The Scoop

Landship Foods is inspired by the conviction that growing and eating healthy food is one of the most important things we can do for both ourselves and the broader communities of which we are a part. The name comes from the language of pre-industrial Europe. Before the enclosure movement and the associated rise in notions of private property swept England, the suffix “-ship” (as in "relationship," or "friendship") referred to an object or an abstraction with collective duties and mutual rights. Thus, the term “landship” suggests that land was an entity through which humans were joined to each other by a set of rights and responsibilities. I advocate for a revival of this awareness.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Coffee: A Miracle of Nature?

This morning, I took my copy of Raymond Williams' The Country and the City and went to a coffee shop downtown to read. I first came across Williams' writings while working on a master's in environmental history, a field which has made good use of his reminder that "the idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history."

The Country and the City also starts with this recognition and explores the way that the idea of Nature is used to describe the relationship between rural and urban places. Most obviously, he traces the tradition of claiming that the countryside is more natural than the city, a tendency which stretches back for many centuries. Williams' main point is that this comparison, which he sees as largely superficial, obscures important connections between country and city.

As I left the coffee shop where I had been reading, I walked through downtown and passed a Starbuck's. In the window was a sign: Once a bean traveled the world to find you here. This immediately struck me as interesting, and I puzzled over it as I walked to the crosswalk. Why had Starbuck's chosen this odd message? What does it mean? Why did I even notice it, and why was I thinking about it? I guess the Madison Avenue folks were successful at one level.

I decided to read the sign as Raymond Williams would, and I think doing so explains a lot. The choice of the "traveling bean" motif is by no means inconsequential. This framing draws on an extremely long history of portraying "the bounties of Nature" as productive in and of themselves (Williams illustrates this through pastoral literature that speaks of wild game and other foods literally presenting themselves for the feast). In the modern Starbucks version, the bean finds you. Why do Williams and I care about this pastoral myth? Talking about coffee (or anything else) as if it were solely a miracle of Nature obscures the much more important fact that the beans had to be grown, harvested, handled (and on and on) by real people in real places. In the pastoral feast myth, the bounty of Nature obscures the harsh exploitation of servants, field laborers, and environments. In the Starbucks bean myth, the idea of a bountiful Nature obscures every moment in coffee capitalism, which can be just as problematic as feudalism. Its worth repeating: "The idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history."

The point is not, necessarily, that we should never drink coffee, but that we should be much more attentive to the ways in which foods (and goods in general) come to be. Though it may look like it, Nature did not bring itself to your plate.

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