City of Contradiction   7 comments

Yesterday, I ate an organic, frozen pizza, bought from a grocery store owned by Krogers. I walked to this grocery store and, after purchasing the pizza, I placed it in my reusable, cloth bag to carry it back to the house where I’m staying. I also, yesterday, picked up some books I had ordered from a local used bookstore, then perused them at a locally-owned coffee shop, where I drank a mocha made with coffee and chocolate from across the world. I drank organic tea, also from across the world, at another small, locally-owned business later that evening, chatting with a friend. I did this after getting there on the bus and I returned home on the bus. I walked over five miles yesterday, all total. I ate two sandwiches–one of them a simple turkey sandwich, made with left-over, factory-farmed turkey from a family Thanksgiving, some Best Foods mayonnaise, and bread from a local bakery that uses sustainably grown wheat. The other sandwich was for breakfast, using the same bread, bacon from a local, Portland-based grocery store chain that focuses on local and organic foods, Tillamook cheese (sort of local, sort of not) and duck eggs from the farm I live on, still covered in duck shit. I made that sandwich using a cheap, non-stick pan.

While using that non-stick pan, I experienced a small moment of disquiet. As a non-Christian, I wondered if this was what blasphemy is to Christians: that enveloping sense of not right. I wanted to and should have been using a cast iron pan and, frankly, wanted to be using it on a wood stove, rather than a natural gas-burning oven. But I was not at the farm I call home. I was in Portland, in a house not my own–one without a cast iron pan or a wood stove.

Portland, for me, is conflict and contradiction. Sometimes–as that first paragraph may make clear–it’s practically schizophrenia. Yet it’s a city I love, and in some ways it’s able to at least partially satisfy my ideals. It’s brimming with small businesses, many of which proclaim goals of sustainability. Local and organic food is available almost everywhere (in the inner core) and many of the city’s restaurants and bars aspire to provide that same sort of local and organic food (to varying degrees of success.) The city has fine public transit available and is immensely walkable. It is, in fact, a joy to walk around Portland. The streets are quaint and typically tree-lined, the houses are adorable and often unique, there are other people out walking, the drivers are mostly courteous, and there are plenty of places to walk to. It is a beautiful city and people here are nice. It’s tied enough to the local landscape that you can be in the city without feeling disconnected from nature and it is, similarly, close enough to natural and rural areas that you can easily escape out to these areas for a more complete nature fix, should you need it. It also is a city that strives at every turn to make people who want to live more sustainably feel very comfortable spending their money and consuming a variety of goods and services, all under a veneer of sustainability. It is, as such, a contradiction.

I’m reminded of this whenever I come here. My trips into Portland are typically to see family and friends, to consume alcohol and good food, to socialize, perhaps to engage in a protest, and to spend some time walking around a city I love. Yet it takes me away from a current life on the farm that has reached a somewhat satisfying level of minimalism, coherency and simplicity. On the farm, I live off the grid, heat and cook using locally-harvested wood, eat lots of food grown and raised on the same land I live on or a nearby farm, and I stay much more connected to the land base. It’s not any kind of perfectly sustainable life–there are still plenty of inputs, imported foods, gasoline-powered drives, electronics, plastics of all kinds, and so on–but it’s pretty damn good and a hell of a lot farther down the road of low-impact than I’ve ever been before. It’s also incredibly satisfying, engaging and connecting, which leaves me happier.

Here in the city, on the other hand, I live on the grid, eat out, drink lots, eat a decent amount of packaged and prepared food, often drive a lot (in getting here and then getting around town on short notice) am much more divorced from the land base, am not around chickens and ducks, typically have no idea where my food came from and certainly didn’t help to grow it. I do this for a few days (or a week and a half, for my current visit) and then return to the farm, where I settle back into my simpler, normal existence and try to get my head back in order. Sometimes this takes awhile.

Mostly, though, what I feel here in Portland is that weird sense of contradiction and conflict. It’s a city striving toward some kind of sustainability, but it still wants to engage in the energy- and resource-intensive, industrial way of life. So everyone still goes out quite a bit and eats and drinks and consumes far more calories than necessary, indulging in deliciously rich food, but it seems okay because the eggs come from cage free chickens and the greens are organic and from a local small farm, the coffee is organic and shade grown and fair trade and micro roasted, and the meat isn’t factory farmed. Hell, it might even be 100% grass fed, depending on where you are. The beer is a microbrew, crafted in Portland or at least the Northwest, and perhaps from local, possibly organic ingredients. The breads are from a small Portland bakery. The businesses are small, and local, and I bet they support the Occupy movement. You can have it all!

Of course, I don’t think we can have it all, and that’s part of what’s driven me away from Portland. I love this city, but it can’t give me exactly what I want. I want a deeper and more immediate connection to the land. I want to live on it and engage with it and I find that extremely hard to do in the city. I want to have non-pet animals living with me. I want to live off the grid and generate my power on site. I want a wood stove! I love wood stoves! And I want to harvest the wood for that stove off the land I live on, or off a neighbor’s land, in some kind of a trade. I want to live slow and cities tend to live fast. I want to take my time getting somewhere and I don’t want distractions at every turn. Maybe most importantly, I want to live simply and be always attempting to bring my consumption down to a more minimal level, and that’s something that becomes almost impossible in a city which is constantly waving consumption-ready delicacies in my face and proclaiming them guilt-free. I am not a man with overwhelming self-restraint, especially in the face of food and drink. And even more especially when facing that food and drink while hungry.

So when I come here to Portland, I tend to give in to the delicacies, the indulgence, the gluttony of the city. I eat and drink and I buy books at local bookstores and I walk around this city and marvel at its beauty and I eye small and adorable houses for sale and wonder what it would be like to move back to Portland, to find some kind of well-paying job, and to just fall into this life of indulgence. It would be a uniquely Portland life, I imagine, conducted on a salary that would seem too small in most places and using less energy at home than your average American and with far more local and organic food being consumed and less TV watched and more small businesses patronized. But it would just be a shifting of the usual, unsustainable order. It would be better, yes, but still a mirage. Too much food and drink, too much outsourcing of the day-to-day of life, too much complexity, too much energy, too much money, too many resources, too little thought and consideration. Therefore, I always end up heading back–and not just because the likelihood of me finding a well-paying job in Portland is almost nonexistent. It’s because, as much as I love the indulgences and the contradictions of this city, I want the simplicity of my life on the farm yet more. I want the thought that I’m moving toward something more real. I want the connection and the coherency. I want the slowness, the sound of the rain on the roof of my yurt, the unique heat that comes from burning wood, the constant use of cast iron cookware, the constant cooking, the connection to my food, the mud and chicken shit and duck shit and all the dirty clothes. I want that life more than I want the food and the drink and the leisure and the indulgence because as much as I love all that, it’s not real.

The most authentic thing in this house, as a matter of fact, may just be the dried duck shit on the eggs in the refrigerator. I love this city of contradictions, but I’ll be glad to go back to the farm where that shit came from.

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Posted December 1, 2011 by Joel Caris in Farm Life, Homesteading

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7 responses to “City of Contradiction

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  1. A small update: there IS a cast iron pan in this house! I found it earlier today. Sadly, I didn’t find a wood stove along with it, but I’m quite happy to be able to make my egg sandwich tomorrow in some good, old fashioned cast iron.

  2. Wonderfu!! Very well put. And that is exactly my response to Portland when I drive in to visit friends, and half-long for, half-loathe the indulgences that mask a still-unsustainable lifestyle. My Portland friends think they are doing good with their purchases from New Seasons and Stumptown… and it’s still not real adjustment to real limits. So when I’m with them, I feel “shut down” by my awareness, not wanting to judge but not wanting to blind myself to the contradictions.

    Now I’m gonna go back and read the rest of your blog. When I moved to my little homestead-ette in the “wilds of Willamette Valley” I tried a blog, but soon the garden, house repair, cooking from scratch, etc. took too much time and energy. Thanks for posting your blog link on the ArchDruid Report.

    • Cathy, I think New Seasons is the epitome of the Portland contradiction. It feels so good to shop there–and the bacon mentioned in this post was from there–and yet I know it’s mostly all a mirage. Not that I wouldn’t take New Seasons over Safeway, but that’s kind of like taking Obama over McCain. The former may be better than the latter, but neither’s getting us where we need to go.

      That sense of trying to maintain awareness without judging is a tricky one, and something I struggle with, as well. And I try to stay aware of my own failings, too. Then, on top of all that, I also try to maintain some awareness of how silly all of this is, even as it’s deathly serious. I think keeping at least partly a Buddhist perspective on such things is important. Work and awareness is important, but so is joy and connection, family and friends and remembering to just live and know that there are many broader issues that just aren’t going to be solved by individuals (outside of the individual change that helps to make up broader change, if that makes sense.)

      Anyway, thanks for the comment and checking out the blog! I’ll probably be posting a good bit this winter, as I shouldn’t be so busy.

  3. Pingback: “To Work at Many Jobs” « Of The Hands

  4. There is value to a city. If all of the city dwellers developed their own plots of land to be connected to their food we would call that urban sprawl. We aren’t all meant to be workers of the land.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jackie. I definitely don’t think the city is devoid of value. As noted, I love Portland and I love many people who live there. I don’t think, either, that it’s realistic to think everyone is going to have a little plot of land where they grow their own food. While I’m not convinced that large cities will remain far into the future, I would expect small cities and towns to continue to be places where people thrive and to likely house a large percentage of the population.

      I simply struggle with the city on a personal level. It feels right for me to be here on this land–but I realize that’s not going to be the right place for everyone. The city challenges me and I think it can create something of a masked reality for those (well, some of those) who live there. But as a friend of mine noted shortly after this post, much of what I wrote likely stems from my own frustrations with myself, rather than the city specifically. I can’t deny that.

  5. Pingback: How To Be Poor: An Argument for Voluntary Poverty — Part Two « Of The Hands

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