Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Women's rights, food justice and security - from the social to the individual and back

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Two great articles out last week, speaking to different issues around the ethics of food, got me to thinking about the nexus of hunting, food security, and women's rights.

First, this article at Grist on the implications of a whitewashed food justice movement.  The author is honest, thoughtful, and far better at her craft than I.  Definitely read it.  Two weeks back, I posted a piece on how the environmental movement (which, in my mind, includes 'food justice' folks) hamstrings itself through apprenticeship programs, subsequently passing on its expertise and influence to a disproportionately wealthy group of individuals, and creating difficult burdens to entry for those who cannot afford to work for free.  Natasha Bowens, the author of the piece at Grist, talks about this from a different perspective, and also shows just how one group is trying to break the homogeneity. 

Next, I wanted to get a little more traffic over to Ms. Winfrey's site, to help out as I can... O Magazine has a wonderful article on hunting for the Thanksgiving turkey.  Although the category is "women and hunting", the author (Kimberly Hiss) doesn't wax political about it - I wouldn't care if she did, it's a great subject, and she is an amazing writer - she writes about hunting and shooting a bird for Thanksgiving, and this act's personal and family implications.  She does allude to the strange, new pressures she received when she began hunting, and also the beauty and sense of fulfillment she gets by providing food through hunting, and her subtlety is wonderful.  Being thoughtful and considerate, she really lets the reader join her.

Ms. Hiss might not have considered her's a piece on food justice or food security, but I do.  When she talks about her bird's diet vs. those packaged in stores and when she describes the hunt, she alludes to important aspects of food security.  Food security means, at its most basic level, the ability to safely provide healthy food, now and in the future, for you and your family.  For some of us, this is solely an economic problem, but for many, food security addresses the quality of food (a healthy variety) and the physical act of acquisition (keeping out of harm's way when getting it) as much as it does the ability to pay for it when it is available.

Many parts of our country are effectively food deserts, communities with no walking access to anything other than the local liquor store.  In these places (as in almost everywhere on Earth), women are most often responsible for providing food for the family, and yet, the physical act of trying to get healthy food often puts them in harm's way.   The empowerment that comes from effectively and efficiently wielding a gun (or a bow) to provide for one's family is profound; it strikes the very core of both food and security.

Which is why I read with happiness this piece by Holly Heyser, the Nor Cal Cazadora (another writer of the fist caliber), on the numbers of women hunting.  As she points out, women hunt at a much higher rate in the West than in other parts of the country.  This core of hunters and what they represent, if I may be allowed the latitude, can have a global impact on the role and empowerment of women.

Hunting embodies empowerment.  Taking the life of an animal to provide sustenance is one of the three or four most basic things a human really needs in order to survive, and honing those skills requires controlling and mastering a powerful force.  Guns are powerful, they equalize people like few other things - and this empowerment can mean so much more in the hands of women.

Now, I'm no trigger-happy gun fanatic, nor am I a violent person, a condition of my religion.  What I am, as my Momma raised me, is as much a feminist as a man can be.  And I'm not naive when it comes to understanding and recognizing power as choice and the ability to defend and provide for oneself, especially at the personal level, and especially as that relates to women in the World.  In my household, I'll make darned sure that my daughter and son can shoot, of course, and also catch, garden, forage and cook good food.  On the social level, I recognize that access to these basic skills is vital to equality. 

As I thought more about this issue, I remembered a piece by Scott Simon of National Public Radio.  When he learned of the possibility for peace talks with the Taliban, he reminded his listeners about Afghanistan under their rule, as he had reported from there for quite a while in the early 2000's.  In particular, he talked about watching the first soccer game in Kabul after the Taliban were run out, where a British commando took off her beret to call to a friend, and the crowd erupted in cheers.  Soon after, and every few minutes during the game, a woman would stand up in the crowd and remove her veil.

Yes, this may feel like a tangent, but I think you know where I'm going.  There in Afghanistan, one empowered woman expressed that power without even thinking about it, and helped other women to see themselves as powerful.  Around the world, U.N. forces with women soldiers empower local women who've suffered as slaves for untold millennia, just by being there.  I don't pretend that all these women are automatically freed, but changes do happen because of these experiences.  Here in the Western U.S., where women first took the right of suffrage in the U.S., it is important to remember, make conscious and plain and pass down, this power.

Hunting necessarily taps and hones that power.  Increasing food security for communities and individuals by developing local means to produce food also empowers individuals.  From Holly, Ms. Bowens and Ms. Hiss all the way to those women in Afghanistan who stood up in that stadium and dared to show their society that they have faces, these expressions of power shake our very foundations in the best possible way.  Thank you.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

That Time Josh called that coot with his speck call & the shell fell out of Kevin's gun...

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I love the Fall.  "The sound of gunfire, off in the distance (I'm gettin' used to it now")... because, when I'm hunting, that's oftentimes the only way I hear gunfire. 

Many people worry about the physical act of hunting, because guns are so dangerous.  Well, let me put that worry to bed right now: Go hunting with me, and the only worry you'll have about your gun is how it's making your arms sore from lugging it all over Kingdom Come.  In fact, you might even start asking yourself why you even bothered to bring a gun in the first place. 

I'm known in my hunting circles as a "cooler" (look it up, yourself), a condition that grows in magnitude whenever I go hunting with my cousin.  Our hunts together have been described as Epic, as in, "Wow.  I've never, in my entire life, had as bad a hunt as with you two - and I doubt I ever could again." 

If you've ever heard a hunting story of our adventures together, you know that they always start with the line, "that was the time that" followed by a title fitting of the greatest thing to happen on that particular hunt.

"That time we shot that speck";
"That time we shot that dove";
"That time we heard those woodies about 15 yards from us, but never got a shot";
"That time we emptied a box of shells to bring down that bufflehead";
"That time we saw those pileated woodpeckers";
(Contrary to the ramblings of one Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, there never was, "that time we almost heard those geese," that's just hurtful.)

For clarification's sake, those aren't special hunts - we didn't shoot a record-winning dove.  We shot a dove.

So, though I often talk about the ethics and importance of hunting, I just wanted to be clear with you, the reader(s, I hope).  I wouldn't want any illusions as to any prowess out there. 

A typical mid-Winter day duck hunting with me.  75 and clear, with no breeze...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Parks get short shrift (and myopic suggestions for management)

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Here, I'd like to add a small voice in support of parks, and explain, via a couple of poor ideas I've found in the media, some real threats faced by parks.

First, this op-ed in the High Country News really irked me.  Mr. Pace makes a good point about the need for the environmental community to provide Californians with bigger ideas, but he does it by trying to shoehorn the loss of Proposition 21 into his analysis. 

I worked a short stint in California State Parks, and I worked over four years in environmental advocacy at the California state level, and believe me, Mr. Pace's characterization of California State Parks as the environmentalists "pet agency" is simply wrong, and damaging. 

First, most state parks are historical sites.  Second, the California Dept. of Parks and Recreation has had to get its budget through the general fund, while environmental groups sought fees and fines to fund other agencies with a more direct environmental bent (like CARB, DFG, air pollution control districts, etc.)  If State Parks is a pet agency, it's the runt, sucking hind teat - and Californians sadly illustrated that notion last week.
Then, A few days back, I came upon this Environmental Economics post on National Park visitor fees by Professor Whitehead.  It's an interesting, short question about determining the most efficient visitor fee level for the National Parks.  Unfortunately, it also perfectly illustrates a couple of common misperceptions about park visitation and management.

First, national parks are not overcrowded.  Like Mr. Pace's mistake, Prof. Whitehead taps the notion of a few, iconic parks, ignoring the vast majority of the 392 park units, and ignoring the seasonality of visitation.  But, even during their peak visitor seasons, those iconic parks are not overcrowded.  Instead, their crowds occasionally need more efficient in-park management.

The reality is that park visitation has lagged in the past decade, and managers are rightly worried about this lag. 

You see, the mission of the National Park Service is twofold:  To preserve, for future generations, those places we've found to be important to our natural and cultural history, and to provide for the recreation and enjoyment of Americans at these places.  This, plus the truth of the NPS budget (that revenues don't come from visitor fees, but from the Federal Government), means that Professor Whitehead's simple view of parks fits the mistaken perception of the public, but it does not fit the real threats to parks, nor does it fit the mission of the National Park Service.

The professor assumes that parks are overcrowded, that entrance fees = budget revenues, and that park fees are the most efficient way to manage for crowds.  All three are mistaken.

Simply put, parks need visitors who love them.  Park managers understand that they need many visitors to all have a great time.  In California, state parks have come up against this reality, and they find themselves in a vicious circle.  They can pretend that their visitor fees pay their bills, and set entrance fees to optimize their revenues from fees, but in doing so they will alienate themselves from the constituency that really pays the bills - the California resident.  In a short time, they will lose popularity in the public's view, and will therefore lose their budget.  Park advocates and managers, therefore, rightly decided to take the idea of visitation and Californians' responsibility to our cultural and ecological heritage, directly to the People.  Sadly, that vicious circle had already taken its political toll.

Using visitor entrance fees to manage for crowding in park units can exacerbate that political reality.  If fees are raised to "manage" (i.e., discourage) crowds, crowds won't come.  If crowds don't come, parks won't get high priority in budget determinations. 

Higher visitor fees are the wrong way to manage for crowds.  Sadly, many economists can only talk in visitor fees, and therefore must make some seriously constraining assumptions when trying to "help".  Also sadly, many park systems are realizing that, among their problems, the fee structure has politically alienated them. 

I wish I had a suggestion for this dire problem many park systems now face.  If you have any, bring 'em.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

History and responsibility, and hope

© 2010 Joshua Stark

If you are expecting some reflection on yesterday's election, it ain't happening here.  I'll gladly give my opinion if people want to read it, but not unless there is some email outpouring lamenting the dearth of talking-head spinmeisters.  The only thing I will say is that I completely and totally gave up on the federal government doing anything for climate change in 2009, and I'll keep my focus on California and regional attempts to do right by their people, considering the latest changes in federal vs. state government. 

But this post is another reflection from reading "A Sand County Almanac." No politics.  This is about history, and more specifically, the importance of knowing history and acknowledging and reflecting on our good and bad past deeds.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to sit on a panel at the BlogHer Food '10 Conference (for my take on that great event, read here).  During my short time at the conference, I had a number of fascinating conversations with people well versed in all things culinary.  One of these conversations involved hunting snipe (Gallinago gallinago), which included the typical snipe-hunting conversation - five minutes of swearing up-and-down that they do, in fact, exist (hence, the link on the name).

Then the conversation moved to the notion that the snipe is the last of the legally huntable shorebird game species (okay, there's timberdoodles, but if I mention them, then nobody will believe any of these exist).  Someone showed surprise that shorebirds had been eaten at all, the concept being so foreign, and the cultural knowledge of these supposed delicacies having been removed by law decades ago.

But shorebirds were heavily hunted by Americans for many, many years.  The end of shorebirds appearing on menus and in cookbooks happened because of the efficiency of the market hunter and the flocking nature of most shorebirds, coupled with a new-found awareness that we must protect our wilds, lest we lose them all.

This morning, then, when I read 'May' in Aldo Leopold's wonderful work, I was reminded just how close we came to losing so many birds.  Leopold writes,

"There was a time in the early 1900's when Wisconsin farms nearly lost their immemorial timepiece, when May pastures greened in silence, and August nights brought no whistled reminder of impending fall.  Universal gunpowder, plus the lure of plover-on-toast for post-Victorian banquets, had taken too great a toll.  The belated protection of the federal migratory bird laws came just in time." 

One hundred years ago, the demand for plovers was so great among households and restaurants that market hunters nearly ended them all.  

And the same is true for many, many species.  Egret feathers no longer adorn hats.  Buffalo tongue and wild grouse are no longer on the table as regular fare or ingredients.  Most sadly, there is no longer a popular pigeon pie, because that great biological phenomenon, the passenger pigeon, was shot, netted, and clubbed out of existence. 

Thank goodness for the wisdom, if belated as Leopold put it, of legislators who thought past mere economic efficiency, and looked at the value of things from other perspectives.  

Maybe this is a political post, then.  Perhaps I'm still hoping for that human trait to make a comeback, and for our leaders to note the value of our wild places, the value of what we put in our bodies, the values that we teach our children.  I can hope that our leaders will look past their political affiliations from time to time, and recognize the need for us to directly manage and protect our wilds.  We've done it before.  

Maybe I haven't totally given up hope.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The ethical conundrum that is the apprenticeship

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I am unemployed.  Of course, that means much anxiety about the future and the present, although I don't have to worry nearly as much as many others, my family and friends being who they are (wonderful).  But still, it's been hard.

The past few years I've attempted to switch professions, from teaching high school to something that involved the outdoors more, because it overwhelmed me one day that I need to be outside more, and I need to be involved in the outside.

But, few outdoors-oriented jobs are currently open to me, because my educational background is in social science, and many outdoors jobs require biology or "related fields".  In fact, I'm confident in my environmental science knowledge, but without papers, I can rarely get even an interview.

And so, for about five seconds, I considered the option of apprenticeships, in order to get my foot in the door.  I went to California FarmLink's (a great organization, by the way) section on apprenticeship options, and found one close by.  However, when I read the position description, I felt like I'd been hit in the stomach:  Five months, 40-65 hours of work per week, for $300 per month. 

A familiar rant welled up inside me.

I'm not from the movement that spawned environmentalism, 'back-to-the-land'-ism, urban farming and the like.  Namely, I'm not from the urban & suburban upper-middle and upper class white community.  We were not poor by any means, but to quote a famous song, "I was born in a small town."  The landscape was riddled with conservationists, but not one bona fide environmentalist that I can remember. 

Every Summer, then, to help get through college, I worked in agriculture - every pear packing shed on the Delta and in Ukiah.  I did every job in the shed except pack, eventually getting a great gig as a USDA/CDFA fruit grader, 50+ hours per week at its best, for a decent wage.

There was never any option about taking a Summer off and touring Europe.  There was never an option for a free apprenticeship to get a foot in the door at some company or industry.  I needed to help cover my college expenses as much as I could, and so part-time work during the Semester, and work with overtime during the Summer was the only way. 

Today, many in the environmental movement are derided by others as "limousine liberals", folks out of touch with real America.  I'm not so harsh a judge, because I share most of their goals.  But I know that there is a kernel to that truth, and a large part of that image comes from the way in which the industry (because it is an industry, too) chooses its employees. 

People taking this road must often sacrifice, not just time, but financially to a level below a living wage.  This may feel like one is only choosing the true followers of these ideas, but in reality it is only choosing for those who can support themselves by other means, as well.  Typically, this is a young, single person with family to provide for tuition, room and board, and health insurance.  Other options are spouses with enough time for both to work, but one making enough money to cover the basics (health, mortgage, insurance), leaving the other free to pursue a more altruistic profession, or the single and wealthy individual, or the retiree looking to help out.  All of these are fine people, and do great work.

But what this method excludes are myriad voices - passions and perspectives that would make the environmental movement the complete system it needs to be in order to effectively reach its goals.  Poor folks who need employer-based insurance, single parents who want to dedicate their vocation to a calling, college kids who need a living wage during the Summer in order to cover exorbitant tuition rates, families who want to be a part of the solution, who want to advocate and who have talents and skills to contribute, but who cannot live on less than minimum wage.  These people bring different perspectives about what the wild means to them, and these people can often more effectively talk to those people living in similar circumstances. 

So I am frustrated with the apprenticeships and entry-level positions offered in the nonprofit, environmental world.  I understand the difficulties often faced by fickle funding, but I'm much more frustrated at being "offered" positions that cannot provide my family an honest living, and I'm a tad offended that they would expect me to continue to impoverish my family for The Cause. 

A great friend (and nonprofit veteran) once quoted me Confucius during a conversation about this.  She said, "that which is expensive is not expensive, and that which is cheap is not cheap."