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Tag: Nature

Elise Partridge’s Hyper-Realism and Naming the Unknown

To read Elise Partridge’s 2002 collection Fielder’s Choice is to enter a highly-tuned world of memory and perception. The poems are precise, guided by observational skills and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge that transform even distant memories of childhood into something much more certain and accessible than what many readers may experience when recalling their own childhoods. Similarly, Partridge’s observations of nature are encyclopedic in their attention to detail and naming. The natural world that Partridge represents in these poems is not impressionistic, but is instead rendered scientific, knowable, able to be mastered. Even the collection’s opening poem, “Everglades,” which trains its attention on the submerged, fleeting things of the wetlands, ends with an appeal to the practice of naming: “A bird swaying on a coral bean / sang two notes that might have been ‘Name me’ ” (ll. 14-15). Yet what I find most interesting about these lines is not the poet’s knowledge, which extends to the coral bean, nor her desire to know the name of the bird, which she cleverly suggests is the bird’s desire to be named, but rather the subtle anxiety she seems to experience when confronted with something that resists identification. It’s as if these extraordinarily detailed, taxonomic poems carry within themselves an awareness that every experience contains an element of the unknown and the unknowable. Even the most observant poets must, in the final analysis, stand before a horizon beyond which they cannot see.

A good example of this tension between mastery over nature and the impossible horizon of knowledge comes in the collection’s second poem, “Plague.” Following immediately after “Everglades,” with its explicit appeal to naming, “Plague” begins with a catalogue of medicinal herbs: “Heal-all, yarrow, alum root, / sweet annie, angelica, hazel shoots” (ll. 1-2). To this list are added “Lemon verbena, spearmint beds, / feverfew blooms nodding heads,” “a spray of Solomon’s seal,” and “magenta balm, white chamomile” (ll. 7-8, 18, and 26). In all, Partridge names nineteen specific plant species, telling us that they are “herbs renowned for healing power” (l. 6). The herbs’ medicinal properties compliment the poem’s title, which emphasizes illness and suffering, and the poet’s ability to recognize each plant species—even if only by their common names—suggests that she knows something about how to use them against the plague. And she does indeed understand the practical use of at least one of the plants, as she makes clear when she writes: “Medicinal ferns were brewed for tea / to soothe sore throats, cure pleurisy” (ll. 29-30). The impression this encyclopedic approach gives is of a poet who moves through the natural world as an omniscient observer. She knows the names of every plant she sees, and she knows how to transform these wild things into wholesome teas, medicines, and cures.

But “Plague” is not a poem about what ails the body, for the poet’s attention is drawn to a mass of caterpillars as they crawl through this abundance of medicinal herbs, their jaws hard at work consuming lambs-ears, red root, and jewelweed. Driven by hunger and eating everything in sight, the caterpillars occupy a menacing place in the poem, yet the care with which Partridge observes their eating renders them beautiful:

Two pinks caught my eye. I bent down.
Caterpillars were going to town
on a faltering stem, bodies slung
underneath like sloths'. The feet clung;
the heads chewed. Four gnashed a meal
under a spray of Solomon's seal
whose white drops quivered. Paired prongs,
the front legs worked like icemen's tongs
curving to stab. Rear-guard pylons,
flat-soled, gray, dutiful cousins,
helped shiver along the elegant back,
blue-and-red pustules edged with black. (ll. 13-24)

How are we meant to feel about these creatures as they consume a landscape full of life-giving herbs? One way to read the caterpillars is as the very plague the title references, a plague with the potential to destroy the plants altogether. Partridge makes this point clear when, at the poem’s conclusion, she anticipates their metamorphosis into fully-developed butterflies who will “alight on fewer, finer legs / and discharge an arsenal of eggs” (ll. 49-50). The implication is that this spray of eggs—figured here as “an arsenal”—will spell ruin for the herbs catalogued in the poem. They will multiply the number of larva, which will in turn eat their fill until the landscape is left barren. And yet, for all the potential destruction the eggs represent, the caterpillars are doing exactly what they evolved to do. They consume the herbs, and in so doing, they transform themselves into butterflies. There is great mystery and beauty in this process, and the fact that the garden itself is an integral part of the metamorphosis serves to complicate the disgust one may feel toward the poem’s “plague.”

The extent of Partridge’s ambivalence toward the caterpillars is thrown into relief by “Phoenixville Farm,” the poem that follows directly after “Plague” in Fielder’s Choice. Partridge uses “Phoenixville Farm” to align her sympathies with one side of a starkly-drawn contrast between the artificiality of the subdivision where she grew up and the more rustic, natural setting of her friend Anne’s farm. Her sympathies are clearly with the farm over and against the controlled, disciplined, and supremely boring subdivision where “the change of seasons was marked by switching off / or on the central AC’s monotone thrum” (ll. 17-18). The farm provides her with access to a much more diverse and exciting environment, where the presence of foxes, hornets, spiders, bats, raccoons, and other critters stir within her a desire to escape the constraints of suburban life. When her parents come to pick her up after a sleepover at Anne’s farm, Partridge imagines herself undergoing the very sort of metamorphosis that threatens the medicinal herbs in “Plague”:

Some day, some day---we'd each spin sleeping bags,
doze for six weeks, thrust, gnaw, unkink striped wings,
try out our newborn feelers, lurch to Anne's farm,
bathe in dust puddles, lay eggs, and worship weeds. (ll. 50-53)

This closing metaphor bears a striking resemblance to the metamorphosis described in “Plague.” Not only does Partridge figure her escape from the suburbs as a transition from larva to pupa to imago, but one of the central acts she will commit after emerging from her chrysalis is to follow the example of the butterflies in “Plague” and deposit her eggs among the weeds. Her desire for liberation is very much tied up in questions of seasonality, transformation, renewal, and reproduction, all of which are given a positive gloss within the context of the poem. Yet read alongside “Plague,” the metaphor that concludes “Phoenixville Farm” unsettles any easy interpretation of the “arsenal of eggs” that the former poem’s butterflies will discharge throughout the herbs. If the caterpillars are symbols of destruction in “Plague,” they represent the potential for freedom in “Phoenixville Farm,” and it is in the contradiction between the way these two poems represent metamorphosis that the horizon of Partridge’s knowledge appears.

The plants and animals that demand so much attention in “Plague” and “Phoenixville Farm” may be named and described, their life cycles and practical uses understood, but the larger questions of interdependence, metamorphosis, liberation, death, and beauty are left unanswered, perhaps because they are unanswerable. And perhaps this is the point of Partridge’s hyper-realistic poetics. By training her eye on the fine details of her surroundings, and then expressing those details with clinical precision, Partridge exhausts the mundane and positions her readers before the ineffable. It’s almost as if every meticulous description—every act of naming—moves us one step closer to what can never be ultimately known. And it is the stubborn presence of the unknown that makes her poems worth returning to. Like the bird that cries, “Name me,” at the conclusion of “Everglades,” Partridge invites us to name the unknown in her poems, knowing full well that no mastery and no knowledge will ever empower us to do so with finality. Yet the attempt yields its rewards, training our attention as it does on those qualities of being that transcend certainty and give rise to what must always be rediscovered anew.

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Locusts and Wild Honey

When I think of the word “ecology,” images of rainforests leap immediately to mind. The dense canopy, the intense diversity of flora and fauna, the screeching monkeys and brilliantly colored birds. If I dwell on the word a bit longer, my imagination expands to include rivers, mountains, deserts, coral reefs, and even the frozen expanses of the arctic. These are the sorts of settings that make nature documentaries such as the BBC’s Planet Earth so compelling to watch. But world ecology encompasses so much more, including human beings (people are notably absent from Planet Earth). In his essay “The Three Ecologies,” Félix Guattari identifies three “ecological registers”: “the environment, social relations and human subjectivity,” all of which are intimately interconnected and mutually contingent (18). Where there are rainforests, rivers, mountains, and deserts, there are also social relations and the complexities of human subjectivity. To suggest that humanity and nature exist in separate spheres is to engage in a fallacy, just as it’s naive to neglect the extent to which natural ecology penetrates the human species.

Food is one of the most important means by which natural ecology enters human experience. We eat, and in so doing we incorporate nature into our biology. It enriches our bodies as it passes through them. As philosopher and literary critic Timothy Morton argues, “All life-forms, along with the environments they compose and inhabit, defy boundaries between inside and outside at every level” (274). The most obvious way this is true is that we consume aspects of the biological world when we eat, and in turn we produce organic matter (including our own bodies) that feeds back into the biosphere. But eating is also a key aspect of human sociability. What occurs at mealtime is responsible, in significant and far-reaching ways, for human culture, and even for civilization itself. The fact that natural ecology is reflected in every plate of food puts nature at the center of culture. And this, it seems to me, opens up possibilities for shared recognition between distant and sometimes unfamiliar cultures, as well as opportunities to exchange knowledge and experiences that may prove crucial to our survival in an age of ecological crisis.

I began thinking about this after reading Karen L. Kilcup’s recent article on the popular nineteenth-century children’s periodical Juvenile Miscellany. In that article, Kilcup touches on how famed abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Lydia Maria Child, who served as the Miscellany’s editor from 1826 to 1834, used natural history to connect her New England readership with the diversity of cultures around the world. One of the ways Child accomplished this was by drawing her readers’ attention to the relative continuity of human attitudes towards, and interactions with, natural ecology, even when specific cultural practices diverge. For example, Kilcup notes that in her article surveying the various ways people use insects, Child refuses to “ignore traditional practices, even if they make readers uncomfortable, including descriptions of how various cultures consume insects as food — a practice that, she underscores, the Bible references” (268). By drawing a parallel between modern entomophagy (i.e., the practice of eating insects) and the biblical tradition, Child suggests a point of commonality between her predominantly Christian audience and the many people around the world who eat insects.

There are indeed biblical examples of people practicing entomophagy, the most famous of which is John the Baptist surviving on “locusts and wild honey” as he wandered the desert. Somewhat less famous is the dietary code outlined in the Torah, which condones eating “the locust after its kind, the destroying locust after its kind, the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind.” By emphasizing biblical entomophagy’s precedent, Child was clearly attempting to cultivate within her predominantly Christian audience some measure of tolerance for insects as a food source, while at the same time advocating sympathy for those cultures that practice dietary customs unfamiliar to the West. If locusts fed the prophets, why should modern Christians be so repulsed by those who eat insects today? Perhaps locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers should be a part of every omnivore’s diet.

Child was working against the grain of deep-seated cultural assumptions. As important as nutrition may be, the fact remains that people make food choices based on a spectrum of concerns, many of which have little to do with sustenance. Prominent cultural anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Mary Douglas have long understood that food has symbolic value. What we eat, and the manner in which we eat it, helps shape our social and individual identities. As Pat Caplan reminds us in her article on the relationship between food, health, and identity, Lévi-Strauss went so far as to contend that careful attention to eating habits can yield “a significant knowledge of the unconscious attitudes of the society or societies under consideration” (1–2). Such cultural attitudes, including those expressed in the Western taboo against entomophagy, can be difficult to shake, which is why Child’s biblical appeal did little to persuade her young readers and their parents to incorporate insects into the American diet.

It’s been nearly 200 years since Child made her point regarding entomophagy, and people in the United States — and the West more generally — still reject insects as a food source. The degree to which American’s are repulsed by the practice of eating insects is reflected in how entomophagy is represented in pop culture. Consider, for example, American television programs such as Fear Factor, The Amazing Race, Survivor, Man vs. Wild, and Bizarre Foods, all of which feature Americans (or a Briton, in the case of Man vs. Wild) struggling to eat foods that are commonly consumed by people around the world. The insect-eating segments of these programs participate in the pervasive sadomasochism that characterizes reality television; viewers enjoy watching people choke down bugs precisely because entomophagy is considered to be vile and humiliating. This is true of even the most sympathetic of these programs. For example, when Andrew Zimmern, celebrity chef and host of Bizarre Foods, consumes insect-based dishes, he often seems to enjoy what he’s eating, and yet the appeal of his show is undoubtedly the spectacle of someone eating food that Americans find disgusting.

But why is eating an insect any more disgusting than, say, eating a pig — an animal that is reviled by many cultures, including the culture that produced the Bible? The answer to this question leads away from food and toward Western notions of ethnocultural supremacy. In its 2013 report Edible Insects, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) repeatedly notes that people in most Western countries view the eating of insects with disgust, and that this feeling of disgust “forms the basis of moral judgement” (35). Related to this is the report’s conclusion that people in the West “perceive the practice [of eating insects] to be associated with primitive behavior” (35). Joseph Bequaert makes a similar case in his 1921 article “Insects as Food,” arguing that it “can be attributed only to prejudice, that civilized man of today shows such a decided aversion to including any six-legged creature in his diet.”1 In other words, one of the unconscious attitudes reflected in the taboo against entomophagy is the belief that Western culture has advanced beyond the so-called “primitive” stage of human development, relegating to a distant  past such backwards practices as eating insects.

Unfortunately, this disparaging attitude toward entomophagy negatively influences the eating habits of people who have maintained the tradition of consuming insects, arachnids, mealworms, and other creatures that repulse the Western palate. For example, the FAO makes the case that people in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have reduced their consumption of insects in an effort to emulate Western standards and norms (39). This is especially true of converts to Christianity. Indeed, there is evidence of Christian missionaries explicitly discouraging people from eating insects on the basis that doing so is “a heathen custom.” One Malawi convert is on record as saying that “he would never taste such things [i.e., winged termites], valuing them as highly non-Christian” (39). This is an old story, as the FAO rightly notes, and it fits within a larger history of Western ethnocentrism:

In 25–50 percent of Native American tribes, … there existed a long history of insect eating; yet because Western cultures lacked strong cultural experience with the practice and considered it primitive, they discouraged and suppressed it among Native American tribes when these two cultural groups began to interact in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Western cultures inflicted similar damage on other indigenous groups, including many in sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of modernizing or westernizing them. This cultural suppression was still prevalant [sic.] at the end of the twentieth century. As a result, entomophagy has almost disappeared from Canada and the United States and is showing signs of abating in West Africa. (39)

The abhorrence of insects as a food source should be challenged. At a time when human population growth poses a serious threat to ecosystems around the world, people everywhere need to rethink how their diets affect the environment. In his National Geographic article “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World,” Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, makes the case that dietary changes are imperative if we intend to feed the Earth’s growing human population without doing irreparable damage to the planet. He argues that “finding more efficient ways to grow meat and shifting to less meat-intensive diets — even just switching from grain-fed beef to meats like chicken, pork, or pasture-raised beef — could free up substantial amounts of food across the world.” It would also do a great deal to mitigate animal agriculture’s devastating environmental impacts.2

I would push Foley’s point much further, urging the widespread adoption of plant-based diets, and especially veganism. But in the context of omnivorous food culture, the West has much to learn from those societies that practice entomophagy. Not only are insects a protein-rich food suitable for human consumption, but they can also be used for animal feed, and they are significantly less land and water intensive than traditional livestock. The environmental, health, and social benefits are many. Here are just a few benefits outlined in a recent FAO information packet:

Environmental Benefits

  • Insects have a high feed conversion efficiency because they are cold-blooded. Feed-to-meat conversion rates (how much feed is needed to produce a 1 kg increase in weight) vary widely depending on the class of the animal and the production practices used, but nonetheless insects are extremely efficient. On average, insects can convert 2 kg of feed into 1 kg of insect mass, whereas cattle require 8 kg of feed to produce 1 kg of body weight gain.
  • The production of greenhouse gases by most insects is likely to be lower than that of conventional livestock. For example, pigs produce 10–100 times more greenhouse gases per kg of weight than mealworms.
  • Insects can feed on bio-waste, such as food and human waste, compost and animal slurry, and can transform this into high-quality protein that can be used for animal feed.
  • Insects use significantly less water than conventional livestock. Mealworms, for example, are more drought-resistant than cattle.
  • Insect farming is less land-dependent than conventional livestock farming.

Health Benefits

  • Insects provide high-quality protein and nutrients comparable with meat and fish. Insects are particularly important as a food supplement for undernourished children because most insect species are high in fatty acids (comparable with fish). They are also rich in fiber and micronutrients such as copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
  • Insects pose a low risk of transmitting zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) such as like H1N1 (bird flu) and BSE (mad cow disease).

Livelihood and Social Benefits

  • Insect gathering and rearing can offer important livelihood diversification strategies. Insects can be directly and easily collected in the wild. Minimal technical or capital expenditure is required for basic harvesting and rearing equipment.
  • Insects can be gathered in the wild, cultivated, processed and sold by the poorest members of society, such as women and landless people in urban and rural areas. These activities can directly improve diets and provide cash income through the selling of excess production as street food.
  • Insect harvesting and farming can provide entrepreneurship opportunities in developed, transitional and developing economies.
  • Insects can be processed for food and feed relatively easily. Some species can be consumed whole. Insects can also be processed into pastes or ground into meal, and their proteins can be extracted.

There has been some modest movement toward entomophagy in the United States. For example, there is a growing demand for cricket flour, which is used in everything from cookies to protein bars, and educator-friendly information about the dietary benefits of insects is readily available. Just type “entomophagy infographic” into Google, and you will find dozens of examples. Two of my favorites can be found here and here. There are also organizations that advocate for insects as a sustainable food source. Little Herds is a good example. And yet a typical American market is unlikely to stock a single item that makes use of grasshoppers, crickets, termites, or other insects that the FAO recommends as nutritious and sustainable food sources. The disgust toward entomophagy — and the unconscious attitudes it reflects — effectively deprives a sizable portion of the world’s population from a perfectly sensible source of nutrition.

The commitment to progress and modernity has led us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. Large-scale industrialization, a voracious fossil fuel industry, a blind faith in free markets, and rampant consumerism are a few of the forces that have contributed to the problem. But there are deeper forces at work as well. One such force is the idea that the West — its culture, its religion, its politics, its technology — represents “progress,” and that those cultures that embrace different values and customs are backwards, primitive, and morally deficient. This ethnocentrism has deep roots and manifests itself in many ways, and it has proven remarkably adept at expanding its sphere of influence. Indeed, one of recent history’s great tragedies is how so many of the world’s cultures have accepted this ethnocentric narrative. The widespread enthusiasm for Western food norms— including the disgust toward entomophagy — is but one example.

There are those who believe technological innovation will save us from the worst of our accelerating environmental degradation, allowing us to progress out of the crisis into which “progress” has delivered us. But perhaps the most progressive thing we can do is to listen to those whose customs are all too often considered objects of disgust. There are communities of people in the world who hold a wealth of traditional knowledge, yet the practices derived from that knowledge are too often dismissed as “primitive,” or as belonging to “a heathen custom.” Western ethnocentrism is, in this regards, maladaptive. We need to learn from each other. The future of our species may depend on it. But to do so we must first become aware of how our unconscious attitudes make us averse to cultural practices that can benefit us and our shared environment. Entomophagy is one such practice that the West would be wise to reconsider.

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