April 19th, 2016
Sometimes, I think it’s really just a failure of imagination.
If we assume, as I think we must, that the timeless Big Question is “how do we feed ourselves,” then imagination looms very large indeed. One one of the reasons that I find myself fascinated by the forgotten history of answers to this question is the breathtaking cleverness of it all. It’s stunning, really, the profound subtlety of how our forebears figured out how to leverage the tiniest of advantages into becoming the dominant species of an entire planet.
For example, cormorant fishing. What?, you may think, as I did, Cormorants? Who the hell would ever eat a cormorant? The answer is “no one,” but as these astonishingly picturesque images show, it was once common for people to use cormorants to fish. The practice survives here and there, but it used to be global, independently discovered in Europe, Asia and the Americas (before the Spanish.) Simply put, the fisherman places collars on his cormorants which allow them to swallow small fish but not larger ones, which they bring back to the fisherman.
It’s a sly demonstration of the gifts bestowed by weakness. In the pantheon of animal life, we’re furless, toothless (in comparison), and not particularly strong — operating equipment which convincingly argued that we were better off outwitting problems instead of trying to overwhelm them. It’s a kind of cognitive judo, the effort to use forces much larger than ourselves and deflect them, just enough, so that they serve our needs. In a way, it creates what you can think of as new environmental niches because of how tightly they fit into the mosaic of other niches rather than displacing them.
I want to say that it means thinking like Nature, but Nature, of course doesn’t think, instead playing dice with the lives of its creatures and keeping the winners and their ways. Dreaming up your niche, rather than hoping to get lucky in the winnowing roulette… now that’s the life.
Or rather, it was because we are now all powered-up and clevered-down, so the fundamental question has become “how do we feed ourselves and still leave the world a garden and not a desert?” That demands both imagination and force of character and, luckily, you can still find people like that.
In England, Gavin Munro is following in the footsteps of an ancient tradition and shaping trees while they’re young, producing furniture that is grown, not made. It is, he points out, startlingly more energy efficient than growing a tree, chopping it up, and reassembling it into the shape that you want. Now, true, Gavin’s furniture is priced way out of range for ordinary people. But what strikes me is the scale of his determination to make a going business of it, and one that, in a remarkable number of ways, truly embodies the notion of sustainability. After all, this is a factory whose feedstocks are sunlight and water and which produces a waste stream of oxygen while it’s sequestering carbon.
If he’s going to charge an arm and leg while he’s working it out, fine with me. Because once he works it out, just about anyone will be able to do it themselves because — unlike your ordinary factory — the capital costs are well within the reach of anyone with a garden.
Meanwhile, Chef Bun Lai of Connecticut is working hard to turn the invasive into the delectable. His restaurants, Miya’s Sushi and now a Florida pop-up called Prey, prominently feature non-native and invasive species, the kinds of things people generally only think about in terms of the damage they do, not the resource they might be. This is very much making your own niche within the mess we’ve made of all the original niches.
If there’s any culinary justice in the world, Chef Bun will be pairing Asian Carp with beer from Half Moon Bay Brewing in California, which is experimenting with building its brews on a foundation of greywater (waste water from washing). They’re using NASA technology to restore the purity of the water and the results seem indistinguishable from regular water. It’s a win-win for drought plagued California, except for one problem — there’s not enough greywater. More than enough is produced, of course, but 20th Century thinking has left us with a system that only understands two kinds of water — fresh and sewage. Good thing all our water infrastructure is crumbling.
Finally, because faltering ecosystems can also be found in many of our bank accounts, wit can help here, too. When one Leanne Brown was pondering topics for her masters project in Food Studies at NYU, she hit upon the idea of writing a cookbook built around the $4/day allowance that SNAP (aka Food Stamps) provides. But instead of a poverty-level survival manual, what Brown wrote was something that made you excited about having a meal, regardless of what it cost.
The result was that the PDF racked up over 100,000 downloads in a few weeks, which inspired Brown to mount a Kickstarter campaign to print books for those who don’t have computer access. It’s genius all the way down, and I suggest that you download your own copy of Good and Cheap, and taste the fruits of imagination.