23 November 2009

Rethinking Mass Production

In fourth grade I remember being introduced to the concept of a plantation. We were given Styrofoam trays and we colored paper cut-outs of each aspect of an historically working Maryland plantation, which we then pasted onto the tray in physical relation to one another so that eventually the centered plantation owner’s house was surrounded by all the gardens and out-buildings necessary to sustain it. Integral to this lay-out were the slave quarters. In face, we were told, the plantation could not sustain itself without slaves.

Nowadays, I am told, the modern plantation system has overcome the need for slaves through increased mechanized technology. But I wonder how true that is. With the invention of flood lights and generators, the harvesting of massive-scale palm oil or sugar cane plantations and corn or soy monocultures and pine or eucalyptus tree plantations can continue 24 hours a day with petroleum flowing through the engines and chainsaws, but humans still work the levers, still haul the harvest, still fight off sleep and boredom and rage. All these harvests must then be transported and processed again on a massive-scale, with humans working vats of steaming heat or of corrosive chemical fumes where bureaucratically negotiated thresholds of waste matter, bodily fluids, rat bodies are permitted into the mixes. Humans protected by thin films of plastic or cloth or just their sleeves, sort and mix and bundle and dump raw harvests which eventually are transported to other large-scale factories, many times across international boundaries, across oceans; so far are the modern worker quarters and out-buildings geographically located from the centered owner’s house.

At these next factories, the original plantation harvests are incorporated by humans with the strength of machines into recognizable products: snack foods, condiments, sauces, cooking oils, and all their packaging, labels, boxes, crates. Hundreds, thousands of humans and long, hard labor-hours have been involved in the plantation harvests and product processing. Thousands, millions will benefit in the direct sale and consumption of these products as palm oil, refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, ethanol, soy meal, cardboard, paper napkins, toilet paper….

Modern-day humans are so emotionally attached to the sweet-sugar-salty-fats and paper products of the age, we are willing to ignore where they come from, the human energy entailed. In fact, we attempt to justify our continued consumption by the number of jobs such a system of harvest and production offers to the poorest of the world’s poor. The anonymous masses and their families who suffer night shifts and sickness, compensated by just enough money, just enough housing, not enough time-off, who may be beaten at work and who are always worried of being fired when production slows because consumption thousands of miles away slows, when harvests fail, when the land dries up, when the pesticides and fertilizers stop working, when the factories move on to a new location with new natural resources to exploit and less human-right protections or over-seers. These jobs are bought and sold, traded on whims of financial speculation from offices and cell phones thousands of miles removed. The faces of the workers and their families are always anonymous because they are exchangeable and temporary, oftentimes seasonal. And yet, they are integral to the greater economic system. The world-wide, modern plantations can not sustain themselves without them.

We humans have not changed much in our consciousness in the past few centuries. Our overall business practices are very much the same, our social acceptance-level and tolerance for individual ambition has increased and is continuously encouraged to expand. Our dedication to creatively masking the details of our lifestyle is as eagerly pursued as our dedication toward uncovering and exposing corruption. Despite bookmarks on the Civil War and lawyered acts of political promise, we humans in the modern age have never really confronted our slave-driven consciousness and our dependency upon a system of haves and have-nots, of conquistadores, of military control. And unless we do so, how can we ever open our consciousness to the possibility of the world lived by 6 billion and more humans in any other way? The web of our modern consciousness prevents us from dreaming any other outcome into being.

In my fourth grade classroom, with our integrated colors and cultures and sensitivities, we asked our teacher whether we could leave out the slave quarters on our Styrofoam trays. Someone asked if the slave quarters could be the center of the plantation instead of the owner’s main house or if the two houses could be placed side-by-side. It pained our teacher to explain to us that this layout had already been decided by history, that the world of the old Maryland plantations was separate and unequal; she was just teaching the curriculum, please finish the assignment quietly. But we had so many questions and no one to answer. We wanted to change history, to change the present, to change the future. A shift in consciousness is inherent and its unfolding can be systematically stifled for a time among a room of well-behaving fourth graders, but we fire-snakes are turning 32 this year and the world is preparing for a shift in power as our teacher and bosses retire. Can we dream a new vision creatively now that our borders are well-beyond Styrofoam trays and the limits of colored pencils and Elmer’s glue?

09 November 2009

Seagull Showers

Learning cycles by observation, scientists track annual meteor showers across our night windows like celestial migrations, and somewhere a child in a field makes wishes on falling stars. Here in Los Brujos I too have been recording cycles of celestial visions, patiently waiting for annual repetition finding nature’s hidden symbols to mark the seasons, cycles large and small.

From the last weeks of October through early November, hundreds of Andean gulls flash white wings and black hoods through the quebradas of the coastal mountain range, steering toward the wetland plains, following the rivers to the sea. They pass overhead in the muffled wind of wing beats one flock at a time sometimes calling to each other, sometimes in uniform silence, just over the blossoming branches of the Notro trees arching red flowers. A vision of beauty, stark white formation passing at speed against a backdrop of spring greenery like watching the tail of a falling star suddenly blaze and then dissolve in the distance.

They are a symbol of the sea these gulls that migrate across our mountains, connecting us to the coast in their presence, their calls. At sunset drawing dusk in between Spring storms, the seagull showers bottleneck up our quebradas, flocks passing within minutes of each other, sometimes sharing the same breezy lift and then calling their kin back towards their group as they dive down the northern slopes of the pine plantations towards Valdivia and the sea. Their wings bent like aircraft they dive and spin and try to avoid the attention of raptors also soaring overhead.

On clear evenings I like to watch the seagulls pass, wish them well on their journey from atop the pine plantation hill across the street. Salvia and Trigo eagerly accompany me to search out quails or mountain pigeons in the grasses, foxglove pushing up green leaves preparing to unfold future flowers. But my attention is fixed elsewhere, standing upon a clear-cut stump like the Lorax, I gaze in every direction the horizon, as through mist and sun the seagulls come, great showers of flashing light, black hoods and darting white so close overhead or alongside you feel their beating wings in the air and they are gone. The seagull showers of middle-Spring, carrying us toward Summer, out of Winter, with a graceful migration worth pausing for, staring up in awe, a smile, a wish, a wave.

In memory of Mimi Hipps, Lou-Lou, and Grandma French who now all share this week in November as their time of transition, a lifetime’s migration, to distant shores.