ishmael: thinking about gardens


It’s Week 5 (beginning Week 6) here in Nuevo Laredo, which means my time here is rapidly approaching the half-way over mark. TIME! How do we go about measuring and conceiving it?? Every week that passes, I greet with astonishment: “Gosh, I can’t believe I’ve been here for three weeks. Holy cow! A whole month in Nuevo Laredo! Hijole. Five weeks, over as quickly as it came…”

I’ve been a little obsessed with time lately. Time management of the present moment, how we conceive time and how we measure it personally. It’s been a theme this year of mine, to flip through old journal entries and feel fascinated as I read what I did on the 2nd day of last month, two months ago, six months ago. Man, how crazy is it that I can read journal entries from 2006, or god forbid, 2005 or even further back than that, and recognize this distinct “voice” I had, as though I were reading a narrator in a novel! Within that recognition is also the acknowledgment that this voice of 2006 and backwards is no longer me: it was me, but it is no longer the voice that I use now. I guess this means in ten years, when I’m reading this blog entry (I wonder how that is going to work, exactly) I’m going to be freaking out even more.

The main event that got me thinking about time is fairly simple: I watched The Full Monty, the amusing British comedy lent to me in a stack of DVDs by my boss. The last time I watched The Full Monty was in 1997, when it first came out, when my sister and I were first really getting into seeing movies and renting them from blockbuster. Twelve years ago, I was twelve. When I was twelve, I couldn’t even SAY the sentence “I remember twelve years ago when…”, because I would have remembered nothing! So this is one of the first times in my life when I could say “I remember twelve years ago…” What is it going to be like to say “I remember thirty years ago”? Or forty? Fifty? That was the main thing I wanted to ask my grandma, when she was showing me old photographs of her with her high school boyfriends. Did you ever think you would end up here Grandma? I wanted to say. Did you ever think you would be a Grandma? Did you ever think you would be eighty-five? Time, dude. It’s a puzzler.

What else did I do when I was twelve? I was in sixth grade. I saw Titanic. I got really into reading all the movie reviews in the New York Times. I remember playing a game with my sister, where we would go to a page and then we would have to pick the one movie out of all the adds listed there that we wanted to see. (During Oscar season this game was fun, once February and March hit it definitely became an exercise in the lesser of two evils.) I guess I would say sixth grade was the time when I sort of became aware of culture, popular culture, and began wanting to integrate myself into it. Sixth grade was also the year I bought my first CD (the Titanic soundtrack—thanks, Mom!). I think it was also the summer before sixth grade that my sister and I first began buying music for ourselves in the form of cassette tapes: the Backstreet Boys, Hansen. Cassette tapes, dude!! Fortunately, we bought a cassette tape of Grammy nominees of ’96 and Paula Cole, Fiona Apple and Shawn Colvin were on it, and our path for preferring sensitive female singer-songwriters with pianos or guitars seemed to be set.

Another thing I did in sixth grade was read Ishmael. My brother was reading it for a class of his—social studies? World History? God knows, some hippie Canadian teacher assigned it to him. I always read my older brother’s books and textbooks; I read one huge English Lit textbook of his from cover to cover, starting with Milton and ending with the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank. Reading “older kids’ books” always felt tremendously exciting to me. I would always sneak into his room when he wasn’t there and read them while lying on my stomach on his bed, my chin hanging off the edge and the book on the floor (I still read like this sometimes, but it makes all the blood rush to my head).

I was definitely way too young for Ishmael at the time. I think the only part I really “got” was the part about the creation myth, in the first 40-50 pages. I thought that was really clever, when the jellyfish said, all proudly, “And then, there were jellyfish!” as its conclusion to its story about the creation of the universe. It was an eye-opening moment, to say the least. I’d definitely never really thought about the world like that before, that we had a specific way of narrating about our place in the world. Even during Humanities 110 class, years later, in between the slides of the Greeks and Romans projected at the front of the auditorium, I would still think every once in the while “and then there were jellyfish…”

So these were some of the things I thought about while re-reading Ishmael in the Estacion Palabra reading cultural center, while little kids shouted and whooped while making Halloween decorations in the children’s sections. At some point a girl dressed up as a pirate walked up to me and offered me candy; I took a green lollipop which broke as I was trying to unwrap it (I ate it anyway). I rushed through the last 60 pages in fear that I wouldn’t be able to finish it before it got dark; I wanted to walk home while there was still some light outside.

It was a good book, and I enjoyed reading it. Ishmael places an interesting emphasis on how the control and use of food supply is so important for defining culture and the formation civilization. It feels very much ahead of its time for a book written in 1992, especially Quinn’s commentary about First World farmers fueling Third World population explosion. It’s missing the specificity and urgency that Michael Pollan brought to the argument, but it’s definitely there. It feels very relevant.

It’s an interesting book to read at this point in my life, as well as in this point of history. I love reading the articles about food and good eating and urban farming and agriculture that seem to be consistently appearing on the NY Times and Salon and Slate and so on… When I walked into Powell’s to buy The Wings of the Dove and The Brothers K and other huge books to lug along with me to Mexico, in the front displays there was book after book about permaculture and bike riding and green living and good eating. It made my heart feel really warm. It made me want to believe that our consciousness is changing, that a very definitive, clear shift is taking place… I don’t want to think that it’s just Portland, either (though Portland is definitely a place where a lot of good things happen!)

I also think it’s interesting how Ishmael focuses so much on this idea that things can’t continue on this path for much longer, or else we’re pretty much doomed. Doomed in what sense? The apocalypse is pretty scary to think about (I can’t watch zombie movies for exactly that reason) but I find it SO interesting that the more people I meet who are interested in things like gardening, permaculture, gathering culinary mushrooms and sustainable development also seem to be very much comfortable (not sure if that’s the right word? Aware, maybe) with the idea of apocalypse. I could go on a rift about apocalypse that adapts themes from my postmodern fiction class, but I think I will leave it at that and take it up in another blog entry.

The last thing I want to say about reading Ishmael is how freaking interesting it was to me to read this book and be like yup, this is definitely how I feel; yup, this is definitely a conclusion that I’ve reached. Consuming the world as our prison industry that keeps us trapped: check. Man belongs to the world instead of the other way round: check. Human settlement isn’t against the law, it’s subject to the law: check, check. Teaching is enough, you can’t begin anywhere unless you begin changing people’s minds: triple check unto infinity. I would even go so far that you can’t begin anywhere unless you begin changing your mind. Oh my God, how can I possibly go about helping others unless I know how to help myself?! I think more than anything, this is the biggest lesson that I have learned in the past three years. It sounds so basic and self-explanatory, right? And yet, it is really revolutionary, but once you begin practicing kindness to yourself, it proceeds to open the door to oh so many other things…

I also REALLY liked how Ishmael tried to be positive at the end, so that I wasn’t left with this feeling of “Great, we’ve messed up this planet and now we’re screwed, start building the bunker.” Instead he does a good job of trying to make us feel good. He mainly does this by saying that we need a new vision of ourselves that’s more inspiring that being scolded about how we need to recycle more and pollute less. Somehow, it’s more helpful to view all of this as necessary. This lesson can be personal: If we didn’t go through all of this, then we wouldn’t have learned. It’s more helpful to think that humans needed to go through all this, to be “the first species to experience it without being the last,” as Quinn puts it, in order to KNOW how to do things DIFFERENTLY. So instead of beating ourselves up about the past and thinking we’re screwed, instead we can LEARN from our EXPERIENCES. How’s that for constructive thinking?!

What I like best about this mentality is how well it works in regards to viewing ourselves as individuals. We can view our flaws and mistakes as these terrible things: “God, I’ve messed this thing up, this one side of my personality is like this, so now I’m basically screwed!” But instead of this vision of ourselves, we can have a vision of seeing these flaws as necessary. If you didn’t have these tendencies, then how would you learn? And you can always learn. Now is never a better time.

The one last thing I want to say is that I found it incredibly ironic how after reading this book I went home to my apartment ate some ramen, the only food available in my apartment. Definitely not part of the Slow Food movement. But I figure that you gotta accept the gifts that are available to you… There’s a time and a place for certain things. For example, in Portland, I can learn about gardening and permaculture and botany from Corey, who has really been quite influential and formative in setting me down this path. Oh, to date a botanist…
Urban gardening in Nuevo Laredo appears mostly in the form of papaya trees in people’s front yards. Homegrown chiles are definitely the most popular.

Some songs about gardens:

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Filed under apocalypse, gardening, nature, perspective, time

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