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Category — books I’ve read

Outside Lies Magic

In response to my post about following railroad tracks, commenter Richard Layman suggested I borrow his copy of John Stilgoe‘s Outside Lies Magic. I did (lending to him A Pattern Language and David Owen’s Sheetrock and Shellac), and tore through it in a few days. It’s a slim volume, less than 200 pages of generous type, about explorations of the built environment. Reading it gave me the rare experience of coming across words that gave voice to a bundle of thoughts and feelings that had long been stewing in my mind but which I could never quite articulate. (In this sense, it was much like reading James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere.)

Stilgoe exhorts us to explore: to walk and cycle, to observe, to look for “history and awareness” in “the best-kept secret around–the ordinary, everyday landscape that rewards any explorer.” The book is partly a narration of the observations that “the explorer” would make, mixed with history that can, in part, be inferred from these observations. The first explorations revolve around a discussion of wires–power and telegraph and telephone–and rail, networks that grew up with one another. A sample:

[T]he walker emerges thoughtfully from the woods or fields and finds a tiny industrial park of grain elevators, machinery dealers, warehouses, wood-frame or redbrick factories, every structure marked by that certain sign of railroad influence, the walled-up loading door four feet above grade level, too high for trucks but the perfect height for boxcar floors. [p.46]

We go on to learn about mail, about paths and roads and highways, and about fences–apparently, in the North, livestock were fenced in, but in the South, crops were fenced to keep otherwise free-running livestock out. It wasn’t until cars started colliding with farm animals in large numbers that laws requiring the fencing-in of livestock were enacted all across the country. There is no way, of course, for any explorer to infer this entirely from his observations, but it is the sort of knowledge that  the explorer can use to understand and connect what he is seeing.

The text meanders in much the same way that an explorer would. One chapter begins with (a dubious) discussion of motel siting, and of the design of motel sites, which leads to a discussion of vacancy: not only at the motel, but what it means for a field or lot to be vacant. And what it means, then, to be a field, and how big our fields are, and how we measure how big they are, and how the weights and measures in use here are the result of some compromise between the populist- and dozenal-leaning Adams and the decimal-leaning Jefferson. Our currency (unlike, say, Britan’s) has always been decimal, but we buy eggs by the dozen, which can be evenly split in more ways than ten can, giving greater flexibility for people to pool their resources when money is tight. More significant was the continued use of the mile: a square mile is 640 acres, which is 16 times 40 acres, the canonical size for a family farm. So the use of the mile facilitated the sub-division of land, because the square mile can be nicely divided into appropriate-sized lots.

The motel siting discussion says that eight hours from a major metropolitan area would be a good place for motels: I have no doubt that it would be, but my own experience tells me that motels are much more closely spaced than every 500 miles. There are other instances that strike me as similarly dubious: the optimistic claim that railroads are “rediscovering the profitability of carrying passengers.” [p. 52] If only that were true! Passenger rail has been expanding, slowly, but as a matter of civic investment, not private profit. So I’m left with a sort of skepticism about the specific claims, but this doesn’t dampen my enthusiams for the book: it is not supposed to be a definitive treatment of anything, but an inspiration to explore and discover.

The book ends with a discussion of the “magic” of exploration, the fulfillment that comes with the discoveries and connections and the accumulation of a personal world-view. This discussion begins by noting the skepticism that explorers might encounter, from people who want to know why they want to go someplace or take a picture of something. In recent years, we have seen episodes of absurd harassment (one example in the Washington area, and proper responses.) The exploration that Stilgoe describes is very fundamentally an expression of our freedom, to go and do as we wish. The contemporary reader can appreciate the truly tragic irony in which the increased scrutiny to which an explorer is subjected comes in the name of protecting our freedom.

September 13, 2008   1 Comment

Listen to Pollan

I’ve been paying attention to food more or less since I moved to DC. Throughout grad school, I didn’t really take the time to cook or think about food (except at Thanksgiving). I’ve had a latent interest in cooking since college, but never had done much about it. I started cooking more frequently living in DC, and I made enough money to eat, occasionally, at nice restaurants, and I discovered Cooks Illustrated magazine, and my wife and some of our friends were also interested in food, and the Washington Post has a better food section than the Ithaca Journal, and we had the opportunity to join a CSA and shop at farmers’ markets, so everything sort of fell into place.

Without a doubt, Cooks Illustrated has been the most influential component of the “how can I make good food” question. For the “what role do our food choices have in our relationship with the natural world” question, though, the most influential voice has been that of Michael Pollan.

He’s written two books about food: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I’ve only read the first–it’s a lucid, alarming, deeply thoughtful, hopeful, yet non-judgemental examination of American food systems, structured by tracing the sources of the components of four meals that Pollan prepares. (See a review here.) Pollan has been one of the leading voices in the nascent revolution in food awareness, drumming up orders of magnitude more interest from non-farming states in the Farm Bill than ever before, and inspiring websites like The Ethicurean.

With that, I present and recommend two recent interviews in which he talks about In Defense of Food.

Interview on CBC’s The Current radio program.

Segment on Sierra Club radio.

February 6, 2008   No Comments

A (small) Christmas flood

Our houses protect us from the elements, keeping us in an environment that’s usually more comfortable than that of the outdoors. I can deal with a house that’s too cold in the winter, or too hot in the summer. Water, on the other hand, I’m more touchy about. I expect a house to keep water in it’s place, and really get agitated when water appears in places it isn’t supposed to be.

Which is what happened Christmas eve day.

It started a month ago or so, with a leaky toilet. Not very leaky: there was just a steady drip, from one of the bolts that holds the tank to the bowl. When I discovered the leak I didn’t really want to figure out what the problem was, so I put a bucket under the toilet to catch the drips. The bucket couldn’t fit under the place where the drip was coming from, so I had to make a little plastic chute to direct the water into the bucket. This is the way I’d left it for several weeks.

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December 27, 2007   No Comments