What the chimpanzees teach us about the fine line between faith and apathy.
Legendary British primatologist Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) is celebrated not only as humanity’s greatest expert on chimpanzees but also as a remarkable mind that bridges the rigor of science with the sensitivity of spirituality. In a passage from her altogether fantastic 1999 exploration of science and spirituality, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey (public library), which also gave us her gorgeous poem “The Old Wisdom”, Goodall reflects on a trying time in her life — her divorce in 1974, coupled with her quest to reconcile the faith in a higher power that she had harbored her whole life with the new understanding of and awe at evolution after her transformational experience of studying the chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park.
Portrait of Jane Goodall by Lisa Congdon from our collaborative project, 'The Reconstructionist.' Click image for details.
Even if there was no God, even if human beings had no soul, it would still be true that evolution had created a remarkable animal — the human animal — during its millions of years of labor. So very like our closest biological relatives, the chimpanzees, yet so different. For our study of the chimpanzees had helped to pinpoint not only the similarities between them and us, but also those ways in which we are most different. Admittedly, we are not the only beings with personalities, reasoning powers, altruism, and emotions like joy and sorrow; nor are we the only beings capable of mental as well as physical suffering. But our intellect has grown mighty in complexity since the first true men branched off from the ape-man stock some two million years ago. And we, and only we, have developed a sophisticated spoken language. For the first time in evolution, a species evolved that was able to teach its young about objects and events not present, to pass on wisdom gleaned from the successes — and the mistakes — of the past, to make plans for the distant future, to discuss ideas so that they could grow, sometimes out of all recognition, through the combined wisdom of the group.
Echoing Mark Twain’s lament that we often use religion as a mask for human egotism, Goodall considers how these human capacities unfold beyond the intellectual and the spiritual to affect the very behaviors that shape our future and the responsibilities we have to our species, all species, and our precious shared planet:
With language we can ask, as can no other living beings, those questions about who we are and why we are here. And this highly developed intellect means, surely, that we have a responsibility toward the other life-forms of our planet whose continued existence is threatened by the thoughtless behavior of our own human species — quite regardless of whether or not we believe in God. Indeed, those who acknowledge no God, but are convinced that we are in this world as an evolutionary accident, may be more active in environmental responsibility — for if there is no God, then, obviously, it is entirely up to us to put things right. On the other hand, I have encountered a number of people with a strong faith in God who shrug off their own human responsibilities, believing that everything is safely “in God’s hands.” I was brought up to believe that “God helps those who help themselves.” We should all take responsibility, all play our part in helping to clean up and heal the planet that, in so many ways, we have desecrated.
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For starters, Jefferson took special pride in his diet. In a letter to his physician in 1819, he wrote:
I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables which constitute my principal diet.
And it was an active, actionable pride that he backed with practical tactics. Craughwell writes:
In his thousand-foot-long vegetable garden, Jefferson grew almost all the vegetables, fruits, and herbs he needed to feed himself, his family, and their guests. Over a period of nearly sixty years, he experimented with ninety-nine species of vegetables and three hundred thirty varieties. He also cultivated plants that were unknown in his neighbors’ gardens, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and peanuts.
The man who built one of the most beautiful homes in eighteenth-century America also desired his garden to be visually appealing. Along the border of the square in which he grew tomatoes, for example, he planted okra and sesame plants. The smooth, red skin of the tomatoes contrasted with the tough, deep green of the okra, while the sesame plant, standing five or six feet tall, added height and visual interest. When he planted eggplant, he alternated white and purple varieties. The cherry trees he placed along the walkway through the garden, where they would provide shade.
So intense was Jefferson’s passion for vegetation that he once wrote:
There is not a shoot of grass that springs uninteresting to me.
More than mere curiosity, however, Jefferson’s relationship with vegetables was an almost political one, reining in monumental cultural shifts in culinary perceptions:
He was one of the first Virginians to grow and eat tomatoes, or ‘tomatas,’ as he called them. Most Americans thought the tomato was poisonous (and, indeed, it is a member of the deadly nightshade family, though its low toxicity levels pose no risk to humans), and so it was an astonishing event when, in 1806, Jefferson served them to guests at the President’s House.
He also had a soft spot for cabbage:
[Étienne Lemaire, Jefferson's maître d'hôtel] records fifty-one purchases in 1806 alone. At Monticello, Jefferson not only raised his own cabbage — eighteen varieties in al — he also bought some from his slaves. Closely related to cabbage is sea kale, which was also grown at Monticello; Jefferson found a variety that was perennial, thus eliminating the expense of purchasing seedlings every year.
His plant pioneering didn’t stop there:
In 1812 Jefferson became the first gardener in his neighborhood to plant the hot Texas bird pepper, which his cooks used to spice up sauces. And he must have been fond of asparagus, too. Although he devoted only one square in his garden to the vegetable, he tended it with special care, mulching the plot with tobacco leaves and fertilizing it with manure. His Garden Book includes entires for twenty-two years that record the date on which the first plate of asparagus was brought to his table.
In another chapter on how Jefferson pioneered African dishes at the Monticello, Craughwell shares the Founding Father’s curious coffee recipe:
On one measure of the coffee ground into meal pour three measures of boiling water.
boil on hot ashes lined with coal till the meal disappears from the top, when it will be precipitated.
pour in three times through a flannel strainer.
it will yield 2 1/3 measures of clear coffee.
an ounce of coffee meal makes 1 ½ cup of clear coffee in this way.
the flannel must be rinsed out in hot or cold water for every making.
The rest of Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée is an equally delectable chronicle of the beloved Founding Father, political philosopher, amateur naturalist, and zealous bibliophile’s lesser-known but remarkable contributions to modern cuisine and food politics.
In Urban Farms (UK; public library), writer and editor Sarah C. Rich, who also happens to be a dear friend, explores the state and future of urban farming at the intersection of food politics, sustainability, and the DIY movement through the stories of 16 bleeding-edge urban farms and the brilliant, wholehearted people behind them. Covering farms as diverse as a vast compound enlisting multiple ecosystems and the rooftop of a ghost duplex on a dead-end street, the tome features lavish photographs by Matthew Benson that instantly transport you to the richest, freshest core of urban farming. Alongside the absorbing profiles are intelligent tips on beekeeping, composting, canning, and more ways of practical engagement.
Sarah writes in the introduction:
Urban farming is a uniquely powerful tool of change, in that it can simultaneously reshape the places where we live and the way we eat. It is also uniquely accessible — available to grassroots change agents and high-ranking policymakers alike.
Like most recreational drugs, cocaine got its start as a medical aid, and like many modern psychological fixations, it goes back to Freud. Cortés explores its cultural evolution and the eventual synthesis of coke into Coke:
At first, experiments with cocaine were confined to medical practice.
In 1884, Sigmund Freud began to use it as a treatment for depression. He was enthralled by the ‘magical substance’ and enthusiastically introduced it to colleagues and friends, including an oculist named Carl Koller. By then, cocaine’s numbing effect had been observed on the tongue. Koller tested cocaine as a regional anesthetic; first on the eyes of animals and then his own. His discovery was a medical revolution.
Previously, surgeries were performed with general anesthesia or none at all. Ether and chloroform allowed severe operations without pain, although with significant risks from inducing unconsciousness. As the first true local anesthetic, cocaine opened the practice of surgery to previously impossible procedures.
Cocaine’s popularity spread to other branches of therapy, and its use quickly grew beyond anesthesia and melancholia.
Cocaine eased toothaches and labor pains. It was said to cure fatigue, nervousness, impotence, even addiction to the opium poppy’s alkaloid morphine. ‘Coke’ could be purchased in asthma medicines, snuffs, and tonics like Coca-Cola — ‘The Brain Workers’ Panacea,’ touted to relieve mental and physical exhaustion, was first sold in
But as a lover of letters, I find the most fascinating part of the book to be the prolific correspondence between legendary Bureau of Prohibition anti-drug kingpin Harry J. Anslinger, who spent 42 years pioneering and enforcing anti-narcotic policies in America, and Coca-Cola executive Ralph Hayes, which Cortés uncovered in the course of his research. These documents, spanning several decades of friendly exchange, reveal Anslinger’s instrumental role in helping Coke not only to import coca leaves legally, an activity otherwise illegal in the US, but also to do so with exclusive rights.
The book is partly a response, but mostly a stubborn yet thoughtful retort to critical reactions to Cortés’s 2005 science picture-book It’s Just a Plant: A Children’s Story of Marijuana and sarcastic comments about whether teaching kids about cocaine would be next.
Cortés ends with a wonderful throw-back to an obscure Bach cantata about coffee, displaying the composer’s uncommon sense of humor:
The cat won’t stop catching mice,
and young ladies will hold to their coffee. Mother loves her coffee,
Grandmother drinks it, too.
Who, in the end, would scold the daughters?
“Although I caught a buzz last year as the illustrator of Go The Fuck To Sleep,” Cortés tells me, “my real interest is studying the evolution of legal and cultural taboos against inebriates (especially biota).” And, indeed, it shows — A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola is as thoroughly researched and absorbingly narrated as it is charmingly illustrated.
In 1997, Noël Riley Fitch released the only authorized biography of legendary chef Julia Child, based on her private diaries and letters, her personal archives, and a number of exclusive interviews. The result was an intimate glimpse of the icon’s culinary mastery and personal life, from how she arrived at her calling to the secrets of a fifty-year marriage. Though not officially a new release and not exactly a “food book” per se, Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child (UK; public library) was published in a new paperback edition this year, in time for Child’s centennial.
Fitch writes in the 2012 introduction:
She strove to be fun-loving and spontaneous, just like her mother. Yet she also wrote otherwise: ‘It’s the discipline. That is the thing.’ She would deliberately cultivate a protective detachment.
Looking back on Julia’s remarkable life as we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of her birth, it is clear that she belongs in the pantheon of great American teachers. She taught with panache, careful preparation, and a seemingly casual air that gave confidence to every cook. That she was occasionally personally clumsy only validated and amused her television ‘students.’ The became in everyday life the Julia she had been on camera. Her professional and personal life have much to teach us today.
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Beauty and elegance are a right, not a surplus… . We must demand, at least, intention.
Particularly insightful is this slide by Anthony Dunne, chair of the Interaction Design program at London’s Royal College of Art, and his partner, Fiona Raby, depicting the directional evolution of design from past to present.
For more, see the book based on Talk to Me, and follow Paola on Twitter for a steady stream of progressive design discernment.
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