Thursday, April 02, 2009

Contemplating Wendell Berry while Kickin' up Kelp
Thoughts on Why Nature should come First and Consumption Last

(I love this photo (by John Blodgett) because it captures my love for the ocean and the wildlife I find there. This was taken in Maine.)

Yesterday, a friend and I spent the day in Newport, Oregon along the beach, walking amid kelp and seaweed covered rocks along the shoreline; around giant smelly piles of whip-like sea onions - bulbous on one end and slippery. We walked around patches of broken shells mixed with pieces of sea junk. The air was slightly misting and the ocean's voice was huge against mine as I wandered south along the beach, leaving watery tracks in the sand and exploring sea life (kelp, sensitive-to-the-touch anemones and young barnacles.)

In recent years I've noticed a disturbing increase in sea junk laying stranded along the shore. Some of the worst offenders yesterday were a sky-blue plastic jug covered in sea algae and the remains of a Styrofoam buoy that looked like the discarded chew-toy of a huge dog.

As I walked north, back to my car, I started to pick up junk and put things into my pockets: a plastic bottle here, bits of broken plastic parts there, lips of bottles-- it was my half-hearted attempt to clean-up the beach.

I wondered whether carrying out that chunk of orange and purple buoy (with the numeral 12 still on it) under my arm like a tired football, might someday make a difference in the life of some sea critter. One less piece of plastic or Styrofoam that could get caught in the windpipe of some lovely little seabird? A romantic notion that I can't prove, but at least, I thought, the coast looked cleaner.

Why all the junk? Who really needed it in the first place? And the thirsty soul who bought the plastic bottle I hauled off the beach, did they consider it might wind up as a permanent, ugly exile in one of God's last wild places... to outlast a sea creature?

What Would Wendell Berry Say?

Here I am meeting Wendell Berry in Salt Lake. He's such a down-to-earth guy.

A month ago, I met Wendell Berry in Salt Lake City, Utah. Berry is a farmer/poet and activist who lives and farms in Kentucky. Speaking before a large crowd at the Masonic Lodge near downtown, Berry shared what he called his "draft on a essay on the Economy." He called our current economy an "Anti-economy," and said we need to go back to an "authentic" version, one that puts nature first and consumption LAST. This motto of "consumption first" is specially guarded, as if it were one of the pillars we've build our democracy on; it's mantra:"stimulate, spend and create jobs."

But Berry calls for an economy based on renewable resources, where we return to the law of return: what is taken from the earth is replaced. Where the earth's fertility cycle is maintained (the soil is kept fertile.) He believes our current economy has confused its wants and needs and in the process, so have we.

"Our economy has confused real needs with products or economies that are marketable," said Berry, which he calls a "kind of fraud."

Wendell Berry speaks at the Masonic Lodge in Salt Lake City in March, 2008.

"We give nature a economic value....for its aesthetics, but without the recognition that we NEED nature to eat, drink, and breath. Our industrial systems grant her no recognition, honor or care," said Berry. "When everything has a price, then everything is disconnected and implicitly eligible to be ruined."

"There are some things that should be designated as priceless and that is fertile land, clean water and air and ecological health."

Back in Newport

Here's my friend Jen in downtown Newport, close to the bay.

Later that day, my friend and I wandered down to the pier east of downtown and walked along the docks looking for fish for sale. We stopped at a tugboat with a friendly brown lab dog and a lean old fisherman inside. We asked him whether he was selling fish yet. Lee was his name and he said fishes mainly Lingcod and Black Cod (the Black he sells to Japanese markets because American's don't like the fishy, oily taste.) Lee's been fishing in this bay since 1969 he said. He's seen a lot of changes and laments the losses in fish diversity and the lack of salmon. He didn't seem to resent the environmental restrictions like others may. Our conversation turned to salmon fishing, which has been shut down for years along the Oregon coast, due in part to the dwindling salmon runs from the Sacramento river in California. Last fall, researchers reported that the human sewage dump into the river had been negatively impacting the salmon.

Here's some other fisher folks in Newport... only they are just visiting. These friends of mine, Wendy and Nathan, own a commercial fishing operation in Alaska.

Lee talked about the forests in the hills above the bay: areas he called "commercial forests." He told us he believes some of the practices of the pulp tree industries that grow trees and cut 'em down for a quick profit are impacting the salmon. He's pretty sure that the herbicides they spray on the ground to keep anything else from growing (besides the profitable wood for pulp) has leached into the rivers and destroyed some the spawning ground for the salmon run.

Last year I took a backroad and discovered this commercial forest. Very bleak, felt a little like a secret dystopic society I had stumbled upon. Is this where I live?

I don't know what this black crap is that I found near this clear-cut area, but it was hard and didn't look eco-friendly.

Two weeks prior to our trip to Newport, the community gathered for the "Blessing of the Fleet," a celebration around the end of March to begin the fishing season. It's a tradition the town has has since the 1950's, where they ask for prayers to bless the ships for protection, an abundant fishing season and then dash bottles of champaigne against the ship brows. Around town, several pretty blue ribbons hung from warehouses and shops near the fishing dock. The ribbons each represented a family member of friend of a fisherman that had died in a fishing accident. (This was sponsored by the Newport Fishermen's Wives, a nonprofit org. ) When someone dies in a small town like Newport, everyone feels the ripples. The community has also felt the ripples of the Salmon ban and other regulations meant to protect fish and in the long-run, hopefully protect the beleagured fishing industry in Oregon.

These small communities, who are dependent on fishing economies have been crippled at times by poor environmental choices made by their neighbors (granted choices sometimes made by themselves). Though we're still trying to sort out who's to blaim for the loss in salmon and other sea life diversity that directly impacts the fisherman. It's obvious that in these situations, if WE as human beings had put "nature first" rather than the law of consumption, that we'd be in a much better place.

Back to Berry

Wendell Berry finished off his talk in Salt Lake City by saying he'd been listening to news about the government's plan to buoy our economy and he wishes the plan included people from forestry, farming and ecological fields.

"We live in a service economy that does not know how to serve."

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