Thursday, May 09, 2013

Nature Denatured . . .

Veryln Klinkenborg

One of my favorite NYT writers, Veryln Klinkenborg, is residing in southern California this semester, and he recently wrote an article on industrial farming in the San Joaquin Valley, "Lost in the Geometry of California's Farms" (May 4, 2013), an unsettling literary piece depicting a complex agricultural monstrosity that leaves nature entirely artificial, utterly alien, boundlessly inhumane:
There is something stunning in the way the soil has been engineered into precision. Every human imperfection linked with the word "farming" has been erased. The rows are machined. The earth is molded. The angles are more rigid, and more accurate . . . . This is no longer soil. It is infrastructure . . . . The vast regiments of nut and fruit trees, casting sparse shade on bare earth, seem to defy the word "orchard" . . . . A kind of landscape that once seemed barely imaginable now seems inevitable and necessary: that's the logic and the illusion . . . . I can't help marveling and despairing at the transformation, the way agriculture, here and elsewhere, has created a landscape that is fundamentally inhuman, devoid of people.
How different from Klinkenborg's own farm in upstate New York, a farm with a variety of animals, both domesticated and wild, that change with the changing seasons, undergoing the rhythms of life and death.

What Klinkenborg describes here is neither alive nor dead, but undead, a terrain "[t]ransformed but not entirely unrecognizable," a zombie landscape . . .

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At 11:29 PM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

"Zombie landscape" is a great term. And frightening.

At 4:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I had to reflect on that expression for a while because the word "zombie" is so overused, but I'm glad I went with it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:18 PM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

Mr. Klinkenborg is one of my favorite living writers. His prose has an almost physical warmth.

Reading his descriptions is pure pleasure.

At 3:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'm pleased to be in good company.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may be a on the outside of the general feelings here. I did read and enjoy the entire article, but to term the landscape as inhuman or devoid of people, in my opinion, is not fair. Humans created the landscape described, and people have to constantly work the land to grow the crops. As with anything, beauty and ugliness, lies in how each of us see and react to all things. I choose to see beauty in a well kept and manicured farm. Whether it is the single plot next to a house, or massive acres of land on a lonely two-lane highway.

Just my thoughts - Jay

At 9:33 PM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

I've now read his poorly researched article and seen the one picture that accompanies it, and I have to say to the blind that the landscape is very, very much alive with farmers using every square inch they can to produce what they believe in as in the motto, "waste not, want not." That picture may look "artificial" to some, but that's the nature of today's big, modern farms as they need to constantly adapt to be able to keep on producing food to feed the billions and billions of people on this spinning rock. Just because these several-thousand acre farms don't jive with the writer's out-dated, 1966 views about what small 10 to 40 acre farms should look like doesn't mean that those in the valley aren't teeming with productive life.

The artificiality of it all (to those who haven't seen a farm in the last 10-20 years) mainly has to do with a lack of farm workers that are needed to work long, backbreakingly hard, hours in both the brutal cold and the brutal heat for pay about equal with minimum wage; hence, there was a mass exodus from these jobs, and rural areas, in the last century. This has lead to modern farmers relying more and more on larger, more expensive equipment and satellite technology to make those crisp, machined rows. Doing this the first time is also needed as the price of diesel fuel is quite a bit higher than that of regular gasoline, and there aren't many large tractors that get good fuel mileage.

It's truly a shame that the writer didn't bother to interview anyone for an objective viewpoint, especially as it's no longer 1966, and we now have unleaded gasoline and personal computers that fit in our hands, can take damn good high definition photographs, and even make face-to-face video calls to boot without having to overpay the likes of Ma Bell.

Personally, I wonder just how long it will be before the real zombie landscape of the endless suburbs and strip-malls cause real hunger pangs when there isn't enough farmland (or water) left to feed the world.

At 12:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jay and John. I don't doubt that both of you have a good point (or several points), but I can't help siding with Klinkenborg on the greater beauty of a traditional farm . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, John was a BIT more adament than I was over the article. What I find interesting is in the writer's bio it says he was born in Colorado, raised in Iowa, and currently lives in upsate New York, but in the article he seems to refer to himself as a "long time resident" of California. Am I over-reading what he wrote?


At 6:29 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

He went to high school in Sacramento and attended Pomona College in Claremont, but I don't know how many years total he lived in the state. He's probably comparing now and then.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:27 PM, Blogger John from Daejeon said...

"I can't help siding with Klinkenborg on the greater beauty of a traditional farm"

I'd love to have seen the advent of the traditional farm from the early days of farming in the Fertile Crescent when life truly was primitive, too (for a day), but the writer is only trying to diminish current farming methods as a horrific monster in regards to his brain's remembrance of the so-called idyllic one of his childhood. It's just too bad that he can't return to that time, or back to farming's origins in the Fertile Crescent, and see just how great things "really were" in comparison to today's advances. All he's doing is reminiscing about his good old days without mentioning any of the blights on that landscape like DDT or using bones for tools back in the day.

I'm not exactly one to quickly jump on the progress bandwagon, but I'd be insane to give up my air conditioning, electricity, running water and sewer, massive amounts of free time/leisure, long life span, etc., to go back to those good old days of traditional farming--or even the farming of the 1960's with its long hours and small, low horse powered, tractors that lacked today's air conditioning, power steering, satellite telemetry, and entertainment packages (satellite radio and TV).

At 4:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John, are you sure you're not overreaching here? Give the man some slack. Mr. Klinkenborg isn't so reactionary as to wish for the return of the first agricultural revolution!

By the way, he does have a farm in upstate New York, where he lives and works -- and often writes of his life there. I think you might enjoy what he describes.

I've also seen the California 'farms' -- and they're entirely different than the Ozark farming that several of my relatives still do. They're agribusinesses, farm factories, not real farms.

That said, I recognize the necessity for large-scale agriculture.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:22 PM, Anonymous Dixi said...

*Now* I understand this painting

At 5:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dixi, you mean the strict geometrical lines and absence of human beings in The Ideal City?

By the way, there's an interesting revelation about that city here.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:51 AM, Anonymous Dixi said...

Yes - "... neither alive nor dead but undead ..." seems to fit the image of the city. On the level of a joke, the city would be perfect if it weren't for all those pesky annoying people. But perhaps Piero had something more serious in mind, observing the tendency to pride in the non-Catholic renaissance humanists. Psalm 143:11-15, especially "There is no breach of wall, nor passage, nor crying out in their streets. The have called the people happy, that hath these things: but happy is that people whose God is the Lord."

At 5:56 AM, Anonymous Dixi said...

My apologies, forgot thank you for the interesting link to the article about Alberti and the painting !

At 6:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No need for apologies, Dixi -- glad to be of use.

Jeffery Hodges

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