Humanist Perspectives: issue 174: Thanksgiving

by Yves Saint-Pierre

n a recent Thanksgiving weekend, on an invigorating, changeable day, my brother-in-law Tony and I were mushrooming on a remote back road, in the upper Mauricie area of Quebec. The environment and the activity had us talking about our relationship to the earth. Friends since our early teens, we enjoy each other’s company and we like to talk.
Born in a small town in Sicily, Tony has been in the Montreal area since he was thirteen years old. Recently and for the first time, now in his sixties, he returned to Santa Lucia, his hometown. Everywhere he saw the evidence of a profound change. Only the older generation still speak Sicilian. The local language and culture have largely given way to a broader, more standardized Italian culture and language. The town he left had been largely self-sufficient, a small local economy wherein produce, products and services were raised, made and offered locally. The butcher sold the meat of locally raised animals; the market sold locally grown fruits and vegetables; locally baked breads, buns and cakes were sold by the baker. Everyone’s shoes were made by the local cobbler, clothes, by the seamstress and tailor. Local tradesmen built houses from indigenous materials which were then furnished with locally made furniture and decorated with locally crafted ornaments. The town priest, notary and teachers were hometown boys and girls who had gone no further afield than was required for their education.

Now most of the produce and products that stock the shelves of the markets and shops come from all over the world. They’re the same items one would find on the shelves of stores in Rome or Milan. Shoes, clothes, furniture and furnishings all come from other parts of Italy or the world. Few remember and fewer share local stories, fables and legends. Television brings in programming from the big centres and the local movie theatre shows and the video rental place rents DVD’s of dubbed American films. In a word, little distinguishes the way life is lived in this landscape from the way life is lived in the vastly different landscapes of Rome or Milan. Has anything been gained by these dramatic and relatively rapid changes? What has been lost and why does it matter?

The imperatives of communications technologies and global markets thrive at the expense of individuals’ sense of belonging and attachment to the earth.
More and a wider range of products are now available to the town’s population. Shopping is easier and more practical. Many articles are cheaper than they might otherwise be. The younger generation particularly probably feel themselves part of a larger Italian community and in touch with the “culture” of the broader world. Some probably feel themselves free from the tyranny of the priests and religious superstitions of their parents. But do they feel their connection to the earth, to the soil, in the way their parents probably did, through every-day contact with local products and produce, with local farmers and food artisans? Do they have the same sense of origin and community and responsibility for each other their parents probably shared through pseudo-historic narratives and valued relationships and associations? I suspect they don’t. I also suspect more has been lost than gained.
What has happened in Santa Lucia has happened or is happening in communities all over the world, including countless communities right here in Canada. The imperatives of communications technologies and global markets thrive at the expense of individuals’ sense of belonging and attachment to the earth.
Obviously one cannot hope to go back to a former condition that existed in the context of far different technological, socio-political and economic realities. Yet one essential reality remains unchanged. Our dependence on Earth hasn’t changed. The responsibility each of us bears with regard to that relationship hasn’t changed. While we cannot return to a former condition, our very survival might depend on our ability to restore to our communities some of what has been lost.
In the vital struggle to find a way to mitigate the effects of global warming, pollution and resource depletion, there are broadly two camps, those who opt for techno fixes and those who support a return to values and practices closer to and inspired by those of indigenous peoples and peasants. On one side stand Monsanto and Cargill and lesser players in the globalized agribusiness. There too stands USAID with its policy of supporting only techno fixes, and our own Conservative government, as far as one can discern its policies, given the lack of transparency of the Harper government. This is the world of huge monocultures, ever more powerful and complex pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seed stocks. On the other side stands the global indigenous and peasant movements of which La Via Campesina is a good example. This coalition of one-hundred-forty-eight indigenous and peasant groups from sixty-nine countries around the world stands for the preservation of land, water, seeds and biodiversity, food sovereignty and sustainable agricultural production based on small and medium-sized producers. Navdanaya, based in India but an inspiration and resource to the world, is another such organization. Founded by brilliant, passionate and tireless former nuclear physicist, Dr. Vandana Shiva, this organization exists to protect biodiversity, defend farmers’ rights and promote organic farming. It should be obvious where I stand. I believe each of us must stand somewhere on the issue. One thing seems to me a simple matter of fact: the healthy survival of peoples in every region of every country rests on the health of soil and water, on biodiversity and on continued production of locally developed and adapted seed stocks. It is up to each of us to determine what way into the future is more likely to ensure that. I obviously come down on the side of small, local farms and healthy farming practices. That’s why I support La Via Campesina and Navdnaya.
Locally, for me, it begins with getting to know the dedicated growers and food artisans in my area. There are foods grown, raised in every province and region and there are small and organic farm associations and food artisan associations in every region. It is my responsibility to find them, buy my food from them and join my efforts to theirs for the preservation of the earth. The work they/we are about, preserving the health of the soil, water and air that nourish us is the most important work there is because if we fail here, we fail utterly.
But I also recognize, regrettably, that organic produce remain too expensive for most families. It seems agribusiness practices have a place in ensuring that supermarket shelves are stocked with produce that is affordable for the majority of families. On the international scene, I have no doubt the same may be true of ensuring that certain populations have access to affordable food who otherwise would not. I acknowledge that there is no absolutely ideal situation and that no one has a monopoly on the answer nor even a right to claim the moral high ground. My instincts, my limited knowledge of farming practices and my observation of the dynamics of economics incline me to believe that, in the medium and longer term, the emphasis on food sovereignty, biodiversity and organic farming practices supported by the indigenous and peasant movements point a healthier and more sustainable way to the future.
Walking on earth with an old friend in wildly changing autumn weather, that’s good. So is picking fragrant wild mushrooms, various boletes, clustered coral, umbrella polipor. Later, in the cabin, we clean and prepare them, pan them up, salt and pepper, a handful of minced garlic and parsley when they’re almost done. Then, my wife, Joanna, sister, Christiane, brother-in-law and old friend, Tony, we savour our modest harvest with dinner. I wish I could give you a taste! That evening in the cabin, warmed by wood fire, delicious food, loving company as, outside, the night calms, clears and cools to frosty cold, I feel, sometimes, we can come so close…
—Yves Saint-Pierre