June 10, 2012

Not that it has much to do with food and farming, but I caught three or four minutes of the transit of Venus last Wednesday. It seems worth a mention for posterity’s sake. I was walking across campus at Charles Sturt University and a small group was gathered around a telescope that someone had set up on the sidewalk. The telescope was pointed at the sun and one fellow was holding a sheet of white paper below the eyepiece. And there in circle of bright light was an unmistakable black dot: the shadow of Venus as she made her way between our planet and the sun. You had to be fairly patient to see any movement, but movement was certainly there to be seen. Any real fan of the transit of Venus would have sat there all day, watching the dot zigzag across the white circle. But being a typical astrological boob, I was pretty much ready to chalk the whole thing up as a “Been there, done that,” after just one short look.

I’m told that Captain Cook set off on his voyage of discovery in 1768 in order to observe the transit of Venus. This was not quite the happenstance that I experienced last week, as transcontinental travel (Cook was based in England) required a bit more advance planning. Ten years later Cook found himself at the site of what is now Anchorage, where a statue can be found at Resolution Point where Diane and I ended a pleasant bicycle ride last September. Things did not turn out so well for Cook, who later on that voyage found himself cooked by Hawaiian islanders.

This, however, is not the food connection for this week’s Thornapple Blog, as the cooking of Cook is believed to have been not a cannibalistic rite, but rather a funerary rite, intended primarily to remove flesh from his bones so that they could be preserved. One story holds that the Hawaiians had mistaken Cook for Lono, the god of fertility. Lono is in some incarnations associated with music and sexual pursuit, a kind of Polynesian Dionysus, while in others he is a god of agriculture and rainfall. There are numerous stories in which Lono is said to have taken a human form, generally sailing into the sunset with promises to return. Cook was killed during an altercation between his crew and the islanders. If you off Lono, it seems, you must at least show him the respect of a good funerary roasting.

Fortunately, I was not mistaken for Lono during my visit to the Hawaiian Islands about a year ago. This would distinguish me from a better-known Thompson, Hunter S., who chronicled himself as a drunken incarnation of Lono, pulling fish from the sea with his bare hands and beating them to death with an elegantly carved Samoan war club. More Dionysian than food-related, I think. I was inspired to become a philosophy professor by Hunter S. Thompson after reading his immortal aphorism “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”.

If I were to aspire to Lono-ness, it would certainly be in connection to the agriculture/rainfall incarnation. I’m sure that Venus has some sort of agricultural meaning. Maybe it’s even tied up in that Mayan calendar thing that I was blogging about during my trip to Hawaii, but aspirations to Lono-ness to the side, I’ll not pontificate on that point. If you look it up, you will learn that the transit of Venus works on a 243 year cycle. Paired transits occur 8 years apart, then not again for a quite a while. Look for it again in about 105 years. I guess we’ll just have to wait.

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

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