, I think that Farm-to-School is taking steps to achieve this unique education wherein parent-child roles reverse.

  5. Elizabeth Oyler says:

    “Be joyful/ though you have considered all the facts.”

    Today, I read these lines read differently than I did a week ago. I’ve spent much of the week sitting in on sustainable agriculture classes at the county career center, where the school’s teenage students have been—unwittingly– reminding me of just how much I don’t know. They’ve patiently explained to me aspects of the breeding cycles of sheep, the functioning of the cow’s rumen, how to identify the engine sound of a broken tractor, and that next time I should remember to screw the cap on the water tank’s base spout before I refill it with water. I’m having some trouble remembering it all, but they tell me I’ll catch on. File under: facts I simply didn’t know.
    One of their teachers took me aside the first day to deliver the gentle warning that discussion of the fight against large-scale, inhumane farming isn’t always welcomed by her kids, some of whom were raised on or near farms; movies like “Food, Inc.” and the arguments they present put many of her students on the defensive. “Some of them feel like it’s an attack on farms and farmers,” she told me—the farms they know are having a tough enough time without what they can see as negative press for the whole sector. The conversation presented me facts and perspectives I hadn’t considered.
    Mid-week, my supervisor invited me to tag along to a meeting of Vermont’s Agricultural Development board. Members of the board each had specific and expert experience in different areas of the state’s agricultural system, including production, business, legislation, and education. They all came together this month to discuss the history and future of Vermont’s renewable energy options, and to listen to a panel of folks who specialize in alternative energy sources. Needless to say, the whole day fell under the category of facts I thought I’d considered and it turns out I knew really very little about.
    So this morning, I’m reading Berry’s lines more like, “Be joyful/ though you have much to learn.”
    But when I phrase it that way, the “though” doesn’t make much sense any more—adjusting it a little further, I’m telling myself,
    “Be joyful, willing, and determined: you have much to learn and that knowledge will challenge you.”

    • Abigail Cheskis says:

      Hi Elizabeth!
      Your post resonated with me. I wanted to commend you for your open-minded attitude. It seems like your internship is feeding you a whole host of information, and while it could be very easy to close yourself off to some of it, I think the fact that you are able to approach it with open ears demonstrates a desire to learn new ideas and reevaluate old ones. This open-minded attitude is something that we can all benefit from within our different organizations over the summer. When a person is so passionate about a subject, I think that it’s common for him/her to want to spread his/her ideas, and it is sometimes frustrating when others don’t understand or agree. This open-mindedness will help us all to not only formulate well-rounded opinions, but to create better relationships and working environments.

  6. Katherine Chamberlain says:

    “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts.” I found these lines to hold a tension and a release that play off of each other. Someone who has considered all the facts but can still feel joy is acknowledging, embracing and working with a tension, instead of becoming burdened by it. The release of this burden is finding joy despite considering “all the facts.” That said, I don’t think joyful is always the right reaction when considering the facts like those of industrial agriculture, for example. Being joyful can mean complacency in the face of something that needs to be changed. I think that being hopeful could be more productive.

    These lines and the poem in its entirety speak to how we choose to live out our daily lives and how the personal is political. Living in Weybridge House for the past week and taking part in the FoodWorks program, I’ve thought a lot about the food I eat and where it comes from. Wendell Berry wrote that, “A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.” It is much easier to know your food, the farm, and the farmer when you eat what is grown and produced near you. However, I think most people no longer take pleasure in knowing where their food comes from and how it’s made. We no longer ‘consider all the facts;’ instead we aim to be ignorant of the facts or we don’t have access to the information we need.

  7. Maelenn Masson says:

    “Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts.”
    The pursuit of happiness as a life goal is misleading. It is a myth and sometimes a scam perpetuated by consumer culture. The pursuit of meaning on the other hand makes more sense.
    Questioning the way we live our lives and seeking connections between ourselves and the world makes our lives meaningful, worth living. Working with a food is a way to do that by understanding how it is produced, distributed and how it affects the lives of the people involved at every level of the process.
    This year was my first encounter with the Liberal Arts and I can understand how one can easily move away from finding meaning in their life.
    Be joyful for the things that matter.

    • Katherine Chamberlain says:

      Hey Maelenn,

      Your response was really interesting, particularly when you said we should pursue meaning instead of happiness in our lives. The pursuit of happiness is an ingrained ideal, and maybe it hasn’t been evaluated enough as such. If we aimed for meaning, we would probably be more oriented outward rather than inward, and consequently the environment would take higher priority than it does currently.

  8. Abigail Cheskis says:

    Not quite sure of the word count, but this is what flowed for me!

    “Be joyful/though you have considered all of the facts.” The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear these words is the reality of climate change (and the industrial food system’s contribution to it). Now, this may be because I spent the last three and a half months studying climate change from various perspectives in different countries, and so I’m somewhat in that mode of thought, but I think it also comes to mind because it’s a situation in which if I truly took all of the facts to heart, I think I would feel discouraged, hopeless, and certainly not joyful. After “considering the facts” of the food system and researching the connections between agribusiness and government last semester, I discovered that many structures would need to be dismantled and redesigned. I was definitely disheartened. But FoodWorks has already helped me to recover my joyful attitude a little bit. It’s inspiring to see the collaboration that’s currently going on in Louisville to foster a community-based, local, and healthy food system. I think Berry is right in advocating that one considers all the facts; in order to make any changes, it’s important to understand the ins and outs of the current situation, regardless of if the facts are discouraging or uplifting. Over the next two months, I expect to keep learning about the food system and its various connections to other systems, while at the same time finding joy in all of the efforts that we are making as a group and those that are currently underway in Louisville and around the country.

  9. Benjamin Harris says:

    Even before my FoodWorks internship officially began, I found myself forced to contemplate not only Berry’s words—”Be joyful/though you have considered all the facts”—but also my own pessimism. My employer, the Vermont Community Foundation, had sent me a personality survey called “DiSC” to complete prior to my first day of work; the results of the questionnaire were intended for a full-staff retreat in which my coworkers assessed their workplace habits. In response to one question on the survey, I had reluctantly conceded that, from a list of several adjectives, “optimistic” was the least descriptive of my overall outlook.
    In a way, my cynicism is a case of the proverbial “chicken-or-the-egg”: I’m still trying to figure out whether childhood or the choice of environmental studies as a career path first precipitated my (at times) hopeless feelings about the future. I’m leaning towards the latter. The facts that I’ve acquired from environmental courses have tended to discourage rather than empower me. When it comes to the plight of our planet, it’s a cruel numbers game. One only need consider 350.org, a Middlebury brainchild, for proof that statistics serve contradictory ends. On one hand, they ground environmentalism in supportive science, which always seeks hopeful solutions; yet on the other, facts instill a sense of futility. The nonprofit’s namesake, the 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide that constitutes the acceptable “ceiling” for ecological and human health, is a reactive rather than proactive aim. Since we surpassed this limit long ago (at current, the atmosphere contains around 400 ppm), now we must backtrack and reverse our mistakes, a more difficult task compared to preemptive measures that might have saved us time and resources, and ultimately, spared us from the pressing desperation to act against climate change’s ticking clock. In short, I feel that the fixation on facts and figures has done environmentalism a disservice. There are still climate skeptics despite nearly unanimous scientific evidence.
    Perhaps, conservationists and what Berry calls “good farmers” have appealed to their opponents’ logic too much, when pathos would be the more effective approach. And so I believe that Berry is right to urge us to reconcile through sentiment (specifically, joy) rather than rationality—to remind ourselves of our shared humanity that science, whether it affirms or negates climate change, can controvert. For me, returning to our original roots, the richer relationships of the past (the family farms, charitable and close neighbors, and intimate animal husbandry for which Berry waxes nostalgic), carries not only a symbolic but also a literal connotation. Just as physical roots run deep in soil fostered by “good farming,” our connections with each other grow through good food. As Berry notes, we have to revert to agriculture to promote human culture. In the end, agribusiness removes empathy entirely from the equation. Industrial farming is the epitome of the “facts” that Berry references in his poem because it rationalizes every aspect of the food system. Sadly, its central commandment, cost-effectiveness, makes sense on a superficial level. It is logical that the consumer demands what is cheapest, as in mass-produced food. But this is why Berry’s words are so important. They implore us to be irrational, to buy more expensive local foods because they embody “joy” for both consumer and producer: The higher quality enhances the pleasure of eating for us, and direct payment to farmers (without the “middle men” of agribusiness) rises in return.
    In a rough sense, this idea corresponds to a prevalent theme that the Vermont Community Foundation has introduced to me: collective impact. An increasing popular theory, collective impact rejects the notion that movers and shakers (such as nonprofits) should begin with a preformed solution to pursue. We might consider this the logical approach. Instead, collective impact maintains that collaboration between participants within a community will culminate in an emergent solution—one that might not have been anticipated beforehand. It is a call for spontaneity in how we seek change. I think that letting remedies manifest when they are ready, or fully formed, is a much more inclusive method that could revolutionize the food system. It would ensure that every stakeholder contributes in some way to Berry’s symbolic conversation, a dialogue about food that creates diversity. In this way, we could avoid making the monocultures of industrial agriculture into a metaphoric “monologue.”
    Berry idealizes a way of life that we cannot revive in modern times, and moreover, I think it’s mostly counterproductive to reminisce. But I’ve discovered daily practices that replicate in the present the romantic past that Berry portrays, and many involve food as a means to achieve mindfulness. For example, though baking has been deemed a “science,” it has become a meditative art for me. It is a welcome respite from the paradox of academia. We study so much in college that our insights can devolve into rote learning. Despite all of our thinking, sometimes we forget to stop and reflect—to ask, quite simply, “why?” The precise measurements, the subtle yet oh-so-significant difference between the abbreviations for tablespoon versus teaspoon, require that I clear the mental clutter and devote my attention wholly to the task at hand. Although college is intellectually stimulating, the emphasis on “doing”—we must mass-produce papers and tests in order to perform at our highest potential—means that we forget how to “make,” as Berry puts it. To make a product entails greater personal attachment and investment. If Berry asserts that, “thoughtless…doing” causes “degradation of the mind,” I wonder if higher education can sometimes (inadvertently) subvert its own lofty ambitions. Thus, I cherish the chances that come along when I can engage fully in the moment.
    Food is often the focal point for me not only because slip-ups in baking or cooking can spell dire consequences, but also because the sensory experience of eating is ephemeral. Flavors force us to be present because they are temporal, leaving the tongue in an instant. It is no coincidence that the times in my life when I’ve felt happiest have involved a kind of culinary deprivation. During a thirty-day wilderness trip on a NOLS semester, the scarcity of our “rations” rendered them more delicious than they would have been ordinarily. In the backcountry, less became more. This is a lesson that I have tried to transfer to my life in “civilization,” and I like to think that it has informed my appreciation for smaller-scale, local food. I value it more because it is a “niche” market relative to industrially produced food (it is less abundant), and because it has a transparency that agribusiness lacks. That is, there are stories of farmers and flora and fauna that lie behind local agriculture, so that my eating becomes a form of listening. In the end, life is a long narration that we tell each other, and if we want to shape history, we should start with the sustenance that fundamentally shapes us.

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