The following is a true story. Names have not been changed to protect the innocent.
On a picnic one fine day several years ago, my son Alec and I were lunching with my friend MaryHelen and her twin boys, James and Noah, also my son’s age. The approximate age of these boys at the time is right around four years old.
My son was busy munching his Happy Meal and took a moment out from the ingestion of grease and preservatives to inquire if the liquid in the wax carton was cow’s milk or goat’s milk. I told him it was cow’s milk and he accepted that without comment.
My friend’s boys however, were suddenly very quiet and eyeing their wax cartons with grave suspicion.
“What do you mean, what KIND of milk???” they asked Alec.
Alec cheerfully explained. “The milk at our house is goat’s milk. Every morning my mom goes out and feeds the goats. Then she gets down on the ground next to them and milks them like this (insert visual of young boy doing realistic rendering of milking a goat). She brings it into the house, strains it and puts it in the fridge for us to drink.”
After a stony silence, James announced, “Well, our milk comes from the STORE”.
Alec allowed that most people do not have goats in their yard and, that for the unfortunate masses, store-bought cow’s milk is the only sad alternative for a calcium-laden drink. James and Noah were still not happy, saying that THEIR milk does NOT come from COWS, it comes from the STORE.
In the manner of most pre-school and congressional discussions, this rapidly escalated to fisticuff status.
Now, MaryHelen is a veterinarian and these boys are exposed to many animals, both in and out of nature, all the time. The Circle of Life is not a stranger to them. Or so she thought…
At James’s pronouncement, followed by the zealous statement of belief, and the impending physical assault, MaryHelen was alarmed and rose to the occasion with alacrity.
“WAIT! You are ALL right!” she hollered, the scruff of one boy in each hand, while I also held my combatant at bay. She then detailed how the cow’s milk that is usually in their sippy-cups goes from the cow, to the automatic milking machine, into a truck with a lot of other cows’ milk from a lot of other farms, to the factory to be cleaned up, sterilized, and cartoned, ready to be delivered to their local store. That’s the point where they become personally involved with said milk. From cows. And that Alec spoke truth when he told them where his milk comes from.
Once the light of righteous indignation left the eyes of the three boys, they were loosed to resume their meal in silence. James and Noah would have nothing more to do with their milk.
I whispered to MaryHelen, “Just wait till they learn that eggs come out of chickens’ butts—they’ll never eat another egg.”
She blanched and looked a little faint.
Americans have always been farmers. Most of our founding fathers had huge farms and spent at least as much time in the fields and barns as thinking up Important Documents to sign. Then something happened…
We moved off of the farms in droves—driven by emancipation, drought, depression, disillusionment, and the siren song of the cities who were hungry for manpower to run the ever-larger factories and accompanying businesses. Obviously, this factory-workin’ thing was not a cushy gig by any stretch of the imagination, but the promise of weekly wages that relied on your ability to get to work and do your job instead of your life resting on whether Mother Nature rained on your crops or not was a welcome relief to many.
A fundamental drive of the human soul is the wish that your children have a better life than you do. In the urban world, the way to a better life lay NOT in going back to the land, but to college for an advanced education. When the children of these factory workers reached their teens they did NOT swing back, they swung forward.
Teachers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, art history majors, mechanical and aerospace engineers began rolling off of the collegiate assembly lines like the Buicks and Frigidaires that their fathers made.
This puts the average American at least two generations off of the land.
So what the heck does all that have to do with James, Noah, and Alec dukin’ it out over the source of their moo juice?
Somewhere in all this mess we call “advancement”, we not only abandoned the rural ways, we learned to shun them as well.
Clone-like orbs of vegefecation that taste as interesting as they look have replaced fresh veggies from the garden, still warm from the sun and as individually scarred and lopsided as we are. Small details like vitamin content and flavor have been cast aside for uniformity, toughness under shipping stress, and shelf life. The veggies we buy at the supermarket have been genetically altered, chemically fertilized, drowned in pesticide, power-washed and dunked in wax, but thank GOD they aren’t DIRTY.
Meats (actually chickens, pigs, and cows—who KNEW?) are grown in horrendous conditions and fed enough steroids to make them grow fast and enough antibiotics to keep them alive till we kill them. Of course, “we” does not technically refer to “us”, because “we” don’t really want to see them till they are killed, gutted, soaked in anti-bacterial preservatives, hosed (mostly) off, and wrapped in shrink wrap. They aren’t really animals anymore then, they are tenders, chops, and steaks. ‘Cause eating dead animals would be gross.
“We get milk from cows and eggs from chickens” is our standard line to children. Are we even aware that when they put a picture to this statement they most likely get a mental image of various barnyard animals in white coats, manning the assembly lines in the milk and egg factories?
And let’s look for a moment at the other end of things.
There’s a most magical vehicle that comes into your neighborhood on a regular basis. You can hear it from blocks away by the sound it makes. People run out of their houses to meet it. People look forward to it’s coming. People are very sad when they miss it, and some have actually been known to chase it down in their cars. By your smile, I know you know what I am talking about…
Ice cream? Who said anything about ice cream?
I’m talking about the garbage truck, silly.
That phantasmal chariot that swallows our trash like a giant metal pelican and carries it off. *Poof* and it’s gone. If a child is precocious enough to ask, “Mommy, where is the garbage truck taking our stinky putrefied wastes?” the answer will be, “To the dump, honey”, and that will be the end of it.
Our food comes from the store and our wastes go to the dump.
The Circle of Life has been replaced with the Tunnel Vision of Consumerism.
We need to take our precious children and challenge them. If they stop asking “why?”, we are lost. “Why?” must be answered, and then, “Before that?” and, “Then what?” need to be addressed as well.
“We get our food from the store” must be followed with “But BEFORE that it comes from the factory, and BEFORE that it was grown and harvested on the farm using compost in the soil to help it grow.” If any link in that chain includes anything that we are ashamed of or don’t want our children knowing (or ingesting) we must change it, either by demanding that changes are made, or by growing our own.
“Our trash goes to the dump” must be followed with “And AFTER that, it goes into landfill which takes up huge amounts of land area and pollutes the earth, air, and water. We must make sure that our additions to the landfill are minimum by recycling what we can, composting what we can, reusing what we can, and then and only then, throwing the rest away in biodegradable bags, not those quilted plastic nightmares that are advertised to be able to stop a runaway train.”
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, compost to compost, everything goes around and around in a circle as old as the earth itself.
Traveling in a straight line is exciting in a brash, blazing-a-trail kind of way. Taming of the wilderness (natural or corporate) and all that. The future is unknown, and there is no past before your tiny self appearing on the scene. If you are a proper consumer, you are also teaching your children to grow up blazing their own trails. Taking what you need where you find it and discarding after use is unsustainable, irresponsible, and ultimately discouraging. Because no matter how hard we try to hide it behind and underneath chemically processed hair, Botoxed faces, and designer-clad bodies that have been lipo-suctioned into submission, encased in our autos thundering down the highway with our cell phones attached to our ears, there is still a core of organic matter right in the center of our souls, that little core needs roots, and roots need compost, dang it!
The Circle of Life requires a lot more thought and care to travel than a straight line, because it’s a CIRCLE and you will be back around this way again. Judicious pruning and mulching must replace slash and burn. Attention is required to preserve the knowledge and cornerstones of the past both for use today, and for our children’s use in the future.
The child who finds an egg, sees that egg hatch into a chick, feeds that chick till it grows and lays eggs of its own has learned a valuable lesson.
Planting seeds together, watering, weeding, playing in the dirt in general, harvesting, and eating something you planted together will make an impression that will last long after the last cucumber is pickled.
Helping at milking time early in the morning has its payoff later in the day with homemade chocolate ice cream.
It’s our duty as homesteaders to not only keep our own family and farm in order, but to teach others how to do the same, because our “family” is everyone and our “farm” is this whole planet.
Quietly, gently, patiently, one perfect free-range egg; one soft, juicy, taste bud-tingling tomato; and one fresh cranked bowl of ice cream at a time, we can, and will, ease this generation out of the long dark Tunnel of Consumerism and back into the grandmotherly hug that is the Circle of Life.