Smith, A., & MacKinnon, J, B. (2007). The 100 Mile Diet: a year of local eating. Vintage House, Toronto

Local food.

What does this statement mean to you?

It isn’t a simple idea.  For some this summons images of abundance.  Of flavourful ripe fruits and vegetables.  And even community around food.

For others local food simply means frugal living.  We live in a global age, why limit ourselves to local production?

But this raises a question.  What brings us happiness?  Does eating strawberries in January and asparagus in October improve our quality of life?

This was the large question that was looked at by James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith in their year of local eating experiment.  I think that the answer is both yes and no.  Eating locally can be difficult and frustrating at times, especially when non local options are not only available, but encouraged.  They seemed to ultimately emerge from the year as feeling far more connected to the place where they live though.  With a 100 mile limit on where you source your food, the world becomes a smaller place.  Those mysterious farms that we all simply drive past at high speed gain a new identity.  Farms now contain opportunity.  There is inherent value in feeling connected to your local food. This connection broadens to give you the feeling of being connected to your local place.  Why should we relegate food to only the kitchen, it can become an intrinsic part of our lives.  This was the aspect of James and Alisa’s story that I really enjoyed.  Changing to eating local food altered many other aspects of their lives as well, and mostly in positive ways.

While reading I was reminded of a recent discussion on philosophy.  This particular way of thinking about the world said that if we raise our expectations beyond reality we will be consistently be disappointed.  For example, why go to a public pool expecting to sit in the hot tub in peace, and then become angry when there are children splashing and yelling.  This is a part of the nature of experience in a public pool.  We should instead adjust our wants in line with reality, and then we will be content.  So if we expect to eat melons and grapes during all seasons, and then discover that we cannot eat these as part of a local diet, why become disappointed?  This is not the nature of local eating.  We could instead re-align our expectations with the nature of the world.

Find contentment in simplicity.

Finding and Growing Roots

Loneliness can be so acute.  It can walk up to you in the bright sunlight, completely invisible until it crashes into you.  The people, the physical beings that are said to counter this feeling, can all be present and accounted for.  All of the basic requirements of home, family, friends, and love are fulfilled.  But there’s that feeling again.  Am I chronically dissatisfied with the present?  Is it a universal human condition, or a symptom of the way I live?  Most importantly, how do I change this?

My father piled 4 large scoops of mottled Chia seeds into his plastic Nestle bottle.  Much like seeds falling in the soil while being harvested, each scoop that was lifted out had seeds that escaped back into the container and onto the countertop.  This is our harvest.  We sow our dollars and cents up and down the aisles of the supermarket.  We make choices based on price, quantity, flavour, colour, brand recognition, and more recently on perceived growing conditions and distanced travelled.  Where we choose to plant our modern ‘seeds’ determines what will appear on the shelves.  This type of harvest is incredibly easy to participate in.  The questions of where, by whom, and to what end can be totally disregarded, if we choose.  But is there something lost in the supermarket harvest?  Where are the connections to the soil and sun, to the grower and the picker, to the excitement of the coming asparagus season, strawberry season, or melon season?  Is this a source of my loneliness?

Chia seeds are not local.  They come from their native growing range of Southern USA, Mexico down through Central America.  But their exoticism seems to trump their distance travelled for me.  These are not looked upon as ordinary seeds, these are a superfood.  What does that mean?  It may, and personally still does, conjure images of extraordinary beneficial health effects that act almost immediately upon being eaten.  In my minds eye the seeds nutrients course through my veins, into my muscles and brain, stimulating and healing everything.  So what does it matter if they are not local?

Upon further reading, my superfood image is only partially correct.  The word ‘superfood’ is an unregulated marketing term.  Any company can apply this word to any food.  Generally though, it is reserved for foods which are especially rich in phytonutrient content.  And Chia seeds are rich.  The mottled black, white, and brown seeds contain significant amounts of omega 3’s, protein, and dietary fiber, not to mention numerous other essential vitamins and nutrients such as Calcium, Phosphorous, and Manganese.  When placed in water (or swallowed) each seed will absorb ten times its weight in water, forming a small tapioca-like orb.  This provides the very interesting effect of making one feel full without actually eating very much.  Furthermore, as these seeds are slowly digested they give a prolonged and efficient energy source that can be carried in a small container.  So should these be dubbed as a superfood?  I would say yes.

This raises an important thought though.  If this wonderful South American seed is such an excellent food source, what else is there?  More specifically, are there foods that grow closer to home which can nourish our bodies in equally efficient ways?  The answer is undoubtedly yes.  Superfoods with high price tags, exotic names, and fashionable packaging always draw my attention, but what about the foods that sprout right under my toes, in the sage lands of interior British Columbia?

Consider the Rose Hip, a shiny red seed package provides a sweet nutty flavor, and also has the benefit of providing you with more vitamin C than any citrus.  Saskatoon berries are full of anti-oxidants, as are Oregon Grape.  The hemp seed, while not native, is also considered a superfood due to its high protein, fiber, and omega 3 and 6 content (and as is well known, it grows extremely well in various climates throughout British Columbia).

Does my relationship (or lack of relationship) with food overlap or even contribute to my feelings of isolation?  How is it that I can be connected to so many people and foods with rich histories and yet feel so disconnected?  How do I become connected to a place?  As written by Al Purdy and Lyn Baldwin, “Say the names”.  This struck a chord in me and continues to vibrate.


What does this name mean when I say it?  The word for this plant, while changed through history, has been a part of the cultural identity of countless generations of human beings.  Today it is thought to be a part of the family Lamiaceae and is known among the science community as Salvia hispanica L.  It refers to a small annual flowering herb, which looks not dissimilar to mint to the casual observer.  It grows to a height of 1.5m-2m and is capable of self-pollinating.  Chia flowers in late spring, the blossoms dry as the season progresses, and pinhead-sized seeds eventually emerge and are dispersed by the shaking of the plant.  But how does this biological information apply to the modern consumer?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

As my father explained to me on that first day that I watched him scooping Chia seeds at the kitchen counter, these seeds have a vast history.  Our known use of them extends back thousands of years to Aztec and Mayan peoples.  The seed was a staple food crop, its importance often looked at on the same level as Maize.  It was carried by runners as an energy source, used as currency for a time, and out rightly banned during the early European colonization of the Americas.  This plant subsequently saw a decline along with the Mesoamerican civilizations, its identity intertwined with people.  In recent years it gained global recognition in a new form, on television advertisements across the country. It became Chia Pets.  Late night televisions rang out with the cries of “Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia!”  And this brings us to today, with Chia’s modern identity as a superfood.

So if Chia is any indication, all of our food plants have rich histories.  And history is important.  Where we come from leads us to understand where we are now.  It grounds us and gives us a sense of place.  Rediscovering the roots of the plants I eat helps me to find my own lost roots.


Works Consulted

Amanda Karst, L. J. (2009). Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada. Edmonton, AB, Canada: Lone Pine Publishing.

Cahill, J. P. (2003, Winter). Ethnobotany of Chia, Salvia hispanica L. (Lamiaceae). Economic Botany , 57 (4), pp. 604-618.

Smith, A., & MacKinnon, J. B. (2007). The 100 Mile Diet. Toronto, Canada: Random House Canada.

Don’t Panic, It’s Organic!

Pollan, Michael. 2001. Chapter 3: Desire: Intoxication; Plant: Marijuana (CANNABIS SATIVA x INDICA). pg. 111-179 in The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Random House, New York.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

My elderly and traditional German grandparents thought so at least.

When my sister graduated from high school in the summer of 2006, she and her friend took a 4 month Eurotrip, and one of their early stops was to visit our grandparents in Germany.  Our grandparents love excessive decoration; big flashy items of gold and silver, wall hangings, rugs, and fake plants….  Much to my sister’s delight, and my grandparents horror, they soon discovered that their beautiful plastic plant was in fact a marijuana plant.  The plant was quickly and quietly disposed of.  Why though?  Its appearance had not changed.  It wasn’t wilting (and probably never would).  But it had suddenly acquired a sour note.  This leafy-green plant, which was no different from any other in basic form, suddenly had to disappear from their household.

This effectively illustrates how we construct our own meaning and project it onto the plant world.  Various plants cause us all sorts of terror and delight, in this case giving both of these feelings depending on who you are.

Pot.  Weed.  Grass.  Dope.  Ganja.  Cannabis.  Reefer.  Herb.  Bud.  Perhaps it is due to the taboo nature of the plant that we keep inventing more names for it, hoping to stay ahead of the authorities.  The lengths that we have gone to in order to grow in secret are astounding.  The results are perhaps yet more astounding.  The high tech indoor growing lab that Pollan described conjured up images of factory farms for me.  Trying to maximize the product in every conceivable manner, producing larger and more potent buds in a precisely controlled environment.  It is vastly efficient and and carries a certain ordered beauty, but also is more than a little appalling.  Pollan captures this image quite well when he describes growers “utterly failing to notice as their world shrank to the dimensions of a fevered dream”.

This discussion on the desire of (seemingly) all humans to alter their consciousness gives way to a deeper discussion on why we forbid certain ways of doing this and encourage others.  The coffee that I drank this morning had quite a strong effect on me.  As did the beer I had on the weekend.  Yet these activities are sanctioned, and arguably even encouraged, for if I didn’t participate people would think strangely of me.  Other drugs, such as marijuana, have quite another context.  So why is this?  It seems that legality often has much to do with power and economics, and far less with reason.  For example the outlawing of chewing Coca leaves by Andean peoples was attempted for a time in history.  Was this due to the damaging and dangerous health effects of the Coca plant?  No.  The Catholic church had an interest in converting the people and the Coca leaf ritual was a barrier to this.

So why is Cannabis illegal?  Pollan offers two explanations.  The first is that it became associated with madness and acts of violence through twisted tales of hashish being used in the middle east.  The second that he offers is of its association with witchcraft being carried down through time by the catholic church and subsequently being a symbol of satanic worship.  I have heard a third explanation, one that fits more readily in my opinion.  During the turn of the 19th century, cotton growing in America was big business.  There were large amounts of money and interest invested in it.  But soon the Hemp/Marijuana plant was discovered to be very good for fibers and could actually compete with cotton growth.  Besides this practical use, it was soon discovered that if one smoked the plant it would have a minor effect on ones consciousness.  With effective government lobbying and large amounts of propaganda (Reefer Madness), the ‘horrors’ of the pot plant were discovered and it was soon made illegal, much to the pleasure of cotton growers.

Is altering our consciousness innately wrong?  This depends on where we derive our values from.  Alcohol was illegal for a brief blip in American history, but is now encouraged.  Do we throw in with the governing body and disregard this plant?  Millions of Canadians would disagree (perhaps not publicly though).  Do we trust to our own instincts and endorse this wonder of nature?

Time will tell, it always does.

Thoughts of Childhood and Priority.

Nabhan, G.P. 1990. Desert Plants as Calories, Cures, and Characters; & The Creosote Bush is Our Drugstore. pg. 2-19 in Gathering the Desert. Univ. Of Arizona Press.

How do we spend our time?  How do we really spend our time?  And why do we prioritize our lives into the very particular ways that we do?  We use so much time working and commuting to and from that work place, in essence specializing our expertise to the point that it is all put into a single focus.  But why?  Nabhan raises this point very effectively on the second page of his writing in relating the comments made by a woman living on the Sonoran Desert.  We use so much of our time to earn money to buy food, other necessities, and sometimes even luxuries, but why not use a bit of that time to collect and prepare the food that grows just outside the front door?

“Even if you don’t gather the desert, let it gather a feeling in you. Even if you don’t swallow it as medicine, meditate upon it: the desert can cure.”

This passage struck me.  It gave me adrenaline and made me feel elated and incredibly sad all at once.  Although I have never been to the Sonoran Desert, I did grow up in a semi-desert not far from here.  These small phrases somehow captured my imagination, giving me thoughts of childhood, summer rains, and returning more recently to learn about native plants and desert love.  My thoughts on this reading are beginning to come full circle back to what came up for me in the section of In Praise of Plants by Francis Halle back in January.

Biology Needs Poetry.

The first time I thought this was from wisps that Halle left behind in his writings on plant form.  And those wisps were needed.  Now, in reading Nabhan there is very real poetry present, from the words and phrases used all the way down to the diamond shape he chose to place his last paragraph of his introduction in.  The poetry here is so much more present, and still so vital.

Each plant has an identity.  Whether or not it knows this I cannot say, but to humans it certainly does.  We place them in stories, eat them, heal and kill them at will while simultaneously using them to heal and kill one another. And this meaning changes, depending on who, when, and where you ask. Desert plants were at one time so important that entire nations of people were named upon them.  Today, that is changing.  Some plants are ignored, while others are cultivated and watered, producing products that we no longer associate with the first growth.  Plants are symbols which can reflect our spirits, so I ask once again, how do we really spend our time?  And to what end?

An apple a day……..

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. 1st ed. 1. New York: Random House, 2000. 1-58. Print.

The apple.




As Michael Pollan describes, our modern view of the apple is that it is pleasant, and quite popular, but relatively unimportant.  It simply makes a nice healthy snack.  Historically though the apple has held vast importance, particularly when America was first being settled by Europeans.

The apple began its life in America quite differently than we think of it today.  It was largely propagated by seeds, as the European cuttings wouldn’t take well due to differing climates.  Apple trees from seeds though do not follow in the roots of their parent trees.  An apple grown from seed can become almost any shape, size, or flavour.  The problem comes in because this new apple is very often not palatable.  So because these now popular fruits were not good for eating, what was left?  Alcohol.  Essentially the same stuff most of us drink regularly.  And because Alcohol is not always looked upon in a positive light, this led to the apple also being frowned upon.  The apple became the baby that was thrown out with the bathwater.  This image has changed numerous times over the years, due to advocacy groups, advertisement campaigns (“An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away!”), and even government regulation.

Pollan tells this story of the apple through relating it to stories of John Chapman, or Johnny Appleseed as you may know him.  The common story of Chapman as a frontier saint is, according to Pollan, perhaps a bit of a myth.  Chapman had numerous strange qualities and beliefs, including such tidbits of not grafting apple trees because it would harm the trees and having his heart broken by his 10 year old child bride.  This section provided an interesting read, but at the same time I felt that Pollan spent far too much time on Johnny Appleseed.  Perhaps it is my own lack of growing up with this figure, but dispelling common ideas and tracking the path that John Chapman took was a little more detail than I was interested in learning about him.

I do not think that the point of this look back into history is simply to know the history of the apple.  We can take a larger lesson from this story.  The changing identity of the apple as well as John Chapman tells us that history is actually very fluid.  We invent small truths and twist ideas constantly, and as time passes these small twists and turns can reinvent history.  Who is to say that the apple may not one day again be looked upon negatively.  Or even that our own lives could become a lesson for school children, regardless of our actions.  We enjoy thinking of our society as a rational, ordered place, but in fact we are mired in myth.  From the apple to the potato to the ‘yam’, what is truth?


We are the corn people. This is the conclusion that Pollan comes to.  I do not think that this designation is wrong either.  He states that there are over 15000 items which contain corn in the average American supermarket.  15000 items.  This represents over a quarter of all items in the average supermarket.  The places we find corn ranges from corn based wax on our fruits and vegetables, to corn based thickeners in processed food, and even to the corn based sugar that is used to ferment much of our beer.  This is astounding, that a single plant item could find its way so profusely into our diet.

This points to the fact that this plant has been very successful in its own way, furthering its own agenda of reproduction.  Pollan points out that the corn plant has co-evolved in such an involved way with humans that it cannot even reproduce in the wild.  The plant relies entirely on us as a species to keep it alive and reproducing.  This goes back to Pollan’s idea presented in the introduction of “Botany of Desire”, which questions whether the adaptation of plants to fit what we need is entirely due to human desire, or if this is partially due to plants own unconscious move towards fitness.  This questions the very basic idea many of us hold about our planet and lives of us being ‘in charge’.  This question that Pollan keeps bringing up and asking in different ways has stuck with me.  It has led me to question the things in my life which I seem to be in charge of and to what degree I maintain a semblance of control.

Pollan calls his second section “One Farmer, 129 Eaters”.  Although this is quite a provocative and effective title, I don’t feel that it is entirely accurate upon reading the section.  By Pollan’s own words “The Naylor farm survives by the grace of Peggy Naylor’s paycheck”.  So although Peggy Naylor and other family members may or may not work directly on the land, my point is that they are an intrinsic part of the farm.  The food (or product, if you will) being produced would not be there without them.

Apart from this, I thought that this section provided a vital question as to where we place value in society.  If the people producing food for us are barely making enough money to continue doing so, aren’t we promoting a lower quality of food?  I think that this approach shapes food producers to cut corners wherever possible, pushing us towards the lowest possible denominator.  Why do we take this approach with a very staple of living – our food?  I think that the solution to this problem lies with connectivity between modern humans and their food source.  As Pollan points out, most people have no idea that corn plays such a large part in their diets due to a long and complex food web.  So in order to reopen to doors to a healthy system for consumers, farmers, and the larger ecosystem I think that there need to be direct links.  We all need to see how our food is grown and begin to appreciate that process.

Where does the corn diet begin and end?

Hunting, gathering, farming, living.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, germs, and steel: the fates of human societies. 1st ed. 1. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999. 85-114, 131-157. Print.

A cave man and a cave woman grunting at each other, smashing up a plant mixture, and roasting meat on a fire.  This is often the image we get when thinking of hunters and gatherers.  We picture a cold, hungry, uncomfortable existence with little compassion, friendship, or humanity.  And suddenly with the development of farming, all of this changed.  We became civilized.

This an important notion which Diamond expels.  Farming was not a conscious change which hunter gatherers made when they thought “Hey, that farming idea looks pretty good!  Let’s stop roaming around looking for food and just grow it ourselves!”.  There was no sudden shift from one ideology to the other, they coexisted for a very long time.  Early farmers still hunted for and gathered food to complement what they grew

I often think about the timeline of history.  When we read about one culture beginning farming in 10,000 BC and subsequently another beginning to farm in 8000 BC, it is easy to gloss over this.  It sounds like a simple difference of   But that is a difference of 2000 years!  Think about all of the changes that have happened in the last 2000 years here.  Christianity is barely that old.  That is 10 times longer than Canada has existed.  There were so many lived experiences during that time of 2000 years of people fighting, loving, dying, discovering new plants, societies forming and reforming.  I think it is important to consider history that was lived as well, the history of the people.

Culture is the other major piece to this domestication puzzle.  When thinking about plant domestication, inevitably we question why certain people domesticated plants while others did not.  Is there a difference with the climate?  The plants themselves?  Or does the difference lie with the people?  This last question often leads to us giving a hierarchy to ancient civilizations, placing societies who first developed agriculture above those who remained hunter gatherers.  This isn’t a matter of one society being further developed compared to another though.  This comes down to culture.  Culture has inertia, and various cultures seem to have inertia propelling them in different directions.  For example, contemporary societies seem very bent on mass destruction.  Does this make our society worse than an ancient society?  Not necessarily.  Some societies were simply more culturally available to become more sedentary and begin domesticating crops.

In the end these readings left me feeling somewhat insignificant.  Change is always happening.  What is dominant now will most certainly be subservient, given enough time.  Will people one day look back on us and think about how simple we were because we relied on only a dozen major food crops?

Feed the World?

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. 1st ed. 1. New York: Random House, 2001. 181-238. Print.

“Feed the world.”  That seems to be a common response as to why we need industrial monocultures involving prescription style pesticides and to use the latest genetically modified crops.  You see, it’s a humanitarian effort, really.  We know that we are damaging the soil, human health, and water quality, but it’s really for the greater good of feeding the world.  This is the message that we receive from many industrial farmers, and even from companies such as Monsanto, on the surface.

So what is really the problem here?  From reading of Michael Pollan’s encounter with large scale organic farmers, there seem to be other ways.  I think the issue really comes down to us as humans wanting a quick fix or an instant solution, essentially the ‘make-your-life-perfect-with-this-simple-pill’ mentality.  We tend to like this idea in many area’s of life, including nutrition, fitness, happiness, technology, and agriculture being a few.  Unfortunately this is not how most things in life work, try as we might to fit the circle of life into a square box.  Growing perfect looking, straight rows of potatoes that all look the same appeals to certain part of all of us.  The sense of control is exhilarating, pumping our ego’s up to the point of bursting, and occasionally they do burst.  Pollan describes the irish potato famine, which ultimately happened because of a monoculture of a single variety of spud.  A monoculture works, until it doesn’t.  Herbicides and insecticides work, until they don’t.  It is to essentially put all of your eggs in one basket, hoping that the basket doesn’t break or fall.  The solution from the pesticide industry is that when a pest becomes resistant to a chemical, just increase the strength.  Use more chemicals, stronger ones, a different combination of them.  But where does this end?  Since the introduction of pesticides crop losses due to pests has not gone down, in fact it has actually increased!  We do not need new chemical cocktails for our monocultures, we need less monocultures.  We need to consider what is causing the problem in the first place and consider changing systemically the way in which we think about growing food.

In an economics class that I am taking this might be called “Opportunity Cost”.  This concept essentially means considering what you are giving up as a result of making a particular decision.  So in economics an example might be that as a result of a country buying new fighter jets, they now can put less money towards education, the cost being not only the dollars spent, but also the social cost of a less educated population.  In agriculture one can also look at this, considering the cost to our environment and future generations as a result of of modern agriculture methods.  What are giving up?

This attempt at agricultural perfection does not only lie with the farmer though, it ultimately comes back to you and me.  We are the ones who demand perfect, smooth, shiny fruits and vegetables.  If there are imperfections, we simply do not buy them.  So why do we look for this?  Pollan proposes a link: the large food corporations, the McDonalds of this world,  advertise perfect looking food, planting desire into the minds of billions, and we en masse then want nothing less.  The corporation then demands perfect products from the farmer.  And subsequently the farmer needs, or is told they need, to use a cocktail of pesticides to achieve this standard.  As in many things, it is easy to externalize the blame, but I think that we all need to acknowledge our own role in the madness that is the monoculture philosophy.


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