Independence Day

July 4, 2010

It’s that time of the year again. Time to dust off the old ‘68 vintage Kalamazoo SG knock-off and haul out the ’72 Bassman head from attic, and plug them into the Altec-Lansing 15s that I made homemade cabinets for out in the garage on Long Island from left-over particle board. All this stuff goes out on to the side porch where I treat the neighborhood to my version of the Star Spangled Banner. Everyone loves this stuff, you know. And no one complains about that annoying hum I have never been able to get out of the Bassman head. It’s tradition, after all.

Not that I have much more to say about today’s celebrations, but this little opening got me out of the need to title this week’s blog something like “Another Pick-Up”. I got in enough trouble for the last one.

Diane tells me that things are humming down on the Allen Street Farmer’s Market on Wednesday afternoons. I haven’t gotten down there yet myself. Thornapple is apparently handing out the shares “buffet style” this year. This means that everyone does a take one from column A and one from column B when it comes time to pick-up your veggies. Diane says that this approach has several advantages over the “pre-bagged” option, which is certainly quicker for busy people trying to do a quickie pick-up. For one thing, you get a bit more choice. If you like several little baby heads of lettuce instead of one big one, that’s in your control. And people just aren’t picking up the stuff they don’t want. This is important because research shows that “too much food” is the number one complaint that people have about belonging to a CSA. What is more, the extra food is being picked up by Food Movers this year and being distributed through the Greater Lansing Food Bank.

But the main thing that Diane likes about this approach is that it forces people to slow down a little bit. This draws people into conversations that would not happen otherwise. And as Diane reminds me (and I suspect others), the first word in CSA is “community”. This idea that something which entails taking extra trouble and bother, but that has the unintended and often unnoticed benefit of drawing us into more meaningful relationships is a key theme in the work of one of my favorite living philosophers, Albert Borgmann. Albert calls the things that make us do this “focal things” and the practices that they engage us in “focal practices.” He contrasts these focal things with technologies that deliver what we need with the flip of a switch or less. These conveniences make life easier, and Albert is not “against” them. It would be impossible to get along in the modern world without these devices that make things go smoothly, and that do not require us to become deeply involved.

Albert’s point is that when our life become totally dominated by these simplifying devices, it also becomes emptied of meaning. He calls this “the failed promise of modern technology.” In days past, people’s entire lives were consumed by tasks such as cutting wood and tending the stove. While this was a pain, the hearth in the traditional farm household was a natural focal thing. It drew people in the household and the tasks needed to keep a wood-fired hearth going provided rhythm and structure that created a sense of community among those who lived in or visited the household. Although modern technologies such as the instant-on kitchen range and the central heating system have replaced the toil needed to keep a hearth going, these technologies have also failed us in fundamental ways. There is little in the modern lifestyle to replace the structure, rhythm and engagement that came naturally before.

This is not to imply that we should go back to wood-burning stoves. That would be pretty bad for global warming, for one thing. No, what Albert says is that we must now mindfully dedicate ourselves to focal practices that may have been part of the natural rhythm of life in ages past. He offers examples of focal practice that include running, and hiking in the woods. One of his extended examples is what he calls “the culture of the table”: an extended set of focal practices that are organized around the tasks of acquiring, preparing, serving and enjoying the food that we eat. Well structured food practices bring people together, and create meaningful lives. So take a minute to say “Hi” to Diane when you are picking up your veggies at the Allen Street Market next Wednesday. And if you are over on the Westside and hear something that sounds like badly played Hendrix wafting through the trees, you will know what that is, too.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Readers interested in reading more about the culture of the table should consult Albert Borgmann Real American Ethics, 2007 or Paul B. Thompson The Agrarian Vision 2010.