Friday, December 25, 2009

At the drive-in

The flea market at the drive-in in North Fort Myers is and isn't like a lot of Third World open-air markets I visited in Latin America. It is a lot like them in the random assortment of merchandise on offer, the crowds, the hustling and bustling. There's differences, too: you won't find vendors casually offering handguns and assault rifles in Guadalajara, La Paz or Valparaíso.
Strolling around, looking to meet with a citrus grower I want to do business with, I noticed another difference with the markets I remember from my youth. It's kind of hard to explain, but I saw a lot of tough faces and hard stares there. Market days in Latin America are joyous events, and I don't mean to say that everybody is laughing all the time, but the atmosphere is usually relaxed and laid back. Vendors hawk their wares with musical, outlandish, funny-as-hell claims and rhymes, 'if you like the good stuff come see here, if you don't, don't', 'hurry up and get yours before my wife kills me for selling so cheap', 'ladies, these pumps will make your ass look like Shakira's!'... you get the picture. If you understand the language, you have to smile as you walk by, booth keepers smile right back at you, and when you're interested, you ask, 'how much?' and start haggling right away. You never pay the asked for price, that's rule number one, and you bargain with a smile, trying to outwit the vendor, which is never an easy thing to do.
Anyway, the point is, that is not the vibe I got from this particular market, on the contrary, I saw a lot of anger there. As in, 'why am I reduced to being here trying to sell my collection of NASCAR model cars and the jet-ski I got when I refinanced?'.
In my experience, the markets where poor people congregate are always the best, the most lively and interesting. The poor in Latin America have been poor all their lives, dating back generations. They have learned to make do and get by with very little, and a lot of times they are no less happy about their lot in life than better off people. One of the happiest persons I've ever seen was a toothless old Indian woman in a market in Oaxaca that I bought a bag of roasted, salted chapulines (grasshoppers) from, years ago. I ended up sitting with her all morning, being introduced to all the other vendors, sharing my snack with them and being offered endless cervezas by people many degrees poorer than I was.
In contrast, a lot of the poor at the drive-in fleamarket have only recently become so. A few years ago, work clearing land for new developments or hanging sheet rock was plentiful and well-paid, the value of houses kept creeping up month after month, and opportunities for refinancing one's mortgage and take some cash for new toys were everywhere. A lot of those toys are on sale now, at places like the drive-in, craigslist and e-bay.
This is all very commonplace, and has been said a million times by much better writers and observers of reality. I guess my unique approach to the subject lies in noticing the lack of joie de vivre I saw at this market, compared to the rancheras and jokes and smiles in markets where even poorer people congregate. I guess it will take some time for us here in the U.S. to re-adjust our expectations, realize a lot of our wealth wasn't real but imagined, and discover that you can still live a happy life with a lot less material posessions.
Here's what worries me: I look right, there's a bunch of people with long faces, stressed out about unpaid bills, jobs lost and mounting debt; look left, there's the fellow selling shotguns and pistols. Enough said, right? And I'm a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, don't take me wrong. But isn't it time someone took a break from receiving peace prizes and playing golf with bankers, and went on national TV to explain that the good times are not coming back, that a new New Deal is in the works to put people back to work building rail lines and solar panels, and that we should tighten our belts and act like adults about it? Instead of propping up the Wall St. greed machine and priming it for the next bubble of imaginary wealth?
I'll just leave here with a very striking image that I think describes the drive-in flea market perfectly, one little vignette that speaks louder than the fruit and gun and golf ball vendors, or the faux cowboy wearing big sideburns and crooning Johnny Cash songs to a karaoke machine, or the preacher hoping to bring some souls to salvation next to a table laden with rusty tools and odd bits and ends for sale: there's this fellow, right. And he's a big fellow, 300+ lbs at least, big frame, long blonde hair and beard, probably in his mid-40's. And he's brought something to market, and is sitting right next to his truck. His truck is a Dodge Ram 3500. 6.7 L Turbo Diesel engine, with a payload of over 5,000 lbs (about 2 and a half tons), and a towing capacity of about 17,000 lbs; let's not even go into the fuel economy of this monster, it's too depressing. But what is this guy selling from the back of his mighty truck? Chinese-made toy cars. He has a few boxes of Chinese battery powered little cars. And he's mad he's not selling any. They go for $4 each, or 3 for $10. He has a few on display on a folding table, and my kid approaches to check them out. 'Don't touch anything, kid', he says, and shoots me an evil look. I grab my kid and give the guy the evil eye, too, before walking away. I don't buy Chinese junk, anyway, on principle. Least of all, from overweight clowns hoping to be yet another middleman profiting from slave labor and lax environmental regulations a world away. You want to bring something to market? Go make something yourself, grow some tomatoes, bozo.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sustainable Initiatives

Last Dec. 4th, the usual suspects got together to check out what's being done to improve sustainability locally, and listen to some amazing presentations by very smart people, including Dr. Harold Wanless, University of Miami (Sea level Rise, Changes in Florida’s Coasts), Tom Champeau, Regional Director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (Habitat & Species on the Front Line of Climate Change), and Dr. Heike Lueger, Chief Scientist, Carbon Solutions America (The Future of Carbon Trading & its Impact in Florida Economy), among others.
The speaker I was most interested in, though, was Roy Beckford, UF/IFAS Agriculture & Natural Resources Agent, who talked about "The Prospects of Jatropha curcas & Sustainable Biodiesel". Years ago, I was working on some projects around a farm I owned at the time, and needed help and information. I wrote to Roy, and he wrote right back, sending along a ton of useful info that I was able to put in practice immediately. I've been a big fan ever since. And after meeting a number of local farmers and gardeners, it seems to me that each and every one of them has something good to say about this helpful and good-natured guy. Oh, and of course I also appreciate the work of Martha Avila, his sidekick at IFAS, so I wouldn't have missed his presentation for anything.
Mr Beckford has been on the forefront of groundbreaking research on Jatropha curcas as a biodiesel feedstock in Florida and other tropical environments for a number of years now, and his work is starting to gain momentum, as data accumulates, and plots planted with Jatropha that he's started on several fields and farms reach maturity.
In fact, I had just been planting some potted young Jatrophas of his just a few days prior, in one of the plots he's monitoring, to replace ground-planted plants that had died. This particular experiment of his, at Ken Ryan's farm in North Fort Myers, I believe has to do with the hardiness of the crop, as the plants there are pretty much left alone, not fertilized, watered or helped in any way.
Roy's presentation was very interesting, he gave a packed auditorium an outlook of current research and some insights about where we're headed with biodiesels in general and Jatropha in particular. This is a man whose work has to be followed closely, as he truly is on the cutting edge of a hugely important area of research that is bringing him continued and increasing national and international attention. We are fortunate to have him here in SW FL, and I encourage readers to support him and his work. A good place to start your research if you want to find more about him and his current projects is his IFAS page here.
Besides Mr Beckford and the other speakers, a number of local green entrepreneurs were there, including of course yours truly, there to promote edible gardens and the GreenMarket. Talking about the GreenMarket, our Salvadoran fair trade coffee guy (who also has a thousand other projects), Billy Sol, was in charge of caffeine trafficking at the meeting, and the local household products division of WOW Green of Jonathan Nemath was represented as well. Last but not least, Bob with B&B Organics was there, promoting his worm castings 100% organic fertilizer, and learning about other alternative garden products.
Dan Moser, longtime Lee Co. Bike and Pedestrian coordinator and Florida Weekly columnist, among other things, was there, chatting with commissioner Ray Judah about the Complete Streets Resolution and other issues.
I met Faye Najar of Recycled Plastic Factory LLC of Englewood, who is as enthusiastic as I am about the future of this industry - producing 100% recycled plastic lumber. Maintenance free, heavy duty, doesn't rot or splinter, and above all, environmentally friendly and finds a second life for plastic, a material that while undoubtedly useful, has become a huge problem as it doesn't degrade and is choking everything from waterways to landfills to the ocean.
Event sponsors also included Carbon Solutions America, Waste Management, Empower, the Florida Bicycle Association and Charlotte County's Green Building Program. I uploaded some pictures of the meeting here, and would like to thank IFAS Extension for keeping the discussion open, and constantly providing venues and forums to get together and search for better, greener, more sustainable ways to do things here in SW FL.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

An island within an island

Island Botanicals, located near Bokeelia in Pine Island, truly is an island of sustainability, sound agricultural practices and smart, diversified production. Owner Mike Wallace was inspecting some onion starts he was about to put in the ground today as I arrived, and was glad to give me a tour of his 4+ acres, where he grows a dizzingly diverse variety of crops, ornamentals, exotics and natives, fruits and herbs. If you're interested in seeing some pictures of his place, you can find them here.
We actually started inside, as he was cooking some bacon for his dogs - yeah, that's some pampered dogs he has there! I checked out his Pine Island digs while he finished cooking, a typical house on pillars in the island style, beautifully blending with the vegetation all around it, and decorated with much taste inside, in an Oriental style, with many objects brought from Mike and his wife's travels around the world.
As Mike guided me around his property in his usual laid back style, we picked a healthier breakfast for ourselves, a couple of ripe bananas from one of his trees. We discussed the fact that commercially grown bananas are very prone to getting contaminated with pesticides, because of the porous nature of their skins. And what a shame it is that more bananas are not grown in SWFL instead of being imported. Put two green guys together, a rant is sure to follow!
Food production is the main focus of the place, from basic staples -sweet potatoes, beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions- to tropical fruit -mangoes, bananas, papayas, starfruit-, greens -lettuces, bok choi, mustards, chard, arugula and many others-, and herbs -basils, cilantro, kafer lime, used for the fragrant leaves and not for the fruit.
There's also room for ornamentals -palms, bromeliads, orchids- and one of a kind specimens: Madagascar chestnut, Ling Ling, which is the national tree of Thailand, very fragrant, smells a bit like a gardenia, also called golden shower tree for the cascading yellow flowers it produces, different kinds of ginger, passion fruit, bamboos... most of it keeping with the Oriental theme, as you can see!
There's several Moringa trees spread around the property. This is a "miracle" tree that could solve the problem of hunger, especially in Africa. According to, the leaves of the Moringa tree contain 7 times the vitamin C of oranges, 4 times the calcium of milk, 3 times the potassium of bananas, 2 times the protein of yogurt... you get the picture. Mike says they are very easy to grow, literally just put a branch in the ground, and it will start a new tree. He showed me a tree on a corner of his property that he tried to eliminate on several occassions, and it kept coming back. The nuts of the Moringa are also edible, and it has many medicinal properties as well as the nutritional value, according to ancient Vedic and African lore. If you look at the map of world malnutrition, it coincides almost exactly with the tropical range where this incredible tree can be grown. So I think this is one of the examples of areas where our humble local farmers can be on the cutting edge of contributing to the solution of massive problems, Mike experimenting with Moringa trees is one case, just like Ken Ryan of Herban Gardens in N. Ft. Myers trying to grow Jatropha for biodiesel with the help of Roy Beckford of IFAS Extension is another.
As for techniques for growing the more traditional herbs and veggies Michael brings to the Green Market at the Alliance for the Arts every Saturday, he employs organic and pesticide free methods, including crop rotation, fallowing, planting in many small plots where pests can be isolated and controlled without spreading to other areas, Diatomaceous earth — also known as DE, TSS, diatomite, diahydro, kieselguhr— a naturally occurring, soft, chalk-like sedimentary rock that is easily crumbled into a fine white to off-white powder (according to Wiki) for slug control, composting, manures and even hair from local salons as fertilizer, really a wide variety of sustainable methods for growing healthy, delicious food locally.
Island Botanicals is also one of the few local growers that consistently delivers during the summer months, making it a valuable assett for keeping residents supplied with locally grown produce year-round.
Plans for the future include intensifying the production of sprouts with a partner, and introducing escargot (edible) snails to an area of the property.
I have to apologize if I'm missing something here, as Mike's beautiful dog Ramsay took advantage of a moment of distraction while I was checking out the cashew tree and tried to eat my notes (and my clipboard) for lunch! See, the "my dog ate my homework" excuse is true after all, in some cases!
We're very proud to have Island Botanicals at the Green Market, Mike always brings interesting stuff and is very knowledgeable, customers love him, he's a one-of-a-kind fellow, and I was very impressed at his wonderful groves, grounds and gardens.
After visiting him, I still had time to stop at Andy's Island Seafood for a locally caught lunch, and at Billy Sol's place to check out his experiments in vermiculture (worm produced fertilizer), edible flowers, and the production of Neem. But those stories will have to wait, as they both warrant blog posts and photo galleries of their own.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

“We want to stay small and support local farmers and growers.”

November 18, 2009

Lee, Collier, Charlotte county farmers markets bloom with produce

by drew sterwald

Emily White clutched a bouquet of yellow roses in one hand and a bag of potatoes and bell peppers in the other. 

She’d just made the rounds at the Chamber of Commerce farmers market in downtown Cape Coral. With friends Marianne Masterson and Joann Hasselbeck, she drives every week from Sanibel to shop the aisles of produce, fresh seafood and bakery goods at the market.

“It’s less expensive than the store, and it’s fresh,” she said. “We come every Saturday and then go out for breakfast. We make a day of it.”

Weekly farmers markets like the Cape’s are multiplying like mushrooms. Coconut Point in Estero launched a new one last week. After a test run last spring, Sanibel’s market is celebrating its first full season. 

Turf wars are even erupting. Two markets in Bonita Springs are feuding over competing on the same day, and insiders at more than one market claim managers try to poach better vendors.

All this over fresh veggies.

These open-air markets can feel like traveling fairs. Vendors drive from one market to another like gypsies, selling their wares in tents. Musicians strum guitars and sing. Shoppers stroll with dogs on leashes.

When high season kicks in, about 7,000 people shop at Cape’s Saturday market, according to manager Claudia St. Onge.
Most come for the produce, which may be grown locally or in such Florida farm strongholds as Immokalee, Plant City and Ruskin.

“Those guys are our ‘anchor stores,’” St. Onge said. “Produce really carries the market.”

Produce also is the backbone of the almost 20-year-old Bonita Springs Lions Club’s farmers market/flea market at The Promenade, said manager John Elliff.

“The biggest draw is fresh vegetables and fruit,” he said. 

Shoppers at farmers markets in Southwest Florida now see only the season’s first offerings — the early bloomers. Growers will have greater quantity and diversity as they get deeper into the season.

A tour of markets last weekend turned up interesting food findings:

• Kumquats, white chocolate bread and fried cheese curds (Cape).

• Dried carambola stars, locally smoked pepper bacon and pretty pink salad turnips (North Naples).

• Gourmet cheese, pulled pork barbecue and hot peppers in shades of red, gold, purple and green (Alliance for the Arts, Fort Myers).

At the Alliance’s GreenMarket, Jennifer Rogers of Inyoni Organics in Naples sold arugula, bok choy, red-leaf lettuce, mustard and collard greens under the generous shade of a sprawling poinciana. Greens cost $2 a bunch; squash and cucumbers were $1 apiece or three for $2.

A month from now, she should have onions, carrots and beans, too. Planting just started in September.

“You never really know what you’re going to have from week to week,” Rogers said.
That frustrates some shoppers, especially during fallow summer months, according to Santiago De Choch. A native and organic landscaper, he oversees the GreenMarket, visiting farms to ensure vendors use sustainable practices or practice organic methods. 

De Choch also educates consumers about the seasonality of crops and the benefits of eating food that hasn’t traveled far from the field. As soon as a vegetable is picked, it begins to lose nutrients, moisture and flavor. The less time spent on a truck or shelf, the better.

Buying locally also supports the hometown economy and the future of farming.
“We’re trying to focus on local food,” De Choch said. “We want to stay small and support local farmers and growers.”

The Egg Lady vendor, for instance, had flown the coop Saturday. Her “girls” weren’t laying, De Choch said. “We’d rather not have eggs than go to a supermarket for them,” he said. “That’s what sets us apart.”

Additional Facts
Weekly farmers markets
These are some of the weekly farmers markets in Southwest Florida; it is not comprehensive and does not include single-vendor markets open daily. Many markets are open seasonally.


• Worden Farm Greenmarket: 
9 a.m. to 1 p.m. January through March at Fishermen’s Village, off Marion Avenue, Punta Gorda. 

• Bonita Springs: Locally grown produce, fresh seafood, potted orchids, cut flowers, potted plants, Florida citrus and much more. 7 a.m.-1 p.m.
27300 Old 41 Road, south of Riverside Park.


• Downtown Fort Myers: Fruits, vegetables, fresh flowers, local seafood, plants, palms, fruit trees, flowering shrubs, and doggie treats are available. 7 a.m.-2 p.m. at Centennial Park under the Caloosahatchee Bridge. 321-7098.

• Coconut Point, Estero: Fruits, vegetables, baked goods, fresh fish, plants and flowers, jams and chutneys, local honey. 10 a.m.-2 p.m. in the parking lot adjacent to Panera Bread. 249-9480.


• Alliance for the Arts’ GreenMarket: Fresh vegetables — most locally grown and some organic — as well as fresh fish, natural salsas and chutneys, locally produced honey, bakery goods, native plants, gourmet cheese, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., 10091 McGregor Blvd., Fort Myers. 939-2787. 

• Bonita Springs: Fresh cut flowers, folk art, collectibles, fresh local produce, fresh off the boat seafood, local artists, baked goods and crafts. 7 a.m. to noon at The Promenade Shoppes at the northwest corner U.S. 41 and Bonita Bay Boulevard. Sponsored by the Lion’s Club, the market has also just expanded to Wednesdays.

• Cape Coral: Fresh fruits and vegetables, Gulf seafood, baked goods, native plants and trees, Wisconsin cheeses, fresh roasted nuts and more. 8 a.m.-1 p.m. October through May at Club Square off S.E. 47th Terrace and S.E. 10th Place. 549-6900. 

• North Naples Green Market: Fresh local produce, organic fruits and vegetables, herbs and plants, gourmet breads and pastries, fresh flowers, seafood, meats, tropical fruit jams and salsas, local honey, personal chef creations and a unique selection of upscale artisan items. 8 a.m.-1 p.m. at Collection at Vanderbilt, corner of Vanderbilt Beach Road and Airport Pulling Road. 249-9480.

• Third Street Farmer’s Market: Fruits, vegetables, breads, pastas, sauces, cakes, pies and other pastries, cheeses, fresh crab, and prepared foods, flowers, plants, soaps, shell mirrors and frames, woven coconut frond hats and baskets, dog treats and accessories. 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. behind Tommy Bahama in the Neapolitan parking lot between Third Street South and Gordon Drive.

Saturdays and Sundays

• Pine Island Tropical Fruit Market: Tropical fruit, plants, organic vegetables and greens. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday (also 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays June-September). Stringfellow Road at Ficus Tree Lane, Bokeelia.


• Sanibel Island Farmers Market: More than 30 vendors will have local fruits and vegetables, flowers, plants, seafood, bakery items, cheeses, jams, nuts, pasta, dog cookies and other products from 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Tahitian Gardens, 1975 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel. 691-9249 or 218-1055.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Archaic Revival

I borrowed the title for this post from one of Terence McKenna's books. I'm sure Terence wouldn't mind. He passed away a few years ago, but left a body of work and a number of deep, original ideas, to justify his time on this Earth, and that of several thousand of his contemporaries, left and right. Actually, just the other day I was looking for skeletons in closets, and a letter from him appeared. From the late 90's. Happy that his work was being published in South America.
Old Terence McKenna, on his soap box, a soap box of the intellect really, and of deep spirituality, railing against the sprawl, the materialism, the mega-malls, the turning of our backs to Nature.
This is where Nick Batts' farm, Inyoni Organics, appears in the narrative, because.... I mean just look at the pictures here. All this, with chicken manure, and soap water, and an old John Deere tractor and some very dedicated hands. Just look at the scene. Doesn't it awake something in you? Something long forgotten, something that you may never have experienced yourself but is in your jeans-genes? That's right. A patch of land, surrounded by forest on all sides. Human toil, sweat, the uncertainty of the floods and the locusts and all the biblical stuff. To eke, to coax something out of the Earth. The Archaic Revival.
Right off the bat, let me say that Mr Nick and his people deserve all the support we can give them, so if you happened upon this and you live in this part of the world, please show up every Saturday morning, from 9 to 1 (although I hope he runs out of stuff to sell before closing time), buy some of their produce, be their friend. Support them, like I said. Colonial and McGregor, the big park around the Alliance for the Arts, you can't miss it. So that's that.
It seems that all I say, and all I write about, is about how we've become so out of touch with the realities of the land, and of Nature, and how we need to start paying more attention to how our food is grown and what compromises we make regarding this, and all that. So I won't say anything about that now. Except that Inyoni Organics doesn't make any compromises at all, and I saw it myself, and it's not bullshit. A lot of people have PR departments working on making them look green and sustainable and whatever. Mr Nick & Co. are the real deal, period.
I will talk about how it feels to be driving on Immokalee Rd, and this happens every time I'm in that area, in fact I have a friend that lives near those parts too, who raises chickens and is the most knowledgeable guy about local insects and plants, but to be driving along that road, and one whole side has been colonized by aliens. I mean on one side of the road, East I guess, the sun was coming up that way, you have a reality one can make sense of: Florida pine forest, nurseries, farms, some scattered houses. Like I said, it makes sense. We can live with that. It's not an Eden. It's not the primeval forests that Terence spent half his life wandering into and about. It's a compromise. The US Mail gets there. You can mail-order seeds or shells for the shotgun or a subscription to Vanity Fair. You can have a kick-ass organic farm there, too. You can raise some chickens, like my friend B, and go to work elsewhere every morning if you need to. You can get cable TV, if you care for that.
But the other side of the road has been colonized, razed, it's become a caricature of paradise, a completely unsustainable distopia of golf course after golf course, all greedy and thirsty and hungry for pesticides and fertilizers and cheap illegal immigrant labor, for gas-guzzling leaf blowers and lawn mowers and all full of desperate signs, "NOW DOWN TO THE LOW 200's", etc, you get the picture. And next to the golf courses, McMansions. All built in haste to milk the bubble. All made of cheap vinyl and faux stuff and Chinese drywall, all built on a little plot carefully poisoned for generations before the foundation is laid (they do that, you know... it's not a figure of speech), all with generous foyers and family rooms and granite countertops and garages big enough for the Pathfinder and the Patriot with room to spare for the jet-ski and the ATV.
Good farmland razed for this. Native forest razed for this. Charming country lanes, old homesteads, bald eagle nests, citrus groves razed for this shit. It makes sense, if you can only measure life in cold hard dollars. If you measure life that way, you're a poor cretin. I don't want to meet you or talk to you or be your friend. Because, look at what you're doing. Just look for a second.
OK, what I'm trying to say here is that all that land would have been much better off had it been left to the care of the likes of Nick. Or Horace. Or Ken. Or any farmer with an old pickup truck, a shotgun on a rack and a confederate flag (and I hate those, the flags I mean, not the shotguns, they're OK in the hands of decent adults)
Will we see an Archaic Revival, with the whole fucking bubble deflating and losing steam? Will we see Suburbia reconverted to farming? Will our current Gulf Coast Town Center shopping extravaganza be the last one built, ever? Will we have to suffer yet more golf courses and McMansions for graying people who can't think of anything better to do than to hit a little white ball on a chemical lawn and then drive the Caddy to Carrabba's for early bird dinner?
Who knows, and the current administration doesn't have a clue. These guys, starting with the empty suit in chief (and I voted for him, so shut up), are creating Cash For Clunkers schemes with yet more hastily printed money, making all the right noises about "growth" and blowing the Goldman Sachs honchos every night, if you'll pardon my French. When they should be supporting small farmers and manufacturers, thinking hard about how to reconvert our society to something more sustainable that can survive the coming crises, thinking about how to grow our food close to home, invest in rail and bicycles and dense urbanization that doesn't require Mom putting 70 miles a day to drive to work and then drive Bratleigh around for ballet and Cici's pizza in the Suburban. In a word, I don't have a lot of hope anyone has a clue. Except for a few guys here and there. Like Nick, gentleman farmer, who I hope makes a killing at the Market and has a really good season.
Sorry for the rant, but I'm too tired to think straight. It's the best I could come up with, and apologies if any feathers were ruffled. It's all in good cheer.
Good night, and good luck.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Of Markets and Farmers

Some of you know that I started managing the Green Market at the Alliance for the Arts a while ago. It's something that I'm very proud to be doing, it gives me a lot of satisfaction and pleasure, and a few headaches too.
Being a bit of an oddball myself, a lot of the pleasure comes from working with so many wonderful characters. Very independent-minded people, very proud of their individuality, very hard working, original and creative members of our community. From the farmers to the musicians to the green entrepreneurs to the cooks, they are the grassroots making change happen.
Now, ours is a smallish outfit. We value quality over quantity. But not only that. We have a very clear idea of where we want to go with it. The main thing we're interested in is local production. Buying local is the solution to so many of our problems. Limiting carbon footprints? Check. Reducing dependence on foreign fossil fuels? Check. Stimulating the local economy, reducing unemployment close to home? Check, check.
Of course, we can't be 100% local. Not yet, anyway. We don't produce our coffee here in SW FL, for example. But there's one area where we are very clear we want local, and only local, and nothing but local: fresh farm produce, fresh eggs, fresh fish, fresh honey, fresh fruit. We don't make compromises there. And that's where some of the headaches I was talking about appear.
We Americans have grown accustomed to having what we want, when we want it, no questions asked. At a good price, too. Isn't this what globalization is all about? Well, it turns out globalization has a cost. There's a hidden cost to cheap tomatoes year round: you grow them in Mexico, using human shit for fertilizer and cheap child labor for picking, not caring too much for environmental regulations, and send them over here using cheap fossil fuels. Or you grow them in California, under slightly better conditions, using illegal immigrant labor and tons of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides. In both cases the end result is the same: your local Big Mart has tomatoes that taste like cardboard and are probably not very good for you always available.
With dwindling oil supplies, the "cheap fuel" part of the equation is about to change pretty radically. The only reason we are not seeing the cost of a barrel of oil shooting through the roof is a widespread global recession that curbs demand. Yeah, there's alternatives to oil. But nothing that can bring strawberries from Chile to the produce aisle and Pacific tuna, whose populations are depleting rapidly anyway, to the sushi counter cheaply and efficiently.
There's more to creating wealth, it seems to me, than video game developers in Oakland hiring software engineers in Bangalore to create the latest shoot-'em-up to be manufactured in China and shipped to our malls just in time for Black Friday and the Holiday Season. That might be a part of it. But how about growing food near where we live? Outsourcing what we put on our table every night to giant agribusinesses thousands of miles away doesn't seem like a smart thing to do. I mean those guys hiccup, we go without dinner. Not to mention their stuff is not very good, really.
Our little Green Market, unlike other markets in this area, makes sure it is doing its part to stimulate local production, supporting local farmers and other food vendors, without false advertising. I'm tired of visiting other markets, and I won't name names here, and seeing the same iceberg lettuces that you can get at Big Mart, the same peaches from Georgia and apples from Argentina. During the summer months, very little can be grown in South Florida, everybody knows that, or should know that. I'm constantly explaining to visitors that our produce offerings are very limited during the summer. But that this is so for a reason. And that, marvel of marvels, people lived with this fact for many generations here in Florida, and in many parts of the world still do. There's mango season, and avocado season, there's some wonderful guys growing stuff in shade houses and hydroponically, there's great locally made pickles and jams and preserves, there's starfruit and fish and chickens... but some stuff is just not available. "You can't always get what you want", like Mick Jagger used to sing... maybe that's a good thing, working on the expectations side of it, not assuming everything has to be there all the time, getting a bit more educated about it. It also helps you enjoy those peppers and tomatoes and cucumbers when they finally show up, they taste delicious, nothing like the cardboard produce at the Big Mart...
So you can see that we are trying to educate the public about local food production, which is what I do with my Green Coaches project too - that's why I think the two jobs work so well together. As the cooler season nears (and it's been a brutally hot and unusually long summer), more produce vendors are joining us. And we make sure that when they say "local", they are local. Tomorrow morning I have to check out a farm, see what's on the ground, make sure it's the same stuff that will be at Market on Saturday. Make sure nobody's buying stuff from a wholesaler and unwrapping it and putting it in crates and boxes that look "rustic" and "just picked", if you catch my hint here. No way. Not us.
And going to farms, learning from farmers, has to be one of my favorite things in the world. Farmers have a great sense of humor. A bit coarse and down to earth, sometimes. Fart and manure jokes are not uncommon. But most farmers are great observers both of nature and of human nature, see right through the BS and tell it like it is.
I'll take farmers over advertising executives any day of the week.
There's this great German gentleman farmer I visited a while ago, with the biggest collection of VW's in the world, 5 cows, many hogs and turkeys and chickens and a pond full of tilapia - he insisted I take some home, fished them right out of the water (with a hook baited with bread) for me while we drank a couple of cold ones. He owns this great restaurant that is a vendor with us, and I'm trying to get him to do some killing in his herds and flocks and put them in sandwiches for our Market customers: "locally raised, locally killed, locally cooked and locally eaten", how about that for a tagline.
There's Ken with his microgreens and gourmet herbs and heirloom veggies, with his great sense of humor and attention to detail, and the encyclopedia-like amount of knowledge he has about his craft. There's Mike with his outsized island style sombrero, easygoing ways from the times he was a wanderer and bohemian in the Caribbean, his gingers and carambolas and yams. There's the women of Rabbit Run Farms with their great eggplants and hydro greens. There's Nick from Inyoni Organics joining us in a week or two, when his stuff is ready, and some others too.
And still, it's never enough in the summer. I always have to answer questions about us not having grapes or lettuce "like the other markets". And I answer them with a smile, as many times as necessary. I talk about all the stuff I just talked about here, and much more. With pleasure.
We have other vendors at the Green Market, with great products, natural homemade soaps and candles, eco-friendly cleaning products, plants and planters and fertilizers and flowers and breads and salsas and jams. We have some arts and crafts, and more want to join us all the time. We have some pretty cool stuff.
But farmers are our best friends. The original markets, back in the day, were by farmers, for farmers. You either bought from them, or sold to them. They were the economic engines of their communities, the people you could depend on to put food on your table.
And at our Green Market we recognize that, and we want to support them as much as we can. I think you should too. Summer's almost gone. Soon, there will be more local produce available. Take the time for a pleasant stroll outside of the Alliance for the Arts this Saturday and every Saturday, see what's just come out of the ground, the beehive, the tree, the Gulf. Check out the great crafts and delicious foods and green products. Let your local dollar stay where it belongs, here. In the end, it will make its way back to you.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

An urban community garden in Fort Myers

When Green Coaches was created, a few months ago, one of the decisions we made was to not advertise in the traditional sense - for one thing, our budget was (and is) too small, but there's other reasons as well. We are drowning, choking, in advertising. Sometimes it seems that we are approaching a sensory overload, where every single second of our lives and every available square inch is taken with a commercial message. The folks at Adbusters have been exploring this subject for a while.
So it was decided to do things differently, away from marketing & advertising: instead of claiming to be good at something, we just try to be good at something and hope that word spreads around. Doing a good job is the best advertising. Also, being reliable and honest, not using pressure tactics to force a sale, that kind of thing. Totally old-fashioned, I know. Besides, not a lot of landscaping companies do edible and organic projects, although I'm sure that's about to change, fast.
But the best thing we are doing so far is getting involved in neighborhoods and communities, volunteering to help with starting community gardens everywhere they'll let us. Community centers, private homes, churches. If they want a garden, we'll help.
A few days ago, I had the opportunity to spend the morning helping set up a large community garden on Cuba St, just off of Martin Luther King, Jr, Blvd, sponsored by a great community organization, Quality Life Center. Many volunteers showed up, both from the neighborhood and from groups like SW FL Coalition For Change, to work under the direction of QLC memebers Ms Vonda Curry and Mr James Matthews, as well as local environmentalist and community organizer Kim Trebatoski. 13 raised beds were created, and planted with tomatos, beans, greens, okra, lettuce and carrots. Home Depot donated most of the tools, including two wheelbarrows.
This was so much fun, my mood improved even more in the following days (I say "even more" because I've been pretty happy since I don't work in an office doing graphic design -advertising- all day long anymore, and since I quit smoking several months ago). Someone needs to work on a theory of how doing stuff that you really enjoy can have enormous health and mood benefits; or perhaps it's been done already and I don't know about it.
In any case, there was so much crammed together in one morning that is positive and enjoyable, that I can't think of a better way to spend my time: not just the satisfaction of seeing the garden take shape, but also teaching a bunch of kids how to plant stuff, and learning from neighborhood old-timers that showed up, as well as exercising, cracking jokes with everyone and promoting my business in a sustainable way.
I can't post photo albums here, but if you'd like to see some more pictures from that day, they are here. And don't forget to contact Green Coaches if you have a garden project yourself!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Whole Foods fiasco

The other day, I had the opportunity to visit the famous Whole Foods store, the one located in Naples, for the first time. My impressions on it are mixed, but they tend towards the negative.
While having access to products that are produced in a sustainable way is, I reckon, generally a good thing, the way everything is now branded as "green" would be funny if it wasn't so depressing.
I mean, the first thing you see when you walk into this Wal-Mart sized monster of a store is crates upon crates of bottled water. Drinking water in plastic bottles, which has to be one of the most outrageously unsustainable consumer products available. Oh, but this bottled water is "green", see. I can't figure out how or why, as it uses a plastic bottle, just like the other brands at the other stores.
The BS and the hype were everywhere you looked. I had to laugh at the produce section. How is flying "organic" berries and apples from California and Chile "sustainable"? This "organic" label, by the way... it's gotten out of control. I was talking to local farmer Ken Ryan this morning, and he was telling me how it's all a racket, where you have to kick back a percentage of your profit to the certification agency that gives you the "organic" label, where you can actually use some chemicals as long as you purchase them from their vendors list, and similar stories that show you how shady the whole deal has become, a game with words and perceptions, just like the carbon offsets fiasco, and so many other miracles of branding and marketing, where you are allowed to carry on with the old ways as long as you are fluent in newspeak and can convince the public that "my water in a plastic bottle is better than other waters in plastic bottles because there's an 'authority' somewhere that says so".
Take the development at Babcock Ranch, where they are once again razing some of the few remaining untouched natural habitats in the area to the ground, to make way for sprawl and shopping, and calling it a "green community" because they will be throwing in some solar panels and stuff. Another bulldozed forest, and extra pressure on the water resources, plus adding lanes to a bunch of roads, and the whole litany of what's needed for "growth", to build another cluster of McMansions, with their schools and churches and fast-food joints (and Whole Foods stores, no doubt) in the middle of nowhere, and branding the whole project "green"... give me a break... and still people buy it? If this isn't a lesson learnt from Wall Street's creative accounting, bundling, marketing and advertising, I don't know what is...
And the public is only too eager to go along with it. To pay the premium for the label and the peace of mind. It's easier to pay a little more (or quite a lot more, in fact), especially if you live in Naples, Fl, than to ask some hard questions. Like, "why are all the lights on, even next to the windows, in the middle of the day, in this supposedly 'green' store?". Or, "can I live with the fact that some kinds of produce and fruits cannot be available year-round unless you fly them in from thousands of miles away?". Or, "does my produce really need all this plastic packaging?".
Don't take me wrong here. Like I said before, there's some stuff there that is great. For instance, I was able to find some yerba mate, the South American tea, that I had given up trying to find at local stores. The organic and fair trade kind. Great. Not that it tastes any different from the stuff I grew up drinking, although it sure costs more. But after a long time, I'm drinking mate again, and I'm grateful for that.
There were also some crappy products on sale. My wife insisted on buying some organic brown rice that we discovered was completely infested with weevils when we got home, and had to be discarded right away. With the avocado season in full swing here in Florida, their avocados had to be brought in from somewhere far. And they didn't look good either. Ours are not "organic" enough, I guess.
The bottom line is, in my opinion, "local" beats "organic" any day. Consuming locally grown food does more for sustainability than looking for the USDA organic label. Basically, your diet is based on staples (rice, dry beans, pasta), most of them not local but cheap and sustainable to transport and store because of their long shelf life, complemented with whatever's available seasonally. Historically, populations depended on this kind of diet.
Staple foods can be transported in bulk with very little cost to the environment - think sailboats and trains. You throw in a little meat now and then, and local produce. That's sustainable.
It's only recently that we have grown accustomed to having organic cherry tomatos and bananas available 365 days of the year. It cannot last. We need to go back to a reliable way to distribute staple foods using very little fossil fuels input, and growing the rest ourselves, within a few miles of our towns.
We don't need a fancy, air-conditioned store like Whole Foods to buy a few pounds of rice, some produce from local farmers, and a couple of fish - a warehouse next to the railroad tracks or the port is enough, or better yet, an open air market, like they have in the 3rd world.
I miss open air markets. You walk around, see what's available, ask questions, meet people, stop for a taco al pastor or a falafel or a mote con huesillo from the guy with the cart, walk some more. There's the smell of spices, there's people selling live birds, there's radios blasting rancheras or whatever, there's old comadres that not only sell you the nopalitos or aguacates but also explain to you how to prepare them. A lot of what you see is local and environmentally friendly, and it doesn't even promote itself as such! Zero hype... that's my favorite part.
WF, on the other hand, is all hype. That, I guess, is my problem with it...

Sunday, August 2, 2009

a Green Punk reflects...

Back when I was younger, people like Joe Strummer, Iggy Pop, Jello Biafra and Henry Rollins were my heroes. I was into punk rock. It wasn't just the music and the left-of-center politics. It was this concept, that punks borrowed from tinkerer-dads of the 50's and Popular Mechanics magazine: Do It Yourself, or DIY.

The music industry won't publish anything other than bloated, self-indulgent, more-of-the-same crap like Pink Floyd, Eagles and Elvis in his 19th comeback tour in Vegas? Put together cooperative efforts to make and promote new records without waiting for the big companies, and use word of mouth and alternative channels to spread the message. Do it yourself. You get the idea. Let the rest of the world catch up to what you're doing now, later.

The classic-punk era of Britain and NY in the 70's and the California hardcore of the 80's may long be over, but you can see the legacy everywhere, from anti-globalization protests to the slow-food movement to Naomi Klein's "No Logo". In music, one of last year's biggest hits was British-Sri Lankan avant-garde extraordinaire M.I.A. singing over a sampled Clash track. "London Calling" has definitely aged more gracefully than Elton John, and the urgent message of the Dead Kennedys music is more relevant today than, say, Poison's.

While the System's message seems to be "go shopping or the terrorists have won", people of all walks of life, young and old, Black, White, Latino, Asian and every hue in between, are once again embracing the DIY ethics in their everyday life. I see it more and more, and the economic downturn is nothing short of a blessing in that respect. Why go along with the planned obsolescence of Burberry logos and Chinese-made junk, designed to be replaced next year? "Make it do, or do without" was the mantra both during the Depression and the punk rebellion, and it's here again.

This rather lengthy intro is to comment on the fact that your favorite Green Coach spent a number of hours the other day introducing young citizens from the "wrong side of the tracks" as the cliche goes, to some DIY concepts, including: grow as much of your own food as you can, learn a useful skill and don't waste your time pursuing the chemical mirages offered by the corner dealer and McDonalds, be yourself, it doesn't matter that your jersey isn't P. Diddy's brand if you're gonna get it dirty working in the garden anyhow. The message was "you're young, don't take no shit from nobody, growing this tomato plant to fruition is gonna teach you more about life than countless hours in front of MTV or BET, the mall sucks, and I may be an old fart but I know what I'm talking about here", and generally, I must say it was well received. I felt really good, I felt like some seeds were sown on fertile soil, which is a good description of what I like to do every day.

If people like us, who are social and environmental activists, can learn to reach out and speak the language of 10-year old kids and use it to give a positive message, then there's hope. Never mind the millions and millions of fops and airheads, the Wall St. vampires, the TV zombies and mall rats. DIY is cool. Riding your bike is cool. Not having any money is OK as long as you have friends and skills and a sense of humor. That's the message. The fops and dandies don't have any message other than "be like me, spend all this money buying stupid shit that's not gonna make you happy" - if we old punk warriors can convince a kid, who lives in a different part of town and has a different skin color, that you can create your own reality completely on the margins of what the System expects you to do and be, then we have the upper hand. Then, the torch gets passed to the next generation. That old Black Flag of punk looks Green to me these days, and there's kids out there ready to pick it up. Right on...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Losing it all to sprawl

One of the strongest impressions on my arrival to Florida almost a decade ago was to see acre upon acre of landscape, sometimes as far as the eye could see, razed down, leveled, resembling something from "Apocalypse Now" or the fire bombing of Dresden described by Kurt Vonnegut, with piles of tree trunks here and there in lieu of shells of destroyed buildings.
To make way for "development" - oh, how I hate that word. And I'm not the only one. Author Bill Belleville describes how his "cracker cottage", a modest house built many decades ago, back when you had to reach a compromise with the environment instead of destroying it, gets surrounded, and ultimately swallowed, by a new shopping mall, with its "parking lagoons" (in the expression of JH Kunstler), its accessory plazas full of pet grooming and nail shops, the big box retailers, and the cookie cutter housing, each unit with its manicured lawn and exotic landscaping, always thirsty, always hungry, demanding huge quantities of water, fertilizers and pesticides. And the road "improvements" and tax breaks necessary for this growth - this cancer.
That Mr Belleville can describe all this with sadness, but not lose his sense of humor, is part of what makes this book great. A dark sense of humor, granted. "... Disston planned to buy most of the soggy interior of Florida for 25 cents an acre and drain it dry in the late XIX century. Disston didn't have the technology we have today, and while he turned miles of pastoral, meandering rivers and streams into arrow-straight canals, he botched his larger mission. Taking his failure to drain Florida personally, he ended up back up north somewhere, blowing out his brains in a bathtub, a method that seems at least considerate of others who had to clean up the mess behind him. Less can be said for his drainage vision - a muddle we have not yet reconciled."
A muddle indeed, a strategy of growth at all costs, and consequences be damned, cheered on by chambers of commerce, politicians and newspapers. The author's is one of the voices that we need to hear if we're going to be smarter about how we do things in Florida. We have done enough damage already. It's clear we have to accomodate a number of pressures, and reach compromises. But nature and quality of life can't always get the short straw against commerce, low wage jobs, and car-centric development.
This book is not just about preserving the environment, but it's more like a picture of what it means to live here at this point in time, that combines many elements and impressions. There's passionate and learned descriptions of nature, scientific explanations of underground water tables and how they get affected by growth and create sinkholes, historic sketches of the Old Florida ("before Disney came and created his World"), interactions with slum lords, retired people, developers, the homeless and many other persons and groups, all with their own points of view. It's a portrait of a place and a time, taking into account where it comes from, what's happening now and where it may be headed if we don't stop, take a deep breath and a long hard look, and think hard of how we inhabit the land and treat nature. I'll just leave you with a couple of paragraphs of Chapter Ten, that show how many different elements are combined in Mr Belleville's writing, and give you a good idea of the style and content of the book:
"Yesterday I saw a man fly through the air. Today, during a bad strom, a live tree toppled over, blocking Sewell Road. The gopher tortoise that once dug a burrow at the edge of my backyard has returned after an absence of more than a year. Termites have continued to make their own tiny burrows into the wood of my house, causing the floor to sag just as my yard now sags with the collapsed veins of the karst below. And someone has sprayed the tree trunks in the woods to the south of me with an aerosol can, leaving each with a stripe of bright fuchsia-colored paint on its bark. At first I thought the spraying was an act of vandalism. Then I realized it was a way to inventory trees in preparation for development of the land.
The flying man, of course, was the most inescapable vision. I was driving the dangerous and congested I-4 back from Longwood yesterday when, less than a quarter mile ahead, I saw a van abruptly careen across three lanes. It then tumbled off the road and down a slight embankment to the parking lot of a rest stop. As it rolled, great gusts of white smoke billowed from its undercarriage, and a middle-aged man wearing dark pants and a t-shirt flew out of a passenger door, cartwheeled high into the air, and then came down hard on the concrete. Blood and bone splattered about him when he landed for human bodies are very fragile creations. He shuddered like a deer might shudder when it is fatally shot, and then did not move. He was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why we will never have universal health care coverage

Last July 9th, I took my bike, put my youngest kid in the back and rode to the old courthouse in downtown Ft. Myers, where some people were going to demonstrate and make their voice heard in support of universal health care. I was of a mind of doing some demonstrating too, supporting something so basic as government provided basic health care for all.
Alas, that wasn't to be. When I got there, I saw, in a nutshell, why universal health care is not going to happen in this country, ever. Which is a damn shame, really. I'm sure the O administration is going to be able to pass some weak-ass, watered down version of health care reform, as long as it doesn't interfere with the obscene profits of the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. But whatever it is, it's not going to be universal health care, like they have in advanced, first world societies like... Argentina.
That's right, Argentina, South America. The Old Country, in my case. Where, when we went for vacation a while ago, the same little one riding the back of my bike had the bad luck of falling ill. As in, seriously ill, with a respiratory infection that wouldn't let her breathe. You can imagine my grief as I took her to the nearest children's hospital (5 blocks from my mom's place, in fact, near Constitucion train station - Hospital Pedro de Elizalde). Well, she was immediately admitted, no questions asked, no requirement to show an insurance card or a credit card or an ID or anything at all. She was given the best care around the clock. Doctors would check on her on the hour, every hour. Very capable nurses would administer medicines and check on IV drips constantly. The room was clean, modern and well-appointed with all the necessary gear. The only difference I could see from Health Park here in Ft. Myers was that there were 2 people per room instead of 1, and no TV. That's it. The rest was the same.
So anyway, she stayed there a few days, got well, they let her go after making sure she'd be OK. When we were leaving, I mentioned that we were visitors, and inquired as to how to pay for her stay. They just looked at me in a funny way. It just doesn't work that way. Nobody's going to make a profit from someone falling ill, period. It's society's responsibility to care of all. You can choose a private insurance plan, with a private clinic, if for whatever reason you prefer to. Maybe 2 people per room is too much for you, and you want to be alone. Or you want cable TV. Whatever. You have that option. There's no big, socialistic government banning private enterprise in medicine. There's many private insurance companies. With many clients (patients?). But society as a whole will guarantee that everyone has their basic health care needs met. There's no ads on TV about new drugs. A doctor will prescribe what he thinks you need, without you "asking him about...".
Maybe I'm making it sound perfect here, and it isn't. The nurse was telling me of planeloads of foreigners coming from Lima and Miami to get sex-change surgery, plastic surgery, that kind of thing, for free. There's many problems and abuses, sure. But the simple fact is, if you have a health problem, a) you're gonna get treatment to matter what, and b), you're not gonna be in debt forever because of it. Actually, you're not going to have to pay anything for treatment, period. You're supposed to get well and get back to work and start paying your taxes again, so that when somebody else has a problem, he's taken care of as well, just like your daughter was.
Oh, taxes. A sore spot, that. Right off the bat, I noticed that there were about a dozen or so people demonstrating FOR health care, and two dozen AGAINST it. Paying higher taxes was a big rationale as to why the government shouldn't guarantee health care for all, according to the demonstrators against. Well, God forbid you'd have to pay a percentage point more on your ATV, or your Jet Ski, or your cigarettes, or your booze, in order to have doctors treat little girls without coverage, or laid off workers who don't have insurance through work anymore and aren't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, or old, broke, retired persons. No sir, that's not gonna happen, they kept yelling, right before proclaiming how Christian and holier-than-thou they are. You know the type, the Tea Party people, the ones with the "Don't tread on me" and Confederate flags, that foam in the mouth at the mere mention on Obama or the Democrats.
Well, they should chill out, because Obama and the Democrats, once again, will do nothing. There will be a lot of talk, then some totally meaningless half-measures to save face, then everything will go back to normal. Normal being our current state of affairs, where being uninsured and having an accident pretty much guarantees you'll die destitute in the richest nation on Earth. Heck, even with insurance they'll bleed you dry, these companies employ thousands of people just to look for ways to deny you coverage you already paid for.
Another big point these bozos had was how people from other countries envy our system here, and come to get treatment, how you can't get a hospital bed in Canada and have to come stateside to get treatment, etc. I say, bullshit. That's Faux News and talk radio propaganda, pure and simple. It's just not true. Never mind my little Argentinian example before. I have friends from Canada, Denmark, the UK, Italy, Chile and a bunch of other places, and I know they are quite happy with their system, can get a bed when they need it, and wouldn't dream of coming here to get treatment, unless maybe to see a specific doctor who is the best in his field, in a desperate case, a top doctor that could be here just as well as in Japan or Germany - they would go there to see him too, if the situation was desperate enough. I wonder how many of the guys demonstrating against health care for all know anyone residing in a different country, that could confirm or deny the whole "foreigners envy our system" crap.
Anyway, the reason I say health care reform is never gonna happen, besides the fact of Democrats being just Republicans Light since a long time ago and completely afraid to confront lobbies and interests head-on, despite having a clear mandate to do so, is because anyone who wants to have a rational discussion about the matter is gonna get shouted down by an angry mob, brainwashed by whatever propaganda they listen to in their monster trucks and McMansions, and angry as hell at "liberals" and "minorities" and "entitlements" and "taxes" - when they should be mad as hell at "Goldman Sachs", really, and all the Goldman Sachs insiders in this and every other administration. They are OK with letting someone die for lack of medical treatment, Christians that they are, especially if her points of view differ from their Holy Writ - I mention this because in the camp of those supporting health care the other day, there was some lady with a hat bearing a legend supporting gay marriage. Well, you should see how those counter-demonstrators really went crazy about that. Every time this lady approached them to try and have a conversation and explain her points, they would just shout her down, they wouldn't listen or talk, just ratchet up the decibels. Don't get me wrong, I think gay marriage is a non-issue. I don't care for it. And I think the lady was mudding the waters, mixing one message with another at the demonstration, as if we don't have trouble enough trying to secure some sort of health care coverage for all Americans, without being distracted by other grievances and struggles. But there it is: they are united, they show up in numbers that double ours, and they just scream and yell very loudly, until anyone opposing them, progressives, liberals, whatever, have to back down and retreat. That's the way it is. If big O, fresh from winning a big election, with a clear mandate from the people, can't push effectively enough for the Change he promised, what can we little guys do? It's hopeless. In the end, I didn't even stay there. The kid kept saying, "these guys yell too loud", meaning the anti-demonstration, and "can we go", so we left. No heroic argument, no "let's convince these deluded guys of how wrong they are", no "let's make a stand here". Why expose my kid and myself to some crazy born-again fanatic yelling 4-letter words at us, with a side of spittle, some bozo that has no idea of what's really going on, and doesn't want to learn anything about anything? Besides, even with the 3 dozen people that showed up either for or against, you know, there's what, a million people in greater Lee and Collier counties? I mean, c'mon. No one cares. No one cares.
A piece of advice, if you're uninsured and have a health issue: go to Miami, take a plane to Buenos Aires, and get the treatment you need. Have about a grand or two available, at all times, cash, to cover the ticket and expenses. Try to learn a little Spanish. And forget about the Holy O liberating us from these health care insurance bloodsuckers, because it's not going to happen, not in our lifetimes, not ever. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid I'm not.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Growing Power

A great, 4-page story in today's NYTimes magazine, about a mythical figure, street farmer Will Allen, a guy with so much good thinking, common sense and simplicity, it's a real pleasure every time I find something about him. I hope to meet him one day...
"In 1993, Allen, looking to grow indoors during the winter and to sell food closer to the city, bought the Growing Power property, a derelict plant nursery that was in foreclosure. He had no master plan. “I told the city I’d hire kids and teach them about food systems,” he said. Before long, community and school groups were asking for his help starting gardens. He rarely said no. But after years of laboring on his own and beginning to feel burned out, he agreed to partner with Heifer International, the sustainable-agriculture charity. “They were looking for youth to do urban ag. When they learned I had kids and that I had land, their eyes lit up.” Heifer taught Allen fish and worms, and together they expanded their training programs."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A vanishing world

Many things make David Campbell's book, "A land of ghosts", brilliant: the deep knowledge of the author (an ecologist with decades of experience documenting life in the farthermost confines of the Amazon forest) about the cycles of birth and death in this unforgiving land, his captivating style of writing, his dry sense of humor. But what I found most touching is his grasp of the inevitability of the vast changes happening there, and how even the most motivated efforts by individuals and environmental collectives amount to little more than Don Quixote charging the windmills.
The human tide is rising, and no amount of signature-gatherings, fundraisers or fulminations of unsustainable lifestyles and business models will do more than put a temporary stop to the deforestation and massive extinctions going on there and elsewhere. Everybody needs to make a living, he sadly concludes when describing the slash-and-burn techniques used to open fields for cattle grazing and cultivation, fields that quickly become barren and lead to even more terrain being reclaimed by settlers in the same fashion. The issue is not that mankind is inherently evil, although there's quite a bit of that when we read about how the native peoples who were the original inhabitants of the land were hunted to extinction. The issue is that we are not, as a species, prepared to look beyond the very short term. Impoverished laborers have to put food on their families' tables. Corporations have to turn a profit if they are to remain viable. And countries have to be ruthless if they are ever to leave the Third World and join the big players.
The Associated Press reports that Brazilian president Lula da Silva has approved a controversial land tenure law that Greenpeace and others say will lead to even more deforestation and extinctions in the Amazon. And this is Lula, mind you, the darling of Latin America's progressives and moderate lefties, not some ruthless right-wing dictator of years past, a la Stroessner or Somoza. This is a man who grew up poor, who for years fought for the rights of workers as a union leader and community activist before entering politics and winning the presidency. This is a man who went to bed hungry many times, as he has told on several interviews. He's worked hard to get to a position of power, and by all accounts he's doing his best to take his country out of poverty. His are hard choices. Yes, the Amazon is the last big lung of the Earth, home to a mind-boggling diversity of animal and plant species, and it would be wise to leave it alone. On the other hand, its short-term riches are a tempting release valve to demographic pressures and a ticket for Brazil to reclaim its long coveted seat at the world powers' table. Talk about a Faustian bargain.
A bargain that every civilization had to make, when you think of it. Campbell glances over how the Mediterranean looked three millenia ago, rich with marine life, forests and deep topsoil, and how, after many cultures developed and declined around its shores, each making use of its resources with more and more advanced technologies, it now is only a shade of what it used to be, forests gone, topsoil eroded and its waters little more than a toxic cesspool.
Advanced societies in North America and Europe were brutal in their exploitation of natural resources on hand, as well. The U.S. had untold natural riches on its inception; only a small fraction remains today. It is only after two centuries of economic growth, with the resulting rise in standards of living and education, that we have come to understand that our world is a precious resource that needs to be preserved and protected, and have started to take measures towards that end (albeit too little, too late, in the opinion of some). How can we preach our newfound environmental gospel to the BRIC and Third World countries without sounding arrogant or hypocritical? Take China: critics will point to the scale of its environmental degradation, its polluted rivers and smog-choked cities; supporters will point out that this is the price that had to be paid for its masses to escape centuries of serfdom and starvation and rise to the global middle class.
In the end, these complex and apparently unsurmountable problems boil down to overpopulation and economic expectations, the drive of the many to have the comforts and luxuries of the few; what we call a "Western" standard of living. Lula commented, proudly, when offering justification for his approval of the opening of more land in the Amazon for development, on how campesinos and small entrepreneurs now have cars and trucks and air-conditioned homes, after working hard in clearing the forest and raising cattle there, building roads and establishing business ventures and outposts of progress (Joseph Conrad, anyone?). Campbell, who loves this wilderness, who has followed individual trees' growth from seedling to towering giant, who describes the myriad creatures that inhabit the forest with love, wonder and deep understanding, nevertheless cannot raise his voice against the poor caboclos clearing plots with little more than machetes and fire, and escapes the manichean temptation to present the loss of this last sea of green as a clear-cut good vs. evil confrontation. It's a tragedy, in very much the same way as losing those Mediterranean forests was. As a species, we couldn't grasp the consequences of what we were doing back then; we still can't today. In a few decades, we will be trying to restore a small part of what was lost, planting a few trees here, establishing a natural sanctuary there, for the few remaining species, to slow down their disappearance, in what is now the Amazon forest. We can't even begin to imagine what the effects on global climate will be. But we all have to eat. And if some eat meat every day of the week, then why not everybody? And if some have cars and AC units and can take vacations and buy bottled water and live in a rich country, how can they tell others that they can't? The Amazon, as well as the other remaining shreds and bits of our primeval, natural world, is in for big change, pretty soon. A lot will be lost in the long term, so that some is gained today and tomorrow. It's nobody's fault, and everybody's.