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Slow Violence Among the Bay and Belize

Slow violence is an interesting concept and subsequently obvious. Of course there exists this less insidious version of violence, the under the skin, malevolent, emotional abuse, style of violence which cripples and manipulates in the same manner of traditional violence which is often visible. However, I had never heard of this concept before. Even when I learned of neocolonial issues regarding imperialist powers of the “global north” over the “global south,” the issues, environmental or otherwise all consisted of brash, large showcases of violence.

I have seen the effects of slow violence in the Chesapeake region. Specifically, in regards to the inability of politicians to recognize the long term benefits of dealing with environment issues that match the description of slow violence. For example, particularly prevalent in the Chesapeake Bay is the level of pollution in the Bay’s waterways. Due to the region’s long history of human habitation and usage, the region is prone to sedimentation, phosphorus and nitrogen pollution, and subsequent eutrophication. Politicians, while on paper are all for creating a cleaner Chesapeake Bay, are often unwilling or unlikely to put into action bills which would limit pollution in the Bay. This is often done as an unwillingness to give up the votes of potential voters who do not agree with arguments for limiting pollution, and the time sensitive nature of politicians. Catastrophes and traditional ideas of violence are easy to identify. For example, the collapse of a power plant would likely garner more focused and quick attention than dealing with the constant and slow reality of phosphorus in the bay, when it takes decades for the local environment to change. The slow violence of pollution in the bay is just as destructive to the environment as the collapse of a power plant, yet the slow and unnoticed nature of such events leads to being unresolved. As a result, certain politicians in the region are unwilling to deal with slow violence pollution, and instead either decry the science behind the violence or focus on obvious, easy to view issues.

In Belize, my understanding of the slow violence visible there will be more akin to so called “environmentalism of the empty stomach.” Belize is a significantly more impoverished nation than the United States and the impacts will still be visible. I expected that widespread environmental degradation will consist of the destruction of forests for farming. I understand that Belize has wide swathes of land which one housed rainforests and now serves as farmland due to the need for economic and food opportunities. In regards to slow environmental violence, Belize’s government will most likely be willing to avoid large scale destruction of valuable tourism areas, such as destruction of the coral reef, but willing to engage in activities which may eventually result in coral bleaching and be just as destructive in the long run as immediate destruction of the reef. However, the issue of time associated with slow violence and the need for Belize to generate income to support their poor nation will sacrifice the protection of the environment from coral bleaching or pollution. For the years in which politicians and business leaders are in power, the environment will not be visibly degraded. The impacts of these behaviors will not be recognized for years to come, however they will cause extensive issues, arguably more damaging to the environment than outright destruction.

Stalking 2: Smith Island and the Lack of a Loving Economy

In my past blogs I have written about the concept of a “loving economy.” A term coined by Wendell Berry to describe “an economy built upon good craftsman ship and an appreciation of resources” (Berry pg. 524). Such an economy is associated with buying local, or supporting neighborhood farms. Berry illustrates a loving economy as, “would strive to place a proper value on all the materials of the world, in all their metamorphoses from soil and water, air and light to the finished goods of our towns and households, and I think that the only effective motive for this would be a particularizing love for local things, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance” Berry pg. 524). An association of loving economies with close knit, local communities prompted me to look at the economy of Smith Island. Renowned for its reputation as a community of intertwined families who have all lived on the same island for 300 years, it is easy to immediately lump the Smith Islanders into the idea of a loving economy. However, my visit to Smith Island did not convince me of any existence of a loving economy on the island, challenging my prior ideas of what constituted a loving economy. The lack of a loving economy on Smith Island can be attributed to the pervasive poverty on the island and a spiritual belief system that provides God power over the environment.

A loving economy, Berry writes, should incorporate a love for a craft and an appreciation for the materials which go into the finished product. Berry states, “the good worker loves the board before it becomes a table, loves the tree before it yields the board, loves the forest before it gives up the tree” (Berry pg. 524). This is in direct contrast to the modern industrial economy, which promotes the efficient production of numerous, low quality, and low cost items in place of quality goods. Smith island is a secluded location several miles off the coast of Maryland’s eastern shore. The combination of isolation, cultural connection, and a deep seated sense of place seemed to be the perfect breeding ground for a loving economy. Renowned for being intensely knowledgeable about their Island, I expected a group of individuals who made their own objects and grew their own food. Something akin to the ideal pastoralist life many local markets seem to aspire to inspire. However, what I found was not the farmer market environment I expected.

On Smith Island I saw a land coated in store bought objects. Food transported in from the mainland was the main source of nutrition, save for soft crabs, chickens and intensely guarded pomegranate trees. It seems that even such an isolated and tightly knit community has succumbed to the influence of industrialized economy. The only evidence of locally made items were the numerous aging boats in the harbor, some of which were as much as 80 years old. Perhaps the isolated island community lacks the funds to have a “loving economy,” which are often more expensive than buying industrially produced objects. Indeed, Smith Island is an impoverished place, with the median family income averaging $33,000 and 15% of the residents living below the poverty line (Smith Island United, 2014). The added expenses of needing to import all goods by boat further increases prices, forcing Islanders to purchase only what they can afford. What the residents can afford, is the cheap, low quality and mass produced items in opposition to a loving economy.

However, perhaps I did not view the true Smith Island. I am only an outsider who spent a single night on the island. Such a tight knit community would surely limit the flow of goods and information to only residents and not to tourists such as myself. Maybe I am too foreign, and do not hold the same sense of place that native islanders do. In talking with one local resident named Bill who moved to the island from Virginia, a peer of mine learned that Bill had not been fully accepted into the community despite having lived there for three years. People were polite to him and while he was not openly excluded from the island’s activities, he and his wife still feel like outsiders among the native residents. If this full time resident still felt that he was not a true part of this tight knit community, then how could I, a brief visitor, experience all that Smith Island had to offer? Perhaps Smith Islanders are simply being frugal with whom they share their loving economy, after all, such an economy is supposed to be contained and local.

However, while I may not have been included into the island’s cultural inner workings, the state of Smith Island’s land leads me to believe a loving economy is not present. First and foremost is the prevalence of trash. The residents of Smith Island see fit to burn all of their refuse, either in a large incinerator, or in a large heap 200 feet to the left of the incinerator. Whatever isn’t burned is simply thrown to the side, and the island is littered with decades, if not centuries of refuse. Even Martins Wildlife Refuge, separated from the town of Ewell by a stretch of water is populated with trash.  This description is not on par with Berry’s idea of a loving economy. Berry argues that in a loving economy “people who valued material things would take care of them and would care for the sources of them” (Berry pg. 523). The people of Smith Island showcased that they do not value their material objects any more than most individuals and simply participate in global throwaway and replace culture.

The Smith Islanders simultaneous intense love for their island and their casual disregard for the environment are in contrast. I would argue this contrast can be traced back to the islanders’ spiritual connection with the landscape. The Smith Islanders have deep seated Methodist beliefs, beliefs which include the idea that nature is under the domain of God. This way of viewing the world is present throughout much of the life of Smith Islanders, dictating their views on crab populations, and the reality of climate change. Smith Islanders are often quoted saying that “God will provide.” In one case, Washington College student Kirsten Webb interviewed a woman who stated that “God sent the crabs to us in the past, and now he is sending us the tourists.” The idea that God will provide is deeply entrenched in the culture of Smith Island. This in turn causes Smith Islanders to not worry about their environment due to their spiritual beliefs. If God will provide, then why care about the environment? God will quell the rising tide and stop erosion, or so the Smith Islanders believe. The means of how God stops the erosion can come in the form of new jetty system, not necessarily in the guise of an all-powerful storm, but if the issue is addressed than God is believed to have had a hand in it.

Smith Island is a unique location. Isolated, biodiverse, and populated by the same families for centuries, it is like nowhere else in the Chesapeake. A group so culturally and environmentally entwined would be thought to practice something akin to Berry’s idea of a loving economy. However, the state of affairs on Smith Island showcases how far from a loving economy the residents are. The island, while being naturally spectacular, is littered with garbage, illustrating a lack of attention and love for the objects they utilize. Partially this can be explained by the pervasive poverty of the island’s residents, who rely on cheap goods to survive, as do many in American society. Another way to explain this lack of a loving economy is to look towards the spirituality of the islanders, who as devote Methodists believe that the environment is totally controlled by God. When the world around you are shaped to fit your needs, why care about the quality of the goods you use or its impact on the environment? Smith Island despite its history, cultural makeup and isolation, do not meet the criteria of Berry’s loving economy, making this seemingly unique place resemble the rest of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

 

 

Webb, K. (2017, October 4). Climate Change Ethnography Lecture. Lecture.

 

Berry, W. (1987). Preserving Wilderness. 520-524. Retrieved October 28, 2017.

Smith Island United. (2014). Smith island vision plan. Consensus Building Institute and

Horsley Witten Group.

 

 

The Loving Economy

The more Wendell Berry I read, the more I appreciate his point of view. Recently, I read an article of his titled Preserving Wilderness. In it, Berry outlines the issues facing society’s concepts of conservation and how the very economic system which governs our reality makes the preservation of nature difficult.

Berry articulates that if the preservation of wilderness is possible, then human beings need to alter how we view our surroundings. He provides the example of a carpenter feeling love for not only his craft, but also for the tree that he will use to make an item. The carpenter than translates this love and respect for the tree into love and respect for the lumber. The carpenter then translates the same love and respect for his creations. Berry describes this as a “loving economy,” and argues that society needs to adjust to a “loving economy” or preservation of nature will be impossible. I would argue that while such a transition from the global, industrial economy to a “loving economy” sounds impossible, there are significant movements among small communities to develop the type of economy Berry advises.

The modern production of goods is industrial and globalized. Woodworks, food, trinkets, tools, and vehicles are all created a world away by cheaply paid workers with materials obtained through the most cost efficient means. The value of labor and the materials used in creation are viewed solely through the guise of dollar signs. While this system has been found to be destructive to the spirits of its employees and on the physical environment, it can be credited for furthering the development of human society. I personally am dependent on cheaply made products and foodstuffs, and could not afford many of the things I am able to use if they were made locally. If a local craftsman were to build my IPhone using sustainably sourced materials in a loving work environment, it would undoubtedly be incredibly expensive and difficult to obtain. The ease of production and the cheapness of available goods makes it impossible, or at the very least unnecessary, to bother with local products or craftsmen.

That being said, it is impossible to ignore the presence of local craftsmen. While often relegated to the fringe areas of society or associated with “hipster” activities, there has been a significant and visible movement in the United States to “buy locally” and support local artists. Even in Washington College’s dining hall new images adorn the walls proclaiming the localness of its ingredients. Farmers markets are popular among all members of the population including college students, who spend their limited funds on purchasing goods made by local craftsman.

To be local is associated with being healthy and wholesome. While a jacket made by a neighbor may not be of the same quality of LL Bean, beef grown by a small scale farmer or a bowl created by a local carpenter is considered to hold more significance. One can almost feel the appreciation and effort which went into the creation of the object. Berry’s discussion of a “loving economy” speaks strongly to a generation who grew up on mass produced objects. When the presence any sort of affection feels absent from products, people move away from the major markets back to small scale operations, where the “love” Berry talks about can be felt in more abundance.

Berry argues that a “loving economy” is necessary for the preservation of wildlife. For if all society values are dollar signs than why bother to protect our surroundings? Society needs to emphasize an appreciation for locally produced, handmade materials, where the process that objects go through is visible for all to see. By respecting all aspects of materials, our materialistic society can truly value our surroundings for more than simply its material goods. In the same manner that appreciation for a cabinet requires a love for a tree, the appreciation of our objects should translate into an appreciation of their origins.

The Benefits of Drawing.

I would not consider myself an artistic person. I have never truly found joy from drawing or painting, and I am not particularly good at either. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate drawings or paintings, I have large amounts of respect for those who are artistically inclined. I am a fan of the outdoors however, and according to artist and nature enthusiast John Ruskin I should learn to draw in order to better understand the environment.

The author of the article Why you should stop taking pictures on your phone – and learn to draw from the School of Life describes how taking the time to illustrate one’s surroundings has been shown to improve understanding of the environment. Ruskin, argues that all people should learn to drawn, if only for the necessity of sitting down for a period of time and attempting to recreate their surroundings. The period of time being intensely focused on an object alone will undoubtedly improve the understanding of an object, but the more in-depth focused tracings of the object in an attempt to recreate the scene leads to “naturally move from a position of observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its parts.”

As someone who often feels that I am lacking a certain understanding or appreciation of my surroundings, the idea of learning to draw and gain better comprehension is very appealing. However, I am not a natural artist and my attempts at drawing often result in stick figures or misshapen ovals. How can I gain a greater understanding of my environment if the best I can produce is a cartoonish version of reality? Ruskin himself believed that artistic ability was something you were born with, not something one could learn. He stated “A man is born an artist as a hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus; and you can no more make yourself one than you can make yourself a giraffe (Ruskin, pg. 817).” Instead of working at learning to drawn I have worked to improve my photography skills, hoping to achieve the same goal through a different means.

However, according to Ruskin, those who are devoid of innate artistic ability are just as capable as those who have such ability, at least in the sense of being able to understand their environment. He felt that taking the time to sit, observe, and recreate is incredibly beneficial regardless of the end results. Through practicing the ability to observe, people find they notice more minute details. These details are so necessary in gaining a complete understanding of a place’s aesthetic.

After reading Ruskin’s arguments and participating in my first art class since my freshman year of high school, I am ready to reconsider my opinions on drawing. I wish to develop my gaze and train it to recognize minute details. I don’t wish to walk through the world unawares, and instead hope to take in as many details as I can stand. Regardless of my artistic ability, I hope to observe my world in a more complete form than I have before. I also hope that this improvement in my understanding will include an improvement in my memory, allowing me to better remember all the incredible places I will be going over the semester.

Aesthetic Value in Nature

Writer and conservationist Aldo Leopold, states in his Sand County Almanac his belief in the importance of recognizing nature as a one would a human being. Leopold argues that nature is viewed strictly from either a scientific mindset which stresses ecological importance or a business mindset which views nature as a simply economic thing. He further argues that neither mindset incorporates a respect for the aesthetic value, or beauty of nature. This lack of respect for the aesthetic value of nature has made both business and ecological thinking ineffective in fully comprehending the holistic nature of land and the environment. Over the past 86 years since Leopold published his work, the concept of a nature aesthetic is alive and well among both the ecological and business minded communities. However, the various understandings and meanings of the aesthetic value of nature vary, which in turn prevents the development of a land ethic.

If one was to examine the exist of a land ethic in American culture, they could look first to natural parks. These institutions are founded on the idea of an aesthetic value to nature, for their very existence relies on the idea that American citizens wish to explore their country simply for the sake of exploring it. However, natural parks represent a minuscule portion of the United States. If natural groups possess an understanding of land’s value on an aesthetic level, why isn’t the entirety of the country treated with the same levels of care and respect that are put into natural parks? Perhaps this could be attributed to the differences of understanding felt between the ecological and business minded communities.

A beautiful natural landscape is part of the American identity, and as a result, businesses exploit this aesthetic, even if their product contradicts the idea of a nature aesthetic. The benefits of interacting with nature are proclaimed, everywhere from health magazines to nature shows. The aesthetic of nature is used to market products such as Cliff Bars or Nature Valley Granola Bars, showcasing how one feels connected with nature while eating these products. Other companies, such as L.L. Bean use natural scenes with their products to show how one can enjoy the environment by using their products. Similarly, auto companies use the aesthetic of nature to sell their large, gas guzzling SUVs.

The ability to market environment polluting vehicles through a natural aesthetic contradicts the idea that a more holistic understanding of land is necessary for its preservation. By placing these massive, environment polluting machines in the midst of a spectacular landscape, these hunks of metal are presented as almost natural, and subsequently sold. This contradiction hangs on a difference in perspective, where how individuals find beauty vary greatly. For example, photographer Chris Jordan conducted a project where he captured images of humanity’s mass consumption and used his skills as a photographer to make this gluttony look almost beautiful. In a similar way, different aspects of the natural world are appreciated over others. On the Chesapeake, the aesthetic of eating oysters is greatly valued. As a result, numerous people support the harvesting of oysters, despite the fact that a complete moratorium on oyster harvesting would be more effective than limiting the harvest. People in the Chesapeake value oysters for their taste and cultural associations and as a result have an aesthetic love for the Chesapeake’s oyster populations.

The concept of an aesthetic understanding of nature is complicated. Individuals find beauty in different aspects of nature, and as a result have different understandings of a nature aesthetic. Some value nature as a beautiful process of interlocking organisms. Some find aesthetic natural beauty in consuming nature, be that in the form of pollution spewing cars or vulnerable oyster populations. This understanding of a natural aesthetic is contradictory to land aesthetic which helps to preserve nature. As a result, this concept of a nature aesthetic prevents the development of any land ethic and leaves land largely in the same place it was in 1949. That is, divided between various communities all of whom view the natural world differently, but none who appreciate the land as someone would appreciate a human being.

 

 

Stalking 1: Fear the Forest, Strip the Land

The use of land in the Chesapeake Bay under Native Americans was not the virgin land so often expected of American conscience, it was considerably more natural than the land under English colonists. The colonists who came to Virginia sought to exploit the land economically, hoping to simply survive the wild landscape and improve their living standards. Without knowledge of how to exist in such a place vastly different than Europe, the settlers sought to conquer the landscape. The English cultural belief of the Chesapeake Bay as a savage land which could be exploited for profit profoundly impacted the region up into the modern era.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Chesapeake Bay region was heavily forested. Massive trees stretched the length of men’s arms and reached into the sky. The land was fertile and region biodiverse, with numerous species of flora and fauna. However, these were not virgin forests. The large Native American population of the Chesapeake governed the environment and bent it’s behavior to their will. Evidence of this exists in the structure of forests prior to English settlement. Forests consisted of managed swathes of well-spaced trees, devoid of any low lying branches or underbrush. Dr. Seidel mentioned Father White, an English Jesuit Missionary who played a role in the founding of Maryland and described the forest as a place where “you could drive a four horse carriage, wherever you choose.” These forests were managed by Native Americans through burn techniques which eliminated low lying shrubs and branches. This made the forests superb habitat for pheasant and white tailed deer, two organisms the native population valued for food and whose population they promoted. Additionally, land had been cleared in certain patches for the agriculture of corn, beans and squash.

The English held differing views regarding the environment than their native counterparts. They viewed the landscape as “a dead or inert thing, rather than an active force in human adaptation and survival” (Wennerstern, 2001, p. 36). Coming from the thoroughly settled islands of Great Britain, these colonists had no concept of a forested landscape. In fact, a fear of the forest is a deeply seated aspect of western culture(Wennerstern, 2001, p.36). As a result, the ideal colonists aspired to was one of open fields. This lead to feeling that the forest was wasted space that should be cleared for agricultural use by civilized people.

Those who came to the new world sought to improve their living standards. The most popular way to try and improve one’s life was to grow tobacco and attempt to strike it rich. Tobacco is largely what drew settlers to the colonies, who would hope to become wealthy and then return to England and live a life of luxury. The Orinoco tobacco strand, introduced to the colonies by John Rolfe in 1612, altered history forever. As an intensely popular strand, Tobacco production became incredibly profitable. Dr. Seidel described how a colonial planter could potentially earn 12,000 English pounds from a crop, a 600% increase over an average Englishman’s income. While an incredible opportunity for settlers to alter their living standards, Tobacco was terrible for the land. Dr. John Wennerstern writes “there is no doubt that tobacco was one of the driving forces behind land exploitation in the Chespeake…” (Wennerstern, 2001, p. 43). Requiring considerable amounts of resources, it strips the soil of nutrients. Tobacco will often leave land fallow for 20-30 years before nutrients will fully return. As a result, planters required vast tracts of land to move their tobacco from growing plot to plot, in order to obtain maintain a plantation’s productibility. This left large stretches of the soil in the Chesapeake region devoid of nutrients. This soil was subsequently unable to support vegetal growth and lead to the erosion and sedimentation of the Bay and its tributaries. Furthermore, in order to grow tobacco, the forested areas blanketing the region needed to be cleared. Tobacco requires access to sunlight, and the English views regarding the proper way to grow crops necessitated the presence of a clearing for agriculture to occur.

Tobacco wasn’t the sole reason for clearing forests. Timber was a resource the English settlers highly valued and followed the example of Native populations in creating their canoes and boats from the massive trees which soared over the Virginia colony. The crown sought out timber from which to build their ships, some of which could require up to two thousand oak trees per vessel (Wennerstern, 2001, p. 45). Additionally, wood was used for heating homes, creating barrels and fencing Later as the colony grew, wood was valued for the creation of charcoal which was a preferred fuel to wood for cooking. Timber was also used in English housing, which required large beams providing the skeleton around which walls and roofs were built. However, while the settlers valued the forests for lumber, this was not a value for the aesthetic nature. Instead any appreciation for forests centered around profit, and only sought to reinforce their destruction. While the Chesapeake was heavily forested at the time of European settlement, the region had become heavily deforested by time of the American Revolution (Wennerstern, 2001, p. 50). This led to increases in erosion and sedimentation, as well as temperatures due to a lack of tree cover. This in turn caused intensified evaporation and caused people to feel “lazy and ill” (Wennerstern, 2001, p. 50). By leveling forests and acquiring timber, the English were simultaneously making a profit and creating the landscape they found most comfortable.

Culture pervades every aspect of human behavior. From what people eat, through how people organize the world around them. Culture also leaves patterns that can be recognized and studied. Recognition of the English cultural pattern of regarding the natural world as a “dead or inert thing” provides a glimpse into the historical treatment of the landscape. This further provides an understanding of the history in the region. This showcases how the environment of Chesapeake Bay reached its current point in degradation and provides evidence of the profound impact of English settlers on the past, as well as the region’s future.

 

Citations:

Wennersten, J.R. (2001) The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society

The Pristine Environment

Nature is pristine. This message is constantly repeated in nature magazines, outdoor gear advertisements, and environmental writings. The image of an untouched wilderness is extremely powerful. It evokes ancient feelings of a hunter gatherer existence, when we were deeply entrenched in the natural order. However, I find this concept of virgin landscapes to be eluding. Nothing is fully untouched by man. Humans have always impacted the environment. Our mark is sometimes hard to see, yet indelible. This marked impact on the environment raises the issue of defining nature. Is it as Wendell Berry writes “the element within which we live encased in civilization, as a mollusk lives in his shell in the sea? Or has humankind grown to encase nature, placing our mark on all of the natural world.

The question first began nagging me when my classmates and I found an ancient trash midden along a secluded beach at Chino Farms. My classmates found an assortment of items, from rose quartz arrowheads to antique liquor bottles. I found a single sherd of pottery, possibly colonial in origin. Finding these objects made me think that this seemingly untouched riverbed had certainly been walked on before. Humans have been walking on this beach for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. I had been laboring under the delusion that our beach at Chino Farms was an example of an almost pure landscape. Animals seemed abundant and plants grew with vigor along a fertile mud flat. People boated out and around the river, but this isolated stretch of sand felt different. If this healthy looking landscape had been molded over by human hands, what is nature?

Wendell Berry discusses his feelings on the matter in his essay Entrance. “…for it has seemed to me for years now that the doings of men no longer occur within nature, but that the natural places which the human economy has so far spared now survive almost accidentally within the doings of men. This wilderness of the Red River now carries on its ancient processes within the human climate of war and confusion.” Berry highlights the fact that this landscape is no longer formed by the natural ebb and flow of life. Instead the extent of nature is limited by the behavior of man. Even the land where Berry stands in the article bears evidence of human habitation. “Near where I’m standing is an inscription cut into the rock: A.J. SARGENT, feb.24.1903. As I look around me I realize that I can see no evidence of the lapse of so much time.”

Despite the fact that Berry cannot notice the human impact on the landscape, the evidence is easily visible. Similarly, nature, for all of our idealistic beliefs is not this force which acts outside the sphere of our influence. Humankind has taken nature by storm and forced the environment to take on new shapes. These shapes are not always characterized by sick and dying landscapes, but also healthy and vibrant ecosystems. However, these ecosystems were at least in part created by man. Despite the concept of a pristine environment, no such place exists and all the world has been impacted by human hands.