Author Archives: Susan Robinson
Botanical Art Gallery
I started pressing flora and lichen from our area very gradually as I learned their names and more about them. When I began carrying a leather journal with acid-free watercolor pages, I realized I was maybe a little obsessed (we could barely open a book in our house that didn’t have cuttings ready to tumble out).
It seemed as if I was painting with the exquisite local flora. Some pressings have been placed within floating frames, and some are arranged on linen, which provides a neutral background and brings to mind the classic way specimens are displayed. I love seeing in detail the contours and colors of numerous cuttings side by side. I think of some of these as an example of the terroir. Hey, it is “wine country” where I live.
They’re seasonal, fragile; and temporal. I think of the aesthetic of wabi sabi—the acceptance of transience and imperfection—or beauty as imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. As some of them fade in color, they become more beautiful.
The Music from the Lighthouse — an excerpt
The AVA (the independent newspaper of the Anderson Valley) ran the following excerpt of a chapter titled Flight in the January 28th edition:
As though a lost feeling insisted on literalizing itself, I’d somehow turned off at the wrong exit along the I-290 near the Massachusetts Turnpike. Then trying to backtrack, I lost my sense of direction. My throat tensed in anxiety and feeling the shortage of air, I pulled over on a residential street and rolled down the window.
Naturally, the GPS in the rental didn’t work. Though I could have waited for another car, I knew my way; I knew exactly where I was going. But, in truth, it had been more than ten years since I’d actually driven to Maine. The sun was sinking now, and I removed my sunglasses through which everything had begun to seem dark and foreign. Of course everything still seemed dark and foreign. I didn’t know where I was or how I’d gotten there, metaphorically or otherwise.
But I have got a good old-fashioned map.
I remembered the road atlas along with a little story the rental agent had confidentially shared. Someone had left the dog-eared dated pages behind in a car. After almost totaling it and then being released from the hospital, he courteously had it towed back to the rental garage on the promise of returning it. The agent who told me the story, laughed while chivalrously offering the map book since I didn’t want to wait for a car.
Cheerful guy. Maybe he doesn’t actually like his job.
I thanked him for the map book then silently cursed him for telling me about the crash. But then, how could he have known I’d developed a keen imagination for fire, disaster, damage, decay, or death—and little else.
The paper crackled as I turned the large pages, a sound I’ve always loved; something familiar. I was nevertheless kicking myself for not taking the Downeaster. Taking the train had always been so pleasant. Though, that was mostly because my father picked me up at the station. I missed him with a sudden intensity, recalling how touching it was to see him waiting there, happily impatient. That sort of comfort, the ease of knowing my arrival was so warmly welcome and expected, was missing from my current travel options. I had once been so comfortable in my skin, in my life.
Yes, I’ve paid attention to exactly where I am, exactly where I’m going.
As I looked for my position on the map, something in motion above left patterns of flickering shadows over the page. I sat still and focused on the movement I heard and felt, realizing it was massive. In the split second before looking up, I knew what I was hearing—the whoosh of hundreds and hundreds of beating wings. A huge flock of birds was overhead flying in rapid, fluid formation—a dark cloud of morphing shapes expanding and contracting in the early evening sky.
People had come out of their homes to watch the spectacle. When I stumbled out of my car gazing up, a man across the street spoke to me.
“Isn’t that a sight? Those are starlings.”
“And so many!” I said.
“When that many fly in formation, they say it means a storm is on the way,” he said. “At dusk they’ll come to roost in the trees near the pond behind you.”
I looked behind for the birds, voluble but barely visible, in the trees. A group lifted off in sync and fused seamlessly into the greater mass performing aerobatics in the sky.
Starlings have made appearances in Shakespeare and the literary works of other eighteenth and nineteenth century writers. Upon hearing a voice in a Paris alleyway the wandering narrator of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy discovers a caged starling, which he imagines is crying for help: “I can’t get out. I can’t get out!” The starling so keenly awakens his compassion that the narrator reflects at length on liberty, imprisonment, and slavery. And, both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens refer to this passage; it clearly resonated as the Age of Reason ushered in the Romantic Movement when feeling and emotion had begun to acquire as much value as intellect in light of sweeping industrialization then and its impact on nature.
Mozart brought home a pet starling, dazzled with the bird’s uncanny ability to imitate musical notes and human voices. The details of the story vary, but it goes something like this: he had walked the streets of Vienna whistling the melody of a new piano concerto when one day he heard some of its notes whistled back by a starling in a cage at a street vendor’s pet shop. He bought the bird and entered the purchase in his expense book along with a line of notes almost identical to the main theme in one of the movements of his newest work. Mozart’s new pet, Vogel Star, became his constant companion for three years. And, when the starling died he wrote a poem for the elaborate funeral he gave it.
One little starling.
Above me were hundreds and hundreds of starlings, en masse and in flight—a murmuration, as it’s curiously termed. The onlookers created their own murmuration, a continuous hum of oohs and ahs, as if viewing the brilliant streaking lights of a fireworks display. A spectacle more impressive for being alive, the dark mass offset the dusky blue sky with one and then another collectively molded Rorschach shape, with each bird flying wing to wing only a few inches apart, never colliding and perpetually shifting direction as a single unit in motion. New, smaller groups of birds continued folding into the larger mass, and the shapes they formed grew larger and seemingly more complex: an expanding then breaking heart; a circle, half of it dropping down and the other pulling up into a question mark; a falling teardrop, splashing into a wake of fluid rings; a fish leaping up and merging back into its sea. For several minutes I was transported, soaring along with them, but the spell was broken with feeling and emotion crash landing alongside intellect.
I knew a few other things about them. An eccentric entrepreneur, who introduced the European starling to America in the 1890s, released a few in Central Park as a romantic gesture to populate it with every bird mentioned by Shakespeare. The small population multiplied exponentially, and starlings swiftly became invasive—tormenting native species, pushing them out and taking over like European colonists. While starlings can control insects, they’ll also devour whole groves of fruit. In large masses, they can decimate a small vineyard in a single day, but they’re not only a looming threat to winegrowers, orchardists, and crop farmers. An approaching cloud of them is what every pilot fears. When more than 10,000 starlings flew straight toward a plane taking off from Boston’s Logan Airport in 1960 all four engines were abruptly clogged. The plane crashed and nearly every passenger died. Yet I’d been marveling over their agility, grace, and intelligence.
What I discovered in those lost moments was equally beautiful and menacing, but the mass of birds was a specific reminder of something ominously relevant to me—the one story I’d ever left unfinished, in all its conflicted, chaotic absurdity. I had written a starling into it.
And I’ll be leaving that little detail out of my memoir.
Whenever I thought of starting over and moving on to anything other than this story, some forgotten aspect of it seemed to rear its head and mock my failure. Why hadn’t I followed through on deleting and burning the manuscript? I somehow never did, thinking it would rise again like a phoenix from its smoking ruin to haunt me. These thoughts only strengthened my resolve to be done with it and finally move on, to get back to serious writing and forget this failure, which was, of course, the reason I’d stopped writing.
For their finale, the mass of starlings spread out like a long slithering serpent, and then split into two dueling serpents that chased each other just above the horizon line. Before sunset, the birds loudly came to roost nearly all at once in the copse of cypresses by the pond, which sagged heavily, poignantly, under their weight.
When I got back in my rental car, I immediately recovered my location on the map as though it had all been a momentary blind spot. The entrance to the interstate was literally around the corner. I found myself heading back into my uncertain future at the end of the twilight hour when the sky was no longer completely light nor yet completely dark, but very deep blue. As I drove back into the blue, I thought of the poem that Mozart had written for his beloved pet starling upon its death, and the strange requiem inspired by the bird.
Here is my poetic farewell, my requiem to an unfinished story: Rest in peace, forever lost and read by no one. And stay the hell away.
Persimmon Pudding Recipe
Butter for baking dish
8 Fuyu persimmons, skinned and chopped about 4 cups
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 ½ tsp baking soda
2 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp sea salt
2 cups organic white flour
1 ½ cups heavy cream *(or substitute mascarpone for ½ the amount of cream)
½ vanilla bean
1 ½ tsp orange zest
Heat oven to 325˚ and butter 3-quart baking dish. Stir lemon juice into whole milk.
Purée persimmons in food processor until almost smooth, then add eggs and sugar. Now add the milk with lemon juice until stirred in.
Add to mixture baking soda, salt, baking powder, ½ of the flour, and ½ of the heavy cream and process to blend.
Scrape vanilla bean, adding seeds and orange zest to mixture then add the remaining flour and cream and process until smooth. *(As a delicious alternative, substitute 3/4 cup mascarpone for the remaining cream. This pulls the flavors together in a softer, luscious way, and the result is more cake-like than pudding. I prefer it this way!)
Pour into buttered baking dish and bake about 1 hour until pudding is set.
I eat local crab, but only when it’s in abundance, so it’s rare treat. Inspired by the traditional leek tart from Northern France, I’ve added the local in-season Dungeness crab with sliced fennel. Most crab tart recipes include cheese, but I didn’t want anything to compete with the sweet, subtle flavor of the crab. With just leeks, sliced fennel and a bit of herb, the pureness of the crab is striking. This pairs well with a dry sparkling wine, Sauvignon Blanc, or Albariño.
Pastry for 9” tart pan:
1 cup organic white flour
5 tbsp organic unsalted butter
1-3 tbsp cold water
1 lb fresh crabmeat
2 large leeks, thinly sliced
1 large fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1-2 tbsp. butter
1 cup organic heavy cream
3 egg yolks
1 tbsp chopped thyme and marjoram
smoked sea salt to taste
white pepper to taste
Sauté the leeks and fennel in butter until soft and beginning to brown, then cool for a few minutes. Whip together the cream and egg yolks. Stir in the sautéed leeks and fennel. Break up any large clumps of crabmeat and fold in along with the herbs, salt and pepper. Pour into tart pan with prepared pastry crust, and bake at 350˚F for about 40 minutes or until lightly and evenly browned.
Dinner with Elephants
Another preview on the Botswana self-drive…
Elephants were heading for the water as the sun set. I was cooking dinner while this happened so we wouldn’t eat and then have to climb into the tent in the dark.
You can probably guess how difficult it was to finesse a gas-top-cooked Spanish omelet while all this was going on behind me.
The omelet survived, dinner was delicious as the sky turned violet, and we just made it into the tent by dark.
Unscathed by morning, and there I am back in the kitchen. We started another day with coffee, then collapsed the tent and set out for a game drive.
What Multi-Nationals Don’t Want You To Know About GMOs
Shouldn’t we all have the right to make informed decisions about the foods we may wish — or, more significantly, not wish — to consume? The US is one of the only industrialized nations that does not require the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). More than 40 other countries recognize the consumers’ basic right to such information and have made the labeling of GMOs mandatory. European Union countries led the way and introduced a standard; since 1998, all products with more than .9 percent GMOs are labeled as such. In the US there is no such standard — but California voters may be about to change that.
In November, with Proposition 37 on the California ballot, we will have the opportunity to vote for a law requiring the labeling of all GMO ingredients in raw and processed foods for sale to consumers. This law would finally do away with the misleading labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients as ‘natural.’
Is there anything natural about genetically modified foods? If so, who would want to prevent them from being properly labeled? By what other means can consumers make informed choices?
So what exactly is at stake with GMO labeling?
Let’s look at the basics of GMOs. Here’s a brief explanation from Wikipedia:
“A genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques, generally known as recombinant DNA technology, use DNA molecules from different sources, which are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel genes. Transgenic organisms, a subset of GMOs, are organisms which have inserted DNA that originated in a different species.”
Scientists, farmers, and gardeners may attempt to bring out the best traits in — let’s say a tomato — by cross breeding. But, cross breeding is nearly always done within the same species — to bring together those features in one type of fruit or vegetable that improve yield, pest and disease resistance, flavors, textures, etc., within a single variety. This is not genetically modifying or genetically engineering a tomato, but cross-breeding tomatoes with tomatoes.
However, in taking the genetic material from one organism and inserting it into the permanent genetic code of another, biotechnologists have engineered some novel, if not frightening, creations — for example, “super” pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes, tomatoes with flounder genes (for resistance to cold temperatures). These are combinations that simply can’t occur in nature. This is literally altering a species, even if slightly. There are thousands of genetically altered plants, animals and insects; and, these artificial creations are now being patented at alarming rates. A realistic danger is weakening the gene pool and destroying the integrity of a particular species from unintended interbreeding with genetically altered individuals accidentally released into the wild.
California is poised to be the first state to require the labeling of GMO in foods, which could activate a veritable revolution of better agricultural practices. Since California is the 8th largest economy in the world, as the Organic Consumer Association has observed, mandatory labeling of GMO foods could affect packaging and ingredient decisions nation-wide. A win for the California Initiative could also put into effect a serious check on the biotechnology industry. Consequently, such corporations as Monsanto and Dupont, who have billions invested in GMOs, are spending millions to defeat it. Try googling “Proposition 37,” and the first in the line-up of search engine results from that query will be a site that opposes mandatory GMO labeling, referring to it as a “deceptive food labeling scheme.”
It takes a lot to remain in that top position, and it’s achieved by costly search engine optimization methods deployed all over the Internet by high-power public relation firms. The site opposing labeling, http://www.noprop37.com, claims to be paid for by a coalition with “major funding by Monsanto Company, E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co”. (Check out kcet.org for a breakdown of who is supporting and opposing Proposition 37, and with how much funding. Aside from the two biotech giants, you’ll find Pepsico Inc., Nestle USA Inc. Coca-Cola North America, General Mills Inc., Delmonte Foods Company, Kellogg Company, Kraft Foods Global Inc. and many other big food manufacturers.) As of October 3, 2012, Monsanto and DuPont alone spent $12,500,00 opposing mandatory labeling with the argument that it will cost both consumers and producers — costs that will ultimately be passed on to the consumer. They claim that mandatory labeling would add more government bureaucracy as well as increase taxpayer costs because of the need to monitor “tens of thousands of food labels.” Yet, the big food manufacturers already label their products for most of the world. Ironically, the opposition to the California Initiative, sponsored by these high-power corporations, claims that the proposed law would lead to frivolous lawsuits and create “a new class of ‘headhunter lawsuits’ allowing lawyers to sue family farmers and grocers without any proof of harm.”
The irony, of course, is that Monsanto alone, which has spent upwards of $7,000,000 funding the opposition, has a formidable litigation team — and several front men behind the so-called “grassroots” organizations lobbying against Proposition 37. Tom Hiltachk, the PR top gun behind the “Coalition Against the Costly Food Labeling Proposition,” (an anti-labeling front group), is a partner at the Sacramento-based lobbying firm, Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk LLP, which “specializes in campaign, election and administrative law and litigation at all levels of government.” Hiltachk also has ties to Big Oil and California’s Proposition 23. That Initiative, supported by big oil companies, would have repealed California’s clean energy and climate laws.
At the very heart of the matter, crucial to all of agriculture, is the question of seeds; control over them means control over the growth and production of our foods, feed, and other products, as Monsanto has demonstrated. After being forced to stop manufacturing DDT in the 1970’s, Monsanto shifted the focus from chemical to biological technology. Modifying and then patenting seed genes, Monsanto uses laws to criminalize farmers for patent infringement, or “seed piracy” — rationalized as a “technology protection system.” And, now they have created seeds genetically modified so that they will not germinate unless exposed to a chemical, either applied to a maturing plant, or in a seed coating. This chemical inducer permits germination of the single generation of seed, thwarting even small-time farmers (not worth litigating against) from collecting and using “free” farm-saved seeds. These aptly dubbed “terminator seeds” force the poorest, rain-dependent farmers to buy seed every year — seeds that make them dependent on Monsanto’s fertilizers and pesticides not needed with conventional seed. And though they were developed for “untapped” third-world markets, Monsanto now claims that these seeds (officially referred to as Genetic Use Restriction Technology seeds) will prevent unintended spread and contamination. They would have to be 100% sterile to prevent contamination, however — which is not proving to be the case, as many alarmed scientists are cautioning.
Intentionally phasing out the conventional seed supply in parts of rural India, Monsanto has gained a stranglehold over the availability of any seed. And, farmers there, born into traditional agriculture communities, have killed themselves in the tens of thousands out of shame and despair when they can’t keep up with Monsanto’s package as their debts mount, lenders gouge, and they lose their families’ land because of this “technology protection system.” (Bitter Seeds, a feature documentary by Micha X. Peled, “explores the controversy — from a village in India that uses genetically modified seeds to US government agencies that promote them”. The film is now screening in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater until October 13.)
Columnist Roger Cohen, in his New York Times Op Ed “Return of the Organic Fable,” of September 27, argues dismissively against the warnings of the “organic bourgeoisie.” In Cohen’s view, the unnatural creations by corporations such as Monsanto can help solve “the problem of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century”. Cohen suggests that without fertilizers and GM crops made more resilient to drought and disease, higher yields cannot be met to satisfy demand. He concludes his editorial with, “Elitist freakouts spurred by the organic ideology are no answer to the world’s food problems. In fact they are a distraction.”
A federal judge recently ordered that 258 acres of Monsanto GM sugar beets in Oregon’s Willamette Valley be destroyed, (95 percent of sugar beets in the US are grown from Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds). Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the crops be destroyed because the danger of gene contamination was so great, and herbicide resistant crops like these have been shown to result in more toxic chemicals in our soil and water. Is this also an “elitist freakout”? What about the 1.2 million people who have contacted the USDA to tell them we have the right to know what’s in our food? (Join in at: justlabelit.org — or — carighttoknow.org.) Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds are genetically modified to resist the weed killer Roundup, and the crop strips the soil of vital nutrients; the soil erosion they cause is a realistic problem, and they spread without our knowing. Organic corn, for instance, is nearly impossible to find because it has been completely tainted by GM seeds.
In 1985 Demeter Association Inc. was formed in the US as a non-profit — seventeen years before the USDA established the National Organic Program. Demeter’s long-established biodynamic practices and principles are an apparent alternative to the high cost of USDA organic certification. Demeter Association Inc. (the US representative of Demeter International) promotes biodiversity and helps enable people to farm successfully and create self-contained and self-sustaining farms. Asked for her response to Cohen’s suggestion that GMOs can feed the world, Elizabeth Candelario of Demeter Association Inc, makes several important points.
“It’s important for folks to realize that GMOs were not developed to feed the world, but to increase profits of agri-business by hampering efforts by farmers to save their own seed. Their solution to the ‘problem’ of farmers saving seeds was the introduction of patents and intellectual property rights on seed, which make saving seeds an illegal act. Instead of protecting seed diversity and farmers’ rights to save, cultivate and share seed freely, we now have a system where seeds are seen as commodities owned by private companies and traded on the open market. The true costs of this system are not factored into the equation, but the public is starting to wake up and realize that the environment, peoples’ health, and even the future of our food system is at risk. Even if we allow that reasonable people can disagree on the safety and efficacy of GMO seed, it will be a zero sum wager because co-existence of heirloom seed and GMOs has already proven to be impossible.”
As Candelario aptly notes, “Bees will be bees and the wind will blow.”
Regarding safety and human health, Cohen quotes the World Health Organization (WHO) on GM foods: “No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” But WHO can account for only immediate effects. There are no long-term studies of GM products on human health. Science may be capable of transplanting a gene from one species into that of another, but cannot as yet predict or contain the results. Can we simply ignore these facts?
There has been an explosion of works coming from chefs, writers, filmmakers, and food-conscious organizations on the problems with corporate controlled foods. These folks are collaborating, networking, creating platforms through which people can take action, and raising consciousness about the damaging effects of monoculture crops. A great example of this is what has happened in the wake of Robert Kenner’s Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning documentary, Food Inc. While giving talks around the country, Kenner found that people repeatedly asked, “What can I do? How can I get more involved?” FixFood was launched as a result, a website that uses videos, links to information and petitions, and social media to raise consciousness and “empower Americans to take immediate action” on specific issues regarding our food system. “FixFood helps answer these questions by leveraging the latest social media tools and collaborating with leading nonprofit organizations and values-based businesses.”
Slow Food, another successful grassroots membership organization, is now a huge international movement that remains firmly against the commercial planting of genetically modified crops and promotes GMO-free food and feed. Slow Food, deriving its name as “an ironic way of saying no to fast foods,” describes itself as standing “at the crossroads of ecology and gastronomy, ethics and pleasure.” They oppose “the standardization of taste and culture, and the unrestrained power of the food industry multinationals and industrial agriculture.” Their simple yet powerful vision is “a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet”.
Addressing the world’s food problems, Slow Food President Carlo Petrini states: “When it comes to hunger, the United Nations says that family agriculture will protect the sectors of the population at risk of malnutrition. Multinationals instead promise that GMOs will feed the world, but since they began to be marketed around 15 years ago, the number of starving people in the world has only grown, just like the profits of the companies that produce the seeds.” (Ten Reasons to Say No to GMOs.)
The plain fact is that corporations, such as Monsanto and DuPont, rely on our ignorance. As we begin to understand more about what’s in our foods, our entire food system, and the supply chain itself, consumer demands are changing.
When asked what’s at stake in voting for Proposition 37, Robert Kenner said, “I believe in truth, transparency and trust in the food system, which includes mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. All Americans in every state should enjoy the same right to know what’s in their food. Supporting the California initiative is an important step on the path towards a national policy that will address this issue for us all. A win in California on Proposition 37 is a win for the whole nation.”
With this initiative, Californians have the chance to create a very direct change in our food system. It’s one of those rare opportunities to make a real difference. Now all we have to do is show up and vote.
(This piece was printed in Anderson Valley Advertiser, a Mendocino County newspaper, on Oct. 10, 2012.)
Giraffes in Chobe National Park, Botswana
During our eight day self-drive through Botswana we camped at Savuti, an area in the central western part of Chobe National Park. Exploring the area during a morning game drive, we found a waterhole and parked the Land Rover there to see who would come for a drink. We waited ten minutes watching a mongoose and a cory bustard, then three impala and a lone sable antelope came to the water and drank. Meanwhile, a large adult male giraffe remained in the cover of the bush nearby with only his head sticking up, cautiously checking us out.
When giraffes spread their front legs and lower their heads to drink, it is their most vulnerable position. So, the large male waited, watching us for another ten minutes before he decided it was safe. When he finished drinking, the rest of the family, the mother and their two babies, emerged from the bush one at a time to drink while the male stood behind safeguarding them from potential side or rear ambush.
Journey through Botswana — The Preview
Even though we’d been traveling for a few days in the 1992 Land Rover Defender, which we rented for a self-drive through Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park, I still didn’t realize what a tank it was.
Not until we encountered this:
In the Faraway Bush: At Chitake Spring, Part II
September 21 —
The afternoon light bathes the spring in warm tones, and reflections on the small pools are a golden blur.
The lions have eaten so much of the elephant (they took down the night before) that their bellies have become distended.
In the Faraway Bush: At Chitake Spring, Part I
Of all the wilderness sites we visited in Southern Africa, the bush camp at the Chitake spring was the most remote and wild — wild in the truest sense of the word.
Visitors to Mana Pools National Park are allowed the privilege of walking in the territory of wildlife that can be dangerous — and we were heading into the depths of the bush at the height of the dry season. We would be visiting the spring during its most dramatic period of activity. Continue reading
On the Zambezi River — Canoeing, Part II
September 18 —
We arose at 5:30, and during breakfast said our goodbyes to our German friends who had capsized and lost equipment in heavy wind conditions the morning before. I told them how happy I was to make their acquaintance, and quickly added, “Of course, not under the actual circumstances.” They all laughed in agreement. What a great group. I was sorry to see them go. But they decided to take their leave of the river and continue on with their tour of Zimbabwe.
We set out on the river some time around 7:00 am in a light wind that was manageable. The cloud cover had vanished and the day was heating up within an hour; good reason to set out as early as possible. Also, the morning light is beautiful — soft but luminous, with the sun ahead of us as we traveled east down the river.