This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of a still-amazing book, Living the Good Life, by Scott and Helen Nearing. The Nearings left city life in 1932 to homestead rural land in (first) Vermont and (later) Maine. They felt they had discovered the “good life,” and wrote several books both to describe how they lived and to encourage others toward greater simplicity and authenticity. They have been called “the great-grandparents of the back-to-the-land movement” and no doubt inspired many young people in the 1960s and 1970s. When I came to their books later, I was impressed that they were vegetarians and carried on their farming completely without the use of animals. Would that the 21st century homesteading movement would do likewise!
The Nearings’ books overflow with sincerity, compassion, and common sense. Here are examples:
“Ideas of ‘making money’ or ‘getting rich’ have given people a perverted view of economic principles. The object of economic effort is not money, but livelihood. Money cannot feed, clothe, or shelter. Money is a medium of exchange,–a means of securing the items that make up livelihood. It is the necessaries and decencies that are important, not the money which may be exchanged for them. And money must be paid for, like anything else . . .” Continue reading
Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. Harper Perennial, 2012.
Kingsolver explores a fictional scenario in which monarch butterflies’ migratory behavior is so disturbed by climate change that they overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico. The butterflies turn up en masse in a small town, attracting a prominent scientist and his students to set up a lab and study them, and changing life dramatically for the townspeople. Through her story Kingsolver educates readers about the seriousness of climate change, shows how it disproportionately affects the poor, and unsparingly skewers the media who refuse to tell the truth about it. Trying to make sense of it all are sympathetic characters struggling to make ends meet, navigate their family relationships, and find fulfillment where choices are limited.
Kingsolver has aligned her considerable narrative skill with her passion for the environment to deliver a novel whose thought-provoking issues will continue to engage readers long after the last page is read.
The Ogallala Road; A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, by Julene Bair. Viking, 2014.
I was delighted to discover this exceptional memoir about how powerfully our loved ones shape our lives, be those loved ones family members, lovers, or the land we call home. Here the prairie landscapes of western Kansas come alive in exquisite beauty, along with an unsettling concern for the future: the huge Ogallala aquifer beneath them is being pumped out at an alarmingly unsustainable rate to irrigate crops that could never be grown there otherwise. It’s not a case of outside developers coming in to exploit the land’s resources, as happened in Appalachia, for example. On the prairie the long-time residents who love it the most are responsible, whether they fully realize it or not, for robbing their descendants, and many species of indigenous wildlife, of a future there.
As I read I was reminded of another skillful and moving book I loved about the prairie ecosystem: PrairyErth, by William Least Heat-Moon. But Julene Bair has the advantage of having grown up on the land she describes, telling the story as only a native can do. She went away for some years, then returned to the farm with a young son to raise. She develops an environmental awareness that puts her at odds with the locals. Later on, her family must decide what to do with their land after the patriarch dies, his son is ready to retire, and none of the younger generation wants to farm.
Bair combines the sensibility of a poet with an activist’s command of the facts, but neither side runs away with the narrative. The prairie is not just a place on the map to her, but inhabits her mind and heart, allowing her to persuade readers to care more deeply.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer. HarperCollins, 2009.
This is the engrossing true story of a bright young boy in Malawi, idled because his family is too poor to pay the required fees to send him to school. He finds old textbooks at the village library that explain how to generate electricity, and with astonishing determination collects the necessary parts. At age 14, he completes a functioning windmill generator. His desire to bring electricity to his family and village persists despite much discouragement, lack of resources, and taunting by friends and relatives who think he’s crazy. If this weren’t enough, the country endures a terrible famine at that time (2002), due to government corruption as much as lack of rain. William’s account of the famine as someone who experienced it is more moving than any account by outsiders could ever be.
Finally his talent is recognized, and he is invited to give a TED talk when he can barely speak English. By the time the book was published in 2009, he was a student at Dartmouth.
This book is for anyone looking for an inspirational story of what can be achieved with persistence and dedication, even without support. It also shows the transformative power of a local public library. My book club loved it.
While tabling on behalf of Denver Vegans at the city of Denver’s Earth Day Fair, I had several chances to increase the effectiveness of my outreach by talking with people who influence many others. A friend had told me that 50PlusPrime, the TV News Magazine for Baby Boomers, was in town looking for stories on boomer generation people involved in community service, and would I be interested in talking to them? I would.
It turned out that the program’s president and founder is a vegan himself! So he was glad to film a segment on that topic. He and a cameraman came to the Earth Day Fair, interviewed me on camera and showed our vegan literature table. The program will not air until this fall, in limited markets, but will be available for viewing online after air date.
I also mentioned that I would like to encourage boomer-age viewers not to give up on personal goals or dreams they’d had in their youth, out of a fear that maybe now they were too old to achieve them. I’d wanted to be a published author since my youth, but put that on the back burner as I gave my attention to other worthwhile projects. I picked up that dream in my late 50s, and wrote my book The Practical Peacemaker: How Simple Living Makes Peace Possible. It was picked up by New York publisher Lantern Books, published just after my 60th birthday, and launched with an author event at the Tattered Cover Bookstore. I was filmed talking about this for a separate segment of 50PlusPrime. Continue reading
Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting an animal sanctuary devoted mostly to chickens. The Rooster Sanctuary at Danzig’s Roost is located near Bennett, Colorado, and houses around 50 roosters and over 100 hens, plus eight ducks, four inquisitive goats, two gentle horses, and an unforgettable potbellied pig. Not to mention countless wild rabbits who burrow under the coops. The goats definitely wanted to engage with us; one kept trying to untie my shoelaces! The horses came over to the fence to greet us, and were rewarded by the treats we gave them. The hens scurried around us, making soothing hen sounds. Among the hens and roosters, we saw a variety of breeds of varying sizes, some with stunning coloration, feathered feet, or other unusual features. We were impressed with the grounds, the numerous sturdy coops and fenced enclosures, a nice pond for the ducks, and plenty of space to explore. Continue reading
The following is a letter I sent to three organizations–Food & Water Watch, Natural Grocers, and Colorado Interfaith Power & Light–who are sponsoring a forum in Denver this week on the overuse of antibiotics on factory farms. Working to change laws on this is fine as far as it goes, but the best solution doesn’t require legal or corporate change: we need to encourage people to reduce or eliminate their use of animal products. That viewpoint will not be represented on the forum, although grassfed beef and dairy interests will be. I call on the sponsors to include the veg viewpoint in any future events on this topic.
To Lisa Trope, Food & Water Watch; Alan Lewis, Natural Grocers; and Colorado Interfaith Power & Light:
I just picked up a flyer at Natural Grocers about the potluck and forum you are sponsoring April 2 regarding antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I know that Food & Water Watch has a petition campaign urging passage of the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act, related to factory farms, where routinely-given antibiotics endanger the health of everyone. I applaud this campaign.
However, regarding the April 2 event, there is a glaring omission among those invited to be on the panel. No one is speaking to the approach that is simple, effective, and would greatly benefit human health, the animals, and the environment: namely, encourage people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of meat and other animal products. This requires no petitions, no changes in laws or corporate agricultural practices. Unlike the approach of the non-factory farmed meat producers, this would benefit the environment (e.g. grassfed cattle emit more methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas, than feedlot-finished cattle, because grassfed animals must live longer in order to reach market weight). The meat-reduction solution also benefits human health because only animal products have cholesterol; they also contain saturated fat and no fiber. This solution also addresses the cruel practice of animal slaughter, which occurs at a time far short of the animals’ normal lifespan. Continue reading
Veganomics: The Surprising Science on What Motivates Vegetarians, from the Breakfast Table to the Bedroom, by Nick Cooney. Lantern Books, 2014.
A very helpful little book for veg activists, Veganomics brings together data collected in recent years about a number of topics, such as: what motivates people to reduce or eliminate meat consumption (answer: primarily animal cruelty and health concerns), what demographic group is most likely to go vegetarian (young women), what are the most effective ways to tailor vegetarian outreach to make it appealing to people (one example: refer to food as “meat-free” instead of “vegetarian”), why to emphasize cutting out chicken, fish and eggs instead of red meat (chickens and fish account for 92% of the farm animals killed for food in the U.S. and represent 95% of the days of animal suffering caused each year by omnivores). Continue reading
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. Doubleday, 2003.
This easy-to-read engaging novel will help most readers deepen their empathy for people who are “different.” Told in the first person by Christopher, a teenaged autistic boy, we come to live inside his head and understand a little of what it would be like to view the world as confusing and overstimulating, people as untrustworthy, and advanced math as a refuge inside his mind against the discomfort of everyday life. We also view at close range the considerable difficulties that parents have in raising these kids who do not want to be touched, who have intense inexplicable preferences (e.g. Christopher hates anything that is yellow or brown), and whose behavior in public may include screaming, groaning and possibly wetting themselves.
By portraying Christopher sympathetically, and showing the boy’s amazing abilities in math and science, the author advances the cause of handicapped people everywhere.