Thursday, May 1, 2008

Walking the fine line between admiration and hero-worship

I'm just finishing Michael Pollan's book Second Nature, a story of his own adventures with gardening, and a fascinating exploration of the history of gardens and our attitudes about the natural world.  He delves into the origins and moral implications of the lawn and its pivotal place in suburban culture and discusses the inherent snobbery of old varieties of roses (occasionally found in those who cultivate them).  The main thrust of the book, as I see it, is Pollan's discussion of the great divide in our thinking about humans' place in the natural world. He makes some provocative and powerful arguments against the concept of wilderness preservation as it is currently practiced by some environmental organizations (I say currently, but the book was published in 1991, so these practices may have changed substantially in the past 17 years).  Without summarizing the whole argument (he says it much more cogently than I could, plus I am making a shameless plug for the book here, in case that fact escaped your attention), I will just say that, as with all the books I've read by him, he's given me a lot to think about. Also, I have a fellow writer's appreciation for the skill with which he strings words together. Even if I didn't find myself agreeing with a lot of what he says, I'd still read him just for the pleasure of his wordsmithing.

But.  I haven't as yet included Pollan's Web site in my links because I am wary of contributing to the cult of personality I sense growing around him here in Portland (and perhaps elsewhere as well, but I can't speak to that, since I don't live elsewhere).  Pollan was here in February for a reading from his latest book, In Defense of Food, and I was fortunate enough to be able to scrape together the money for a ticket.  Unlike some authors who are fabulous on the page but not so great in person, Pollan didn't disappoint.  He's every bit as engaging in person as he is in print.  He has an impressive grasp of complicated issues (issues whose complexity most of us never realized before), and his ability to lay those issues out in an intelligent, largely non-partisan manner (his latest book excepted), and his wry, slightly distancing sense of humor about the absurdities of many of our attitudes about foods are very evident.

So the fact that I admire the guy is obvious, and shouldn't need to be defended, but I am really having a hard time with the tendency among some, (and I include myself here) to begin every sentence about food sustainability with "Michael Pollan says..." I admire a lot of other food sustainability folks as well:  nutritionist Marion Nestle, for example.  Her book Food Politics really got me thinking, for the first time, about the ways in which our eating habits have been manipulated by agribusiness, and how the USDA functions essentially as a lobbying and regulatory body for those agribusinesses.  Joel Salatin, a farmer in Virginia, has been farming sustainably for more than 40 years and has written a number of books about his experiences and those of his customers. He's a total crank, politically speaking, and some of his non-food opinions make my hair curl, but I admire his longevity on the land, his perseverance, his inventiveness and his commitment to sustainable farm practices.  Although I have some issues with it, I also enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, particularly the sidebars contributed by her husband, Stephen Hopp.  And the chapter on sustainable food in Bill McKibben's Deep Economy has some eye-opening statistics about how conventional food is grown, transported and processed, and what that style of farming has done to our land, our labor practices, and our economy over the last 50-60 years.  I'll throw in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me as well, for their humorous and chilling expose of the world of American fast food.

So my longwinded point is, I admire a lot of writers on food and food sustainability, not just Pollan.  It happens that his star is particularly ascendant just now and he's captured a large portion of the sustainability world's (and, I assume, the general public's) interest of late, with In Defense of Food, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and his articles in the New York Times.  

The other point I want to make is that Pollan himself has no interest in being a food sustainability guru.  During the Q & A at his appearance here in February he made it clear that people shouldn't be changing their lifestyles based on his say-so.  He seemed bewildered and slightly annoyed at the idea that his words should be taken as some kind of Food Holy Writ by his readers.  And I admire that as well, his reluctance to be cast in the role of savior, and his insistence that we become thoughtful food consumers and figure this stuff out for ourselves.

I was going to wind up with the question, "How do I express my admiration for the guy without sounding like a groupie?" but I think I've answered that here.  So I am adding his Web site to my links, and I encourage you to check it out.

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