Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Getting Them Involved

I started answering Caroline's very nice comment on the previous post; it got longer; and longer- so I finally realized it would be best dealt with here.

She said; "I don't know how we're going to teach our kids to see those limits other than by living in a way that shows sensitivity to the fact that there isn't infinite amounts of anything."

Teach the kids. That's absolutely one of the most important things we need to focus on. There's an awful lot of older folks who will never learn; never understand, never change. It's the kids.

And thinking about "how", and how this can relate to the real world (ie. NOT little houses in the woods, but Little Tiny Apartments In The Incredibly Huge City) - I found myself starting to tell this story. It does turn out relevant, I think.

Aeons ago, my son Beelar was asked as a school exercise to "write down your favorite food recipe". This had to be 3rd grade, I think. An assignment teaching both handwriting, and the beginnings of composition, and story telling.

We got called in to talk to the Principal about it. No, really- the teachers were in an uproar about his recipe/essay.

Man, I wish I had a copy of it- but it happened back before computers. Paper disappears; if it's in the computer, I can find it.

He chose "Spaghetti" as his recipe. Ok, how weird can that be? Then he started off: "First, you plant the tomatoes..."

You have to understand, he was UTTERLY serious; not a bit of smart mouth going on. This was his answer- this is how you make spaghetti.

The part that really freaked the teachers out though, was when he got to "Then, you add some ground Bambi..."

Ok, now THAT was smartmouthing; he knew that "regular folks" don't talk about ground venison that way. But WE did. Not in any attempt to be callous- we still loved the lovable parts of the movie; and deer- but in an attempt to be HONEST about what we were doing. We're eating deer. Right here, in the spaghetti; not hiding the fact from the kids. You have to shoot the deer- and gut it, and butcher it, and store it- to get this. All wrapped up in that wiseacre "ground Bambi".

The teachers really didn't know what to make of this; was our child being warped? Abused? What the heck?

We managed to convince them the boy was not in danger; and not really warped- just with a different viewpoint; but it took some fancy dancing, and put us on the FBI's permanent "Watch" list, I think.

He KNEW what goes into spaghetti. You plant tomatoes; and weed them; and can them; and you kill animals; and butcher them. He knew because he'd seen it; and helped do it. I really don't think he can see a can of tomatoes on the shelf at Walmart without seeing also.... the tomato plant- in Florida- the can, on a truck... etc. Likewise with the package of hamburger.

He knows.

How is this relevant to the City? I'm not suggesting you should go out and shoot pigeons, or squirrels, for your soup- just a bit impractical, never mind the legalities.

But even in the City- you have a windowsill. It can grow SOME of what goes in to your food. One pepper plant? One tomato plant? A pot of sage, thyme, oregano- chives?

Each child can have their own- it's their job to care for it, water it, grow it, harvest it- add it to the ... pizza. You can have a special meal where most of ingredients come from the window; and the family shares- harvest; cooking, sharing.

They'll start to get the idea. Wow; just growing the peppers was a LOT of work. Hm... You can nudge them into understanding a little more.

Of course, in the burbs, it's easier. 10 tomato plants- and canning the crop. You DON'T have to do industrial quantities. What you DO want to do is get the kids INVOLVED - on a comfortable level. Actually, my own father having grown up on a truck farm, he always planted vast food gardens, and dragooned the kids into "working" in them. I hated it. He was astonished when I started planting my own; me too. I think it's possible to get kids involved without making it into something to be avoided.

This kind of thing can be done in school, too; get the 4th grade to grow their own spaghetti/pizza/soup. (I think we can let them buy the pasta, or flour, don't you? Maybe the High School kids can mill their own flour...)

It's an old situation; and an old answer. Look in Laura Ingalls Wilder's book "Farmer Boy". Chapter 16, "Independence Day". Almanzo asks his father for a nickel (5¢) - because the other boys dare him to- they don't think his father will, since boys rarely had money at all. His father is talking to an adult friend- they're amazed at this forward child. "What for?" his father says. Almanzo stutters out a story about needing to buy lemonade... Father is not dumb, and sees more of what's really going on. He pulls out - not a nickel; but a half dollar; 50¢; ten times as much. Then he makes Almanzo answer a long series of questions- for the benefit of the adult friend. "You know how to grow potatoes, son? What do you do first?" Almanzo knows; he's been helping grow potatoes since forever, and he actually loves it. It takes all year- including storage, selecting/preparing the seed; plowing, planting, weeding, digging, sorting, hauling, back to storing- the selling- and what is a bushel of potatoes worth? Hauled in to town? Half a dollar. Father gives Almanzo the entire 50¢, to do with as he likes. As long as he understands- all the work, the whole year long, that went into a bushel of potatoes, is in that half dollar.

Almanzo gets it.

But only because- he knows what good work is; and what it's worth.

There is a connection between understanding work, and understanding limits. If what you have is the result of your own work- it IS limited. You can't work to an infinite extent- it will kill you to try. Eventually the connection comes- no one else can work "infinitely" either. Everything has limits- you can know this in your bones.

But not if all you've ever done is plug in a toy.

We CAN give that comprehension to our kids; but in this world, you have to make the effort to give it to them. Otherwise, it's TV and video. And if you haven't seen No Impact Man's post today, that's where you should go next, because he clearly "gets it."


Beelar said...

I'm pretty sure it was kindergarten, and was included in a book of recipes compiled by the whole class. I saw our copy of it sometime in the last decade... I remember the bit about ground Bambi (and I'm pretty sure it was the kindergarten teacher who's shock I'm remembering). But have no recollection of the planting the tomatoes first. Probably because it seemed absolutely normal and reasonable to me. Interesting. Also, I had no idea how much trouble that caused for my parents, though I guess I knew it caused some. Whoops!

I don't know if I see the whole supply chain every time I look at a can of tomatoes, but it doesn't take much for me to think about it. I do know how much work (and in conventional agriculture these days particularly, raw material) is in food, and it makes me rather unwasteful when compared to most of my friends and acquaintances. Watching people throw away plates of potatoes is actually somewhat painful to me. I tend to say something, and with my background, every once in a while somebody gets it, rather than just professing their feelings of guilt for a behavior they won't change.

Though it isn't much this year, we've got a little garden in our back yard (I currently live in the 'burbs). ALL of the kids on the block (who run wild for lack of anything to do) thought our garden was the best on the block last year. It looked kinda crappy in terms of its landscaping, but it had food in it. And we let them hoe a little bit sometimes, and eat some lettuce every once in a while. Everybody came to admire the six-inch pumpkin. They're DYING for something like this, of some apparent inherent value, to take part in.

Hopefully next year I can manage to have the neighborhood kids grow some squash soup and salad, maybe in my and the neighbor's back yards. Good idea. It probably won't have as profound an effect on them as my entire early childhood had on me, but it will probably give them enough experience that they'll actually understand what people like me are talking about. That's a big deal.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Greenpa. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books cover to cover when I was little, and as an adult was horrified at some of the racism that was in them. But you reminded me that there's a lot of really great storytelling in there too.

I'm glad you brought schools up, because a lot of good can be done there for a lot of kids whose parents otherwise won't/can't do this kind of educating. I recently had to produce a gala event for the non-profit I work for. We couldn't afford to rent plates and cloth napkins - the Board decreed we were to use paper. I felt sick at the idea of being responsible for four large garbage bags full of plates made from virgin wood. I looked around - not even very hard - and found a company that makes disposable paper goods out of what's left of sugar cane when you turn it into sugar. It's renewable and COMPOSTABLE! I did a little dance. You can find them at http://www.worldcentric.org/.

Their products are structured for school cafeterias. When I was little, we used plastic dishes and trays (which we then stole to use as sleds in the wintertime, but that's another story). Apparently now many schools use styrofoam trays. So this site sells compostable trays, and provides information on how to start a school composting program. Brilliant! What a great way for kids to learn about the end of the cradle-to-cradle process. Now I wish I had a kid in a school so I could insist that they do this.

I bring up composting in this rambling post because where I live in the city, growing food means attracting rats. The whole block is infested and we have to be careful - even inside on the windowsill. But rats don't like compost - too much yummy stuff in the garbage. So instead we compost to make good soil for the little one I live with (she's not mine, so I can't get all bossy with her teachers) to plant flowers in instead. We started this because when she was three we asked her where she thought corn came from and she said, "the co-op (as in, the Park Slope Food Coop)." Yikes!!

Anonymous said...


I wish I was your neighbor!


Greenpa said...

Jen- I'm totally delighted with the sugar cane waste plates!! You got the right word; Brilliant! I'll pass that one on as much as I can.

You DO know what their word for "sugar cane waste" IS, don't you?

Lived in Hawaii, before the cane industry died, so I ran into it a lot. It's "bagasse", pronounced pretty much just the way it looks. Wouldn't it be subversive to teach that word to a group of 5th graders?? It sounds dirty- but technically isn't. Could drive the teachers nuts.

About racism in the Little House books- sure, it's there. But- the books are a product of that time- and something I think we shouldn't forget. And it's HONEST- seen through the eyes of a child. Of course the black doctor scared her- she'd never seen a black person before. And while Ma hated Indians; Pa didn't- and they talk about it a little.

Yup. People ARE racist. It's a difficult thing to teach any child- to some extent, I think these books could be useful there.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. We are cutting back little by little, and the other day we went to Target (to buy a couple of things - no more big trips for us), and our next stop was Goodwill. My 6-year-old said, "Let's walk to Goodwill, because driving isn't good for the environment." I was surprised she would want to walk that far, but walk we did, and she told me, "It isn't that bad, see?"

As far as the Little House books, I've read most of them to my daughter, and we just read "Caddie Woodlawn," which has similar issues. It's tough to deal with what sounds like racism to us ... but on the other hand, American Indians did sometimes harm white settlers, just as white settlers harmed American Indians. All in all, both books are well worth it for their rich (and delightfully old-fashioned) content, anyway.

Christy said...

My 7 year old son went out and picked tomatoes, onions, a hot pepper and 7 basil leaves for tonight's dinner. He did all the harvesting himself and did a good job. I didn't have to remind him which plant was which or how to harvest them.

We are gardening all in containers this year but the lessons have still been numerous. And he feels useful, something we've been struggling with here.

Anonymous said...

I did know it was called bagasse, but was trying (trying!) to be brief. Ah, failure! :). And have been embarrassed not to know how to pronounce it - so it's like a shopping BAG and a bad-ASS? My partner is about to become a high school teacher, and I'm fantasizing about starting a composting program in her school, so I think I'll leave off the teacher-taunting :).

Teaching kids about racism is a tough one. But one of the things that really helps is reading books like the Wilder series with your kid, so you can examine the problems that they raise together. If you've done your job right, maybe the kid will be surprised by Laura being scared of a black man - because the kid knows that black people aren't scary - scary people are scary.

mysophia said...

I think the shock was in hearing this information from a kindergartener. Honestly that is to young to introduce a child to the process of how we get our meat to the table, it's disturbing. Something that should be saved for at least age 12.

anna j said...

Honestly that is to young to introduce a child to the process of how we get our meat to the table, it's disturbing. Something that should be saved for at least age 12.

really? hmm. i just had that talk with my 6 year old son last night at dinner. he asked about how the body will shut down without water. that led to talking about muscle and what it's good for. that led to talking about meat. he knew he'd seen the neighbors eating pig ribs, and it's perfectly fine with me that he knows that we eat animals.

i read a book when i was a kid that had child characters going on a field trip to a pumpkin patch, and one of them was surprised that the pumpkins weren't in cans, and another was surprised that they didn't have price tags on them.

i think the idea that adults are ashamed of what it takes to eat meat such that they won't even talk with their kids about it is disturbing.

Greenpa said...

Mysophia- I understand your feelings there- but.

If that were true- every child growing up on a real farm- where they see animals die NATURALLY from the day the kids start walking - like the lamb that dies at birth; the ewe that dies in birth- the horse that dies of old age at 24- and then learn where the ham comes from soon after-

all those children would somehow grow up warped. Are you saying you think all farmers are warped? I'm sure you're not; but that's kind of in there in your feelings about meat-.

It's such an emotional topic for so many people that usually thinking stops far short of that question.

Farm children have very healthy attitudes towards animals I find. They love them, almost universally. AND they still eat meat.

That's been our past as a species- seeing death, and the process of meat- from birth.

I'll bet YOU were not exposed to the realities of meat until you were 8 or so; and it horrified you. I don't think it helps at all to put it off to 12- it's just more horrifying.

Death is natural. Please take a look at my current comment on No Impact Man; parallel conversations. I made one early; this is the late one I'm talking about; though both may interest you. life and death?

Greenpa said...

Elizabeth- aww. :-)
Christy- absolutely fabulous! :-)
Cheap- kids are astonishing, always :-)
Jen from B- yup. pretty much down the line. :-)

Beelar said...

Mysophia- I have to respond to this immediately. Before I continue I also want to emphasize that the following response is so strong because I feel it is so important. Quite possibly you already know and agree with much of what I'm about to say, but I very strongly feel that it needs saying, right here. I sincerely hope that this does not start some sort of flame war.

No, no no. Do not wait until 12, in fact don't wait at all. Never hide where any of your food comes from. NOT EVER.

The longer it remains hidden, the more traumatic it has the potential to be, and the less likely it is that somebody will actually come to terms with what is going on. I have plenty of friends who found out too late where hamburger comes from, and as a result will CONSCIOUSLY IGNORE the origins of their meat. This is DISASTROUS. It makes it impossible for them to FEEL what they're doing when they THROW AWAY that leftover meatloaf in the fridge, which they FORGOT about, and for which A LIVING BEING DIED. Put another way, I see this very often giving rise to a disregard for life, in a very literal sense. The life involved in food is simply not regarded.

Some people respond to this revelation with vegetarianism. I thing vegetarianism is fine, but basing it on fear or disgust is not healthy, and in many cases I have observed (though certainly not all) is based on a disregard for ecology. Animals eat animals, and this is how it works. If you choose to exclude yourself from this that is fine, and possibly honorable, but only if it is not part of some denial of the way omnivores make their living.

If knowledge of where the rabbit stew or the squirrel spaghetti or the hamburger or the chicken nuggets come from is always a part of your life, it will not be so traumatic and shocking. It can be accepted, and felt. Though there is (and should be) pain involved, it is not a shock.

I hinted at this above, but to reiterate, it is incredibly important for one to be capable of feeling (or at least acknowledging) the sacrifice of life associated with meat and food in general. This is more important than accepting that sacrifice- which is why I don't have anything against vegetarianism per se.

I suppose I should stop now, before I write a book on the subject in this little text box. Obviously there is a lot of deeper discussion possible on many of these points.

And it also looks like Pa has posted a somewhat similar comment, while I was working on this one...

Greenpa said...

Beelar- you've thought about this in ways I haven't.

I must've done something right.


mollyjade said...

I can remember having this discussion with a three-year-old who was fascinated with bugs. What does the bug eat? What do you eat? Is the lettuce you eat like the grass the bug eats? Where does the lettuce come from? Where is it before it's in the kitchen? Where is it before it's at the store? At this point, the little girl got very frustrated.

As far as racism in the Little House books goes, I think it deals with it very honestly. Ma has the typical attitudes of the day while Laura and Pa identify with the Indians. One thing that I thought was very interesting is that later in life, Laura Wilder participated in a town debate about who was treated worse, American Indians or blacks. She took the side that Indians were treated worse. She had met a black doctor, but never an Indian doctor. I think it just goes to show that she was looking at the issue of race long before the civil rights movement.

Anonymous said...

On NIM's blog I tried to talk a little about 3 strands of the history of environmental philosophy: the wild ethic, the animal rights approach, and the farming-philosophers.

I think the real differences are in the emotions they are rooted in. The wild ethics is all about AWE at the majesty and sublime complexity of nature. The animal rights approach comes out of the emotion of EMPATHY with the suffering of others. The farming-philosophies are emotionally rooted in APPRECIATING THE COST of everyday things like in potato story. One could certainly have experienced all three at various times. Our philosophy of the world is often about trying to justify our emotions with somekind of rational structure.

Hiding where meat comes from blocks both the second and third emotion (and the more meat looks like a product than a natural thing, even the first I guess).

Heck, I suppose there is a sense in which the whole point of a market is to hide the real cost of things. One pays the potato-grower 50 cents for the bushel, precisely so one doesn't have to know all the details of what goes into growing potatoes and thus be a potato-grower themselves, just as the potato-grower can never truly know the cost to the customer of getting those 50 cents in the first place. Likewise, empathy is the key emotion of political processes, its what binds people into a group and allows them to treat another persons problem as their own problem or a collective problem. And awe, well awe is central to big chunks of art, religion, and science. Hmm, not really sure where I'm going with this, but figured I'd throw it out there.
-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

At risk of going off on a tangent, Brian, I'm interested in what you've brought up here - money allows us not to think about things. It's a shortcut. I had thought about what that means in terms of the consumer not knowing what goes into producing what she buys, but hadn't thought about what it means in terms of the producer not knowing what goes into the consumer earning that money. It brings up all kinds of exploitative marketing practices - the current sub-prime lending problem, for instance.

I think a lot about what motivates people to exploit and harm each other. This gets me out of the realm of environmentalism and into the realm where I spend most of my time - the arts. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that empathy is an absolutely essential component of a civilized society. In order to harm a person, you need to see them as somehow less of a person than yourself. To get to that place, you have to be disconnected from empathy. I think that the arts are one of the ways our culture allows us to practice empathy for each other. Money removes the personal interaction from a transaction, which allows empathy to disappear. And since we're not very good at it anyway, there's a serious downward spiral that can happen from there.

This gets us back to veganism, and Hyz's comments on NIM, and Mysophia's comments here - children have instant, huge empathy. We need that so very very much in our society - I understand why Mysophia would want a child's sensitivity to be preserved for as long as possible. Beelar is saying, I think, that it's better to bring a child through the experiences that can be desensitizing - understanding death, understanding that there is evil in the world - with a sense of connection to all of it, so that their empathy can be preserved while they manage to interact with the full spectrum of reality.

I guess that's a good definition of a whole person - one who can fully understand what is frightening and evil and difficult and still stay connected with empathy and compassion.

Christy said...

My son has always known where meat comes from. Since he could talk he would ask what different food was and I would tell him and show him pictures. So hamburger comes from cows, carrots from the ground etc. He hasn't seen an animal butchered yet, but we do plan on raising and butchering chickens in the next few years. He wants to be involved in the process because I think he understands that we need to take responsibility for what we eat.

And he is the most gentle person I know when it comes to animals. We've brought injured butterflies home so they could die in our butterfly garden and hopefully at peace.

Anonymous said...

This is such a great post! We live in a very urban area, but we have enough room to do a little square foot gardening... I am inspired! (((((HUGS))))) sandi

mysophia said...

I absolutely agree Anna banana, it is shameful the way in which some of our society goes about getting their nutrition. Maybe they should rethink what their doing, before sharing it with their little ones. Adults are free to choose what they will come to except, children need to be protected from the harsh realities of our world. We introduce our children to the ways of the world in an age appropriate manner.

mysophia said...

No Greenpa, I believe when farm animals, or any animal dies naturally, or by accident it's fine when a young child knows about it. That's not the same as taking the life of an animal for our own consumption. I didn't know how animals were killed for consumption, only that they were killed, until I was an adult. I never used the word warped, or even implied it, in reference to the outcome a child would have once being informed.

mysophia said...

Beelar, I think you made way to much out of the comment I made. My opinion is one of age related only, thats it!, considering the fact that its not a natural way in which animals die. And I'm not in disagreement with telling children where there meat comes from, only in the details.

mysophia said...

Jen from brooklyn you seemed to have nailed it. Those are my sentiments, and what you're saying makes sense. Remembering, a young childs understanding is based on brain development, so we wait for the child to develope. Hence my viewpoint.

Susan Och said...

My husband calls venison "Bambi", also. It doesn't elicit much response around here because deer hunting is such a part of the local culture. Until recently the first day of deer season was an informal school holiday.

We don't hunt, but we nail deer with our cars, anyway. If they aren't scrawny late winter-spring deer, we butcher and eat them, or sent the meat to the food pantry.

Deer hunting with a car is a stupid sport, but that's what happens when you get toom many deer. A few weeks ago a local biker (pedal, not Harley) suffered a broken pelvis a deer broadsided him.

Anonymous said...

Spice here!

I have to tell everyone that I love Beelar's Spaghetti recipe and would feel a major sucess as a parent if Smidgeon did something similar one day.

That's my own personal bias.

As to getting food and respecting food, I'll try to be brief.

I grew up in a variety of places, much like GreenPa, but mostly on my paternal grandparent's cattle ranch. I watched my (White!!) Grandfather change the ranch from a production-line like operation to an operation that gave the animals free-range, care and respect.
He brought back horses to the ranch, because they were less damaging to the lant than four-wheelers and jeeps. He also thought you'd value the land more if you had to see it from the back of a horse, and have the sore bottom at the end of the day.
From a toddler I knew that things lived and died and that animals kill animals. I knew that the steak on our plate was from a cow killed two weeks ago.
By ten I was helping with the ranch, including butchering.
I was there when calves and foals were born, I gave them their fisrt innoculations and watched them run on wobbly legs for the first time. I cried when spring blizzards turned the calves into little blocks of ice and their noses weren't velvety anymore and their toungs weren't soft.
I tranied the horses and hearded the cows.
AND I loaded those cows, when they were steers ready for slaughter into the trailers to be taken to the slaughter-house.
Yes I was sad to watch them go. Yes I eat meat. But I also respect meat.
Our ranch wouldn't exist anymore if my grandfather hadn't changed it into a more wholistis operation. Many of our neighbors' ranches are now housing developments.
We depend on the cattle for our survival, and they depend on us for thiers.

I've known this since before I could talk.
I love animals. I eat them too.
Nature has always been cruel to the animals. I have never been.