Probably the best academic treatment of why modern foods play a role in diseases of civilization.
Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
There was stirring all around me there. Little sqeaking and whirs, as if the heavy brush and golden dry grasses were a flammable machine. I couldn't believe how dry it was there. It seemed incredible that with all the potential sparks in the old barn full of rusted farm machinery, that this wasn't a place of eternal fire.
I felt stupid for having worn sandals and a dress, which little white "plant lice" burrs clung to. They were at first endearingly fuzzy, then infuriatingly tedious to remove. The gate at the bottom of the hill refused to close and every time I tried to fix the mechanism, a long whip of wild blackberry thorns sprung against me. They had seemed tasty at first, but a taste revealed them to be tannic and tough.
All the sudden, the brush exploded. A furry hare ran out and over the hill. It was startled all the sudden by the idea of being an animal like that with nothing but the fur on my back. I wouldn't even miss the strap of my purse on my shoulder, which I left at home and can feel with each little step the fear of passports and cellphones lost. The weight of having seems to be a human invention. Flies moan around a tree trunk, the smell of dead animals not wasted by nature. Something beyond the ravine is putting up a fight for life. The rustling grows ever louder, becomes a ruckus, a madness, a tumbling of brown fur.
The autumn is the time of golden grasses from those who have given up the gift of chorophyll. Decay comes not just with flies, but with heaps of brown soggy apples fermenting on the ground. There is little gleaning here, the fence is high enough that the deer don't bother. Though I hear the cooings of flocks of quail as they sneak away hearing my footsteps. Animals don't bother the citrus fruits much. Animals don't really like chocolate either. Except dogs, who eat it mainly to frighten their owners. My childhood dog, a great dane mix named Conan, ate several chocolate advent calendars. He suffered no ill effects, much to my mother's chagrin. He had thoughened his stomach with numerous expensive handmade Amish chair legs.
A squeaking here and there, a rush of wind and feathers, comes a little green hummingbird searching for the last flowers. Luckily the meyer lemon, with its grand life-pleasing perfection, blooms all year here.
There are citrus fruits for all things here. A woman who loves to eat the peel of lemons gave my cousin a tree that yields exactly the right kind of peel that you don't even have to sugar because there is no bitterness. I am cutting one here as a write, remembering as a child when my father would take me to the Godiva at the mall at buy me candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate. I thought this was the height of worldly luxury. My father, after all, had seen the world and I had never even left the South.
But now those taste cloying to me and I shudder when I see Godiva in drugstores. There are very few things that are exactly as I remember them. They are chiefly the honeysuckle, which I can locate from miles away. In Brooklyn I found some growing on a fence and was instantly transported to summers that were hot to the point of sleeplessness, but idle enough that you could spend hours just slipping the stamens from the ends of the flowers and sipping the sweet small gifts of nectar. The Meyer lemon is a trick that transmutes into honeysuckle. Someone else says they are more like sweet orange blossoms. Others say that they are quite ordinary, but I suspect they have just had some shipped in a bin in the back of a cross-country truck truck.
And here are the kumquats…and lemonquats, I had no idea there was such a thing. I love these tiny berry-like round orbs called Marumi. I eat dozens of them, rind and all, like a voracious giant. I eat so many that the corners of my mouth start to ache as if I have brushed my mouth with pine needles. I have a weakness for small orange orbs, like the sea buckthorn I became enamored with in Sweden, sacrificing many cold afternoons to tenderly pluck the delicate orbs before the winter frost. When I plucked them wrong they fell apart in my fingers and I licked the opaque unearthly bright and embracingly bittersweet juice from my fingers.
There are trees for all purposes and unpurposes. Limes that taste of onions. Sour green mandarins with yellow stripes. Lemons that lack any element of sourness and instead taste hopelessly bland, but I'm told that the farm workers love to quench their thirst on them.
Buddha's hand citrus
Cavier-like interior of the Australian finger lime
I suppose these inexplicable obsessions might run in the family, however distant they might be. This citrus grove belongs to my distant cousin, who has generously invited my father and I out to stay and eat good food. My grandfather, who never talks much and never has, surprised us all and told my father about this cousin. We got in touch and here we are. We all are eccentric world travelers, with a taste for classical music, though there is some disagreement with regards to Shostakovich.
There are many farm workers on the surrounding lands past the forested valley, bent over in the bleak fog. The labor over barren lands drenched with methyl iodide that obliterates all things in the name of strawberries whose main merit is their pornographic largeness and ability to travel for thousands of miles without turning into a red mush. Mainly because they are never ripe. I haven't bought such strawberries for a long time, not because I'm some virtuous locavore, but because once I tasted the perfect ruby wild strawberries in Sweden that compact all that can be good into one thumbnail, it seems a bit like a waste of time to even bother buying them.
But this barrenness here gives me pause. I think of the red wood forest on my cousin's land. Its lushness is overwhelming. That would be here in these fields if it weren't for our taste for mediocre produce. I think of pigs my farmer friends in New York raise in deep forest. A pork loin seems much more virtuous than a salad from a plastic box, but I'd already had the bias for a while now.
The sunrise and sunsets are more about fog comings and burnings here. It would creep over the hills at night and linger under the sun's rays would burn it away. I missed the stars, but didn't mind when it framed the pine trees with mist in the morning. My father rose before me and said he saw rainbows. He showed them to me on his Iphone, scintillating in the sweet morning fog. I was asleep in the warm wooden house my cousin built.
The hills hold the remains of an apple orchard. Some of them are mealy, but there is one particularly wonderful apple, a pink-fleshed gem that I remember from Sweden. I would go apple picking after class in the agricultural genetics garden, fill the front basket of my bike with apples. There were so many wonderful trees thriving there where in Viking times were rushing rivers. Last night I had a dream about the plums that grew outside my house. They tree had doubled in size and the plums had hang from impossibly tall branches. I asked the sea king to fetch me some.
Upon a Viking boat grave by my house grew wild raspberries and in the spring, rhubarb for pies. I had nothing much to do but pick these things.
I remember the bags of Chanterelles I would buy for next to nothing at the Uppsala market. I would bike home with them through the pure green forest, surrounded by trees that could fill me up to the brim with pulms, pears, and sweet ruddy apples. But all I thought about then was booking my next flight. And like everyone else there, I filled the crystal clear polar nights full of crystal clear vodka. I frightened by Swedish boyfriend with my rancor against the winter we had in April. I suppose storming angrily at the sight of the weather report is never a good idea.
And some days ago someone asked me something frightening. He asked me what I would do if I could do anything. I had no answer. Not because I haven't thought about it. I think perhaps I've always known, but not wanted to say for being trivial.
I've been reading Big Sur and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. I ended up in Big Sur while in California quite accidentally I suppose. I had read about it once in National Geographic. When I was sick and bored in high school during Christmastime I once went through our whole collection of National Geographics. I made a list of places I wanted to go, which I have since lost, but I remembered a few. Iceland, The Faroe Islands, The Hebrides, Nova Scotia, Madre Del Dios, Patagonia, and Big Sur are some I recall. I suppose I have a calling towards windy desolation. Or perhaps to places that humans cling to tenuously.
And I've been very happy in those places. When I first moved to New York City I was miserable for many reasons and one thing that would make me cry was Icelandair ads in the subway, though some Delta ads for mountains in Japan also had the same miserable effect. I was infected by wanderlust I suppose, and still am. Not a day goes by where I don't dream of wandering.
And I'm not sure why. Even when I was in Sweden I often thought "wouldn't it be nice to be somewhere else?" Reading Miller he talks about those who don't have the courage for paradise "surely every one realizes, at some point along the way, that he is capable of living a far better life than the one he has chosen. What stays him, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. (Even to relinquish his chains seems like a sacrifice.)" Miller says that "few have the courage—imagination would be nearer the mark— to make the necessary break".
When I came back to the city my taxi driver to the airport had a golden straw ring hanging from his rear-view mirror and a round ruddy face. I knew he was from Mongolia. Soon were were talking of the warmth of horse meat, the rich flavor of camel grazed on steppe grasses, and the incomparably thick milk of his country. Someday, I thought, I will buy a ticket to Ulaan Bataar. But I have the unsettling premonition that this is not going to abate my longings, though it is still important.
Miller describes "a man of keen intelligence, well educated, sensitive, of excellent character, and capable not only with his hands but with brain and heart. In making a life for himself he has apparently chosen to do nothing more than raise a family, provide its members with what he can, and enjoy the life of day to day. He does everything single-handed, from erecting buildings to raising crops, making wines and so on. At intervals he hunts or fishes, or just takes off into the wilderness to commune with nature. To the average man he would appear to be just another good citizen, except that he is of better physique than most, enjoys better health, has no vices and no trace of the usual neuroses. His library is an excellent one, and he is at home in it; he enjoys good music and listens to it frequently…but what he knows and does, and what the average citizen can not or will not do, is to enjoy solitude, to live simply, to crave nothing, and to share what he has when called upon."
And thus his book starts out in Arcadia, Miller having fled the city and a life of wage slavery. He describes the man with the good life and promises that good things come of his advice, but his story defeats him. In the midst of serenity are glimpses of other tyrannies he has traded in the conventional pantheon for: a miserable marriage to a nagging wife, difficult children, religious quackery, hauntings of unanswered letters, and one unforgettable chapter devoted to the houseguest from hell.
Strangely, it's a story I know very well already. Many characters have passed though my life who have devoted themselves to being good old fashioned self-made men. And amongst some of the most perfect places in the world they live with all they need to eat and drink, with quiet, with fulfilling livelihoods. Is it boredom that has caused them to surround themselves with self-made tyrannies? They care enough to strive and to seek, but they yield to very petty fights at the dining room table. How much happier are they than those of us who toil in the cities?
I sometimes think they could have picked a good wife and lived in quiet through the rest of their days, but perhaps the disquiet is their own.