Monday, June 30, 2008

More on the food crisis

Yesterday, Jeanne and I spent the afternoon hiking at Glacial Lakes State Park with our black lab Sophie. We took advantage of the cool breeze to walk the prairie and get that sense of openness that I spoke of earlier in the week. We sat and ate lunch on the high point, watching the grasses seemingly crawl across the landscape as the wind moved them. The amount of rain we've received this year has made the prairie very green, it is really very lovely. Glacial Lakes is one of the few places left in Minnesota where one can walk for over an hour and still be on prairie. Over 99% of the prairie that once covered the state has either been plowed up or paved over. It is the most endangered ecosystem in North America and with the pressure to produce more food to meet global demand for food as well as to take advantage of the highest commodity prices few, if any, farmers have ever seen, the prairie is under even greater pressure today.

With that in mind, it is interesting to note that during the debate that centered on the recently enacted Farm Bill, conservation programs were very unpopular. Basically, they are an easy target; it is easy to pick on something without a large constituency, easy (albeit wrongly) to make the claim that they cost jobs, easy to make claims about needing land for more food production. (Again, I've noted before that nobody seems to ever talk about food conservation or reducing our waistlines to save some food.) However, one aspect of food production that few people realize is that in the last 25 years the United States has lost, on average, 2.2 MILLION acres of farmland. Total losses equal an area the size of Maine, New Hampshire, and a good portion of Vermont. Despite these losses we've maintained a food production system that until now had very few bumps in it. We've done that by genetically modifying plants, adding more chemicals and fertilizers to the land, and industrializing our meat production.

Where may you ask has all this farmland gone? Some has been lost to erosion and can now be found at the bottom of our lakes, rivers, and even the Gulf of Mexico. However, most of it is now paved. It is either a suburban yard, a school, a strip mall, a parking lot, or a church. At this rate, the most endangered ecosystem in the U.S. will not be prairie (that will be long gone), it will be farmland.

Instead of plowing up prairie, perhaps we need to take a closer, much closer, look at our zoning laws that allow us to pave anything for any purpose. Perhaps we need to declare farmland an threatened commodity. This is particularly needed in suburban areas where farmers, out of necessity, have to subdivide their land because taxes have increased to a level where they can no longer afford to farm their land.

Churches are as guilty of this transformation from farmland to pavement as anyone. In Alexandria alone three new churches have been built in the last 5 years that have consumed nearly 40 acres of crop land. In suburban areas surrounding the Twin Cities it is even worse. Churches need to be leaders in this area by redeveloping areas in down towns and main streets. Otherwise, they're taking food directly from the mouths of those who need it.


Friday, June 27, 2008

Random Thoughts on the Week's Events

Not surprisingly, but still disappointing, the Supreme Court yesterday made a huge mess of the nation's gun laws. I'm still trying to figure out how Justice Antonin Scalia ever passed an english or grammar class, let alone law school, without a basic understanding of the difference between singular and plural. How does one get an individual's right from "peoples" and "militia" - both plural forms of their root. The bottom line, this is a bad decision. All the gun advocates will rejoice and tell you how safe we'll all be now that criminals will have to think twice about who they attack, however one fact remains, in 2005/06 there were 50 gun-related homicides in England and Wales while in the U.S. that number exceeded 30,000.

Also disappointing was the Obama campaign's response to James Dobson's attack. It was disappointing in that I see it as a missed opportunity, particularly from his religious advisors, to point out that everyone reads and interprets the bible through their worldview. Hence, for Dobson to claim Obama is changing or misinterpreting biblical text is of course, highly hypocritical. It's also disappointing that Jon Stewart did a better job responding to the hypocrisy on the Daily Show than did Obama's staff. Rabbi Rami wrote about this earlier in the week, it's an interesting read and a bit more critical than mine.

The good news is that the strawberries are ready to be picked, there is still some fresh asparagus at the farmers market, and last night's cold front has brought a refreshing breeze.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Thoughts from the North Shore

When I as in graduate school (the first time) at Auburn, my advisor hired a young man from rural South Dakota to help us with field sampling. As many of us "Yankees" did, he had a very difficult time adjusting to life in Alabama. However, it wasn't the grits, fried chicken and football craziness that got to many of us. For Mike it was mainly because of the lack of horizon. Alabama is for the most part heavily wooded and unless you're on a reservoir it can be difficult to see the horizon. At the time I thought he was kind of odd, but as I've started to reflect where I feel most comfortable it is definitely in places where I can see for a long distance - the prairie, lakes, etc. Perhaps it is because I grew up in an area that wasn't heavily wooded and had lot's of lakes. I do know that the ability to see for what seems forever on the prairie is one thing that draws me there. I know of others who don't feel comfortable unless they're hemmed in amongst the trees or buildings, those elements seem to be their security blanket. I mention this because we recently spent a few days up on the north shore (Lake Superior for you non-Minnesotans), returning last evening. As a family, there is a definite draw to the Lake for us, just as there is to the praire for me. I get the same strange feeling standing on the shores of Lake Superior as I do standing in a sea of prairie grass. It is a paradoxical feeling of being aware of what is in front of you, behind you, and to each side yet knowing that you're so small, so insignificant on these powerful landscapes that you don't have any control of what is in front of you, behind you, or to each side. I'm sure there is some way to psychoanalyze that and it undoubtedly has some metaphoric value for my life. Who knows. I do know that I like "wide open spaces".

We generally do a good bit of hiking while we're along the shore, trying to find those out of the way places that most of the folks that head up there won't see because they are more than a few hundred feet off of Highway 61. This year was a hike into Judge C.R. Magney state park to see the falls on the Brule River. It was well worth the 3.5 mile hike and 178 steep steps down (and back up) to the valley floor.

Agate hunting is very popular among the tourists that visit the north shore and we're definitely part of that population. Over the years we've found a few places that are good spots and often spend the better part of a day picking through the mass of rocks that cover the beaches. Even our pre-teen finds this to be an acceptable way to spend some vacation time. This year the water is higher than it has been in a number of years which altered our picking to some degree. I like picking through the rocks and can really loose track of time while I'm doing it, it is almost meditative. I like to look at the individual rocks and think about its origins and "life story". This year, we stopped at Tettegouche State Park early on Sunday morning and walked down to the Baptism River beach. The beach at Tettegouche is usually pretty busy and finding agates, much less quiet is pretty rare. But for some reason this year we spent almost an hour there and had only one visitor, a loon who had apparently found some fish near the river's mouth. We also found some nice, thumb-nail sized agates.



Friday, June 13, 2008

Thoughts on the Food Crisis

Last week the UN and World Bank issued some recommendations to help ease the global food crisis. The first was to boost production. When I heard this I was sorely disappointed and greatly concerned. Instead of boosting production where was the call to the fat nations of the world to curtail their overconsumption of the world's food resources? Where was the concern for the environment that yet again will be the really big looser in all of this?

Let's get this straight. There is no reason to boost production of corn or soybeans in this world feed the world's population. The real need is to properly prioritize our use of these products. We don't even need to pick on the ethanol industry (sorry, that's just way too easy) to make a difference. First, we need to somehow limit the amount of grains used to make high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). I challenge you to find an aisle in the grocery store that doesn't have a product containing HFCS. Furthermore, I challenge you to go a week without consuming products with HFCS - it is nearly impossible. HFCS was developed to use up surplus corn, now that we don't have a surplus, isn't it time to rethink the need for some of these items? Second, we need to eat less meat. A great deal of grain that is produced is used for animal feed. Grains, particularly corn is a food that isn't natural to many of the animals we consume, thus requiring meat producers to supplement their diets with hormones and other nasty chemicals and drugs. The amount of energy needed to produce the meat consumed in the U.S. alone is nearly equal to the annual fuel consumption of U.S. motorists. Problem with high fuel costs? Curtail your meat consumption! Finally, we just need to stop eating so much! Smaller portions equal less calories which leads to healthier people. Supersize and other mega proportions of food are a form of gluttony and have no place in a world where people are struggling for even a basic meal.

I see a significant role for the church in this crisis. Not just providing aid where it is needed but developing, or redeveloping, a spiritual role for food in our lives. What would a national campaign to spiritually fast one or two lunches a week do to our food situation? How about a meatless fast?


Friday, June 6, 2008

"Love Thy Neighbor" - A Red Pine Update

We were able to talk with our neighbor lady yesterday afternoon. She definitely thought she was doing us a favor by removing the red pine. Evidently, 30+ years ago her late husband mistakenly planted the tree on what was to become our property, hence she felt she had the right to remove it. We explained to her trees are pretty important to us and pointed out the fact we have planted a number of them in our yard. (Side note: Our son Will did some Internet searching and calculated the amount of carbon a tree that size would have removed in its lifetime - it was substantial. I was very pleased that he took it upon himself to find that information and was able to put the loss of the tree in a more global perspective.) Our neighbor has offered to buy a tree at the nursery to replace the lost red pine which is nice. Still, it is disturbing that someone felt they had the right to kill a 30+ year old tree that wasn't on their property. Honestly, right now I'm struggling with the concept of "Love they Neighbor".

The other interesting angle to this has been the response of the tree service that did the removal. The owner is a colleague of sorts of my wife's in the local school district. When she told him what had happened - it was actually his sons that cut the tree down - he was mortified and very apologetic. He's also offered to do what he can to rectify the situation.

The most troubling aspect of this entire situation is that no matter what we do, we loose. We can plant a new tree to replace the lost one. We can take some money from the tree service. Regardless of what we do, we're not likely to every see a new tree mature to the level that the one we lost had. It bothers me that people continually fail to think about the repercussions their actions might have in the future.

Whatever we do, we also must take into consideration that we'll probably be living next to this woman for a number of years to come. We certainly don't want this to turn into a feud. So, we'll weigh our options and figure out what will hopefully be a resolution that is acceptable for everyone involved. That's probably the best we can do.


Thursday, June 5, 2008


If you're a plant that has ties to our family, watch out!

First our prairie plants and now this morning I received a somewhat frantic call from my wife. Our neighbor lady had some spruce trees removed from her property this morning which is fine. However, she also directed the tree service to cut down a large red pine in OUR FRONT yard because she didn't like it! Stay tuned, this should be interesting.


Monday, June 2, 2008

My Theology?

OK, slow day at work. The weather hasn't cooperated for field work and believe it or not, I'm well ahead of the paper work game. So, during my lunch hour I stumbled upon and took this survey that is supposed to identify one's theology. Other than the fact that I am certainly not alienated from older forms of church - I've written substantially about my love for ancient forms of worship and my interest in the ancient mystics - the survey was probably a pretty close reflection on where I am theologically. In regard to older forms of church, I think in some ways we need to reconnect modern society back to those forms of church. One problem with these types of surveys is that they are "all or nothing". By that I mean they pigeon-hole you into one area, in this case theology, and don't allow for blends or blurring of lines. For example, my next two closest theological types were Neo-orthodoxy and Wesleyan, each just one point away from Emergent/Postmodern. Interestingly, Roman Catholic was just a few points behind them.

You scored as Emergent/Postmodern

You are Emergent/Postmodern in your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don't think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church should help them to do this.

Back to work.