16 August 2009

Climbing The Mountain

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

I bought my copy of Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain on a trip to Denver in 2006, where I stopped at that great bookstore The Tattered Cover during a few minutes of down time. I like Stegner, and there I was in the Rockies, and the book jumped out at me, and then it sat on my shelf until last year. About a year after that, I’ve finished reading ithaving consumed many, many other books in between. That sounds promising, doesn’t it?

Actually, it is. I am here to report that The Big Rock Candy Mountain was well worth both the wait and the effort. A semi-autobiographical novel about the Mason family’s challenging existence in the first three decades of the 20th century, the story is more layered and expansive than other of Stegner’s workssuch as Crossing to Safety, a book that is very dear to my heart—and less angry than the Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose. Both of those books are the work of a more mature author; The Big Rock Candy Mountain was published in 1943, when Stegner was just 34 (and it wasn’t even his first book).

This is also a multi-generational story, with the kind of hardship and long journeys that I usually associate with the great Russian novels of the 19th century. Harry “Bo” Mason begins as the escapist son and ends as the repressive and alienating father, and throughout there are pockets of stability and (very minor) wealth punctuating the Mason family’s life. There is a devoted if tortured wife, and two sons working to figure out their own lives in the middle of the messes created (over and over again) by a rum-running father. Mostly, however, there is poverty—and trouble.

Amidst all that, there are three things that make this a beautiful book. The first is the role that the American west plays in the story, as a series of secondary actors reaching from the plains of the north to the mountains and then desert further south. The Masons cover terrain from Minnesota to Washington, and from Salt Lake City to Reno. The environment can be brutal and barren, or placid and blue-green like the Mason’s house on Lake Tahoe, but it always needs to be respected for its inherent strength and character. Even the descriptions of winters along the Canadian / American border in the early part of the century—when cars were still a real novelty—are thrilling.

The second element is the complicated way in which Stegner has bound together a story of great sadness with that of an inherent American optimism. The Big Rock Candy Mountain clearly owes a small debt to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939). But where Steinbeck used his Joad family to argue a particularly pro-union, pro-worker perspective on Depression-era America, Stegner’s Mason family is focused on a very internalized sense of self-reliance. Bo Mason is a muscular man even in old age, a former skeet shooting champion, who sees in the world challenges to overcome through sheer force of will. But this isn’t some Ayn Rand-ian caricature; Bo is the kind of all-American man one can relate to precisely because he struggles with his feelings, instead of simply rejecting them. He considers himself the bearer of bad luck, someone who needs to keep looking for his lucky breakand as much as he might blame others for his problems, this comes only in the narrowest sense of bad people doing malicious things. Mason’s America is a land of great opportunity, if only he can figure out a way to take advantage of it.

The third aspect of the book that makes it so beautiful is its evolution into a bildungsroman in the final third, as the author’s characterBo’s younger son, Bruce grows up and away, and over time becomes the family’s only surviving member. Anyone who has ever had a close relative with whom they have had a challenging relationship can probably relate to Bruce, who never quite came to terms with either the hate or the love he felt for his father.

In her New York Times review of Crossing to Safety in 1987, Doris Grumbach wrote “Clearly Mr. Stegner has not gone unnoticed. But neither is he a household name, as he deserves to be.” She was right. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is not summer beach reading, but it is the kind of book to embrace on a quiet winter night by a fireplace, and with a comfortable chair and a tumbler of scotch it will yield rich rewards.

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05 August 2009

Au Naturel

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Out of some kind of basic (theoretical) common sense, I live in a household that tries to purchase organic fruits and vegetables when possible. We're not rigid about it, but we tryparticularly for those nutrient-rich (e.g., spinach) or skinless (e.g., strawberries) foods where pesticide exposure is known to be worst.

We also belong to a "Community Supported Agriculture" (CSA) food co-op, that delivers fresh fruits, vegetables, and eggs to a drop-off location once a week, where we (walk to) pick it up. While not every CSA is by definition delivering "organic" produce, ours does. So three benefits for the price of one: support for local farmers; support for a process that delivers locally farmed produce direct to consumers; and support for organic agriculture. This is (again, theoretically) better for our bodies, but also for our environment: reducing the amount of pesticides and other kinds of run-off in the ground and water, and hopefully good for the CO2 issues by delivering the food with reasonable efficiency.

Not to mention that I've read my Michael Pollan, and my this and my that. I'm on board with the program: industrial farming is helping to kill our planet and I should be mad about it. I am mad about it. Which is why I am bemused to find myself this evening mad about something else, and questioning two distinct assumptions of this whole sustainable food model.

The first assumption concerns the “it’s good for the environment” argument, because our delivery tonight included a bush of basil—beautiful, red-colored basil with great flavor and lots of fresh, tender leaves.

And tons of dirt. Normally, the veggies from the CSA require some extra scrubbing relative to what I might purchase at a Fairway or Costco; even organic produce from these stores is “industrial,” in the sense that it comes from large farms and distributors who wash and package the food for sale. But tonight’s basil included obscene amounts of dirt, enough dirt that it probably took two gallons of water to get the basil really clean (as in, rinsing cleanly).

This has me asking: is this actually environmentally friendly—or sustainable? I washed the basil in my sink, with tap water and a salad spinner, having stripped off the roots. Commercial packagers probably have special machines that maximize the efficiency of the water-washing process; or at least, one hopes they do. Surely I could have done all sorts of other, better-for-the-environment things with those two gallons of water than wash this basil. Surely the CSA farmers could have done a better job knocking more of the dirt off the basil before throwing it on the truck to bring to me.

And surely someone, somewhere has done some kind of actual, factual, non-partisan quantitative analysis of this issue, to determine whether this whole food model makes sense. But if it’s out there, I can’t find it.

This leads to the second issue: in addition to the water, it also took time and other kinds of energy, energy to keep the lights on, to pump the water, to dispose of the dirt, etc. Now, I’m no slouch in the kitchen or around the house, and food is important to me; it’s worth time and energy. But this isn’t about a cost-benefit analysis for my time. This is about whether one reason it’s hard to analyze the environmental efficacy of this food model is because so much of the energy—human and other—has been transferred from the food producer (read: farmer) to the consumer. It must be easier to measure the CO2 emissions of a farm truck, or the more regular input and output of energy, water, etc., at a single farm, than it is to track the energy usage and environmental impact of hundreds of thousands of households around the country that are essentially completing part of the food chain process that many consumers have skip entirely by buying from large farms.

It would be great if the organic and sustainable food movements could do some better analysis of this whole situation. Now my basil is clean. But my conscience?

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02 August 2009


A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Offering up a typical defense of Israel—and a critique of any American policy itself critical of Israel—Elliott Abrams’ essay in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (“Why Israel is Nervous,” 1 August 2009) reinforces a number of the absurdities that already dangerously infect and affect American foreign policy in the Middle East. His op-ed is cleverly framed in the guise of an exploration of the tense spots between America and Israel, when it seems quite obvious that more tension—and greater emotional distance—might encourage Israel towards a more rapid and peaceful resolution of its neighborhood issues.

Abrams’ tries to minimize the cancerous impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: since “the theory is that every problem in the Middle East is related to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute” is evidently false, he suggests, the implication is that the Israeli-Palestinian is not much of a geopolitical issue at all. Nor is the expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank a problem: “Additional construction in settlements does not harm Palestinians, who in fact get most of the construction jobs,” he writes, ludicrously. Abrams also reinforces the grandiosity of the self-appointed, self-perpetuating mythologists of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation Leaguetwo groups who purport to represent American-Jewish perspectives on all things Jewish-or-Israel, but whose do-or-die Zionism and reflexive tilting at anti-Semitic windmills clouds their thinking and their professional activities.

Worst of all, however, is Abrams fear-mongering reinforcement of the world-or-Israel-ending dangers of a nuclear Iran. Subtly framed as Israel’s concern as much as that of the United States, the idea that we should prevent those crazy mullahs from getting “the Bomb” is clear. In fairness to Abrams, that fear is everywhere in the news media these daysthough it takes its highest and most manic form in any discussions around Israel.

The Iranian regime, with its repressive clerics and its increasingly fragile theocratic mock-democracy, leaves much to be desired. However, all of the saber-rattling about Iranian nuclear activity seems like counter-productive noise and, even worse, a distraction from bigger and more genuine US foreign policy concerns. (Worried about a nuclear madman? Find your man in North Korea, not Iran.) I wrote about this back in May 2008; at the time, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were battling it out for the Democratic presidential nomination, with Senator John “Bomb, Bomb Iran” McCain trying to outflank them on the right. Back then, Clinton made the absurd claim that the United States would “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel. It was absurd then and it remains so now. An attack on Israelfrankly, any significant attack on Israel by any independent nation-state, rather than just bands of terroristswould deeply challenge US-Israel relations. We might suddenly discover the weakness of this bilateral bond, and I doubt the results would please my AIPAC-loving co-religionists or their Christian Zionist “friends.”

Iran has given little evidence of genuine stupidity, let alone suicidal tendencies, since the revolution of 1979. Yes, it has engaged in a dangerous, deeply unsettling kind of geopolitics, and sought to undermine the stability of neighboring states by supporting (financially and militarily) terrorists and militias in those areas. But what evidence is there that this is a nation bent on suicide? Where is there a hint that the clerics in charge believe themselves to be protected, encased in a bullet-proof Allah-bubble, such that they could withstand any retaliatory nuclear attack(s)?

There is no such evidence. Even if Iran was willing to gamble that the United States would let Israel go it alone in such a situation, the Israeli response would itself be devastating. It would kill thousands, perhaps millions if nuclear in nature. Nor is there much of an indication that Iran would be willing to provide some group of terrorists with nuclear material for a “dirty bomb”; surely they have done so already. The reasons are of a piece with the same set of issues: an Iranian-sponsored nuclear or semi-nuclear attack, on Israel or anyone else, would be viewed as an Iranian attack. The outcome would be the same: death in Iran on a massive scale.

I have no desire for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons; in fact, I would be deeply pleased if Iran did not, because I think nuclear proliferation is, in general, a bad idea. It’s just that I also do not see a nuclear-armed Iran is the bogeyman that seems to consume so much oxygen and intellectual clarity among both Israelis and American Zionists. Instead, I think that the relentless focus on this issueand particularly on this issue through an Israeli and Zionist lensis damaging to bigger and more important American foreign policy goals, from the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan to our complicated relationships with Arab countries throughout the Middle East, to dealing with the more dangerous nuclear issues in North Korea (madman) and Pakistan (weak government, problematic, semi-independent military).

We should be working on encouraging the proud nation of Iran to embrace the democratic ideals it once espoused, acknowledging that even the “Reformist” candidates in Iran support their nation’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Because better a nuclear-armed Iranian democracy, as an active, engaged, and responsible participant in global affairs, than either a bombed-out shell or a theocracy hell-bent on continued destabilizationof Muslim and non-Muslim states alikethrough its support of terrorists.

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