I’ve thought for a while that I need to write something for Sara’s 20th anniversary – haven’t spoken to you all since the beginning of Covid - but I’ve been stuck about what to say. So please, bear with me if this writing is a bit unformed. Maybe you know that as a business we have tried to, when possible, “do the right thing” throughout our history. This is not to say that in these 20 years there are not things which have happened that I feel uncomfortable with, there are. Necessarily, because of the times we live in, this is going to be a reflection in general, not just specifically about our little patch.
Week before last, Barb and I went to the Fitzgerald in Saint Paul for a Talking Volumes show with Karen Armstrong. If you don’t know who she is, briefly, she is an English ex-nun who became a religion writer. She focuses on the relationship of God and Man. When I say Man, I mean “Homo Sapiens.” That means all of us but, of course, primarily the males. Armstrong wrote about the history of god in the Abrahamic religions, the relationship of god to war and other theological topics. Her latest book is about how we, as a society, have lost our reverence for nature.
While we were listening there in the auditorium, I felt like something, which I could not readily identify, was missing in her analysis. She spoke several times about Romanticism - Coleridge, Wordsworth, that group. This is a gross oversimplification, but, arguably, Romanticism regarded nature, god and art as one thing – which was her point in bringing it up. While she was speaking, my mind kept going to William Blake, one of the early Romantics. Later, I thought that perhaps what was missing from her talk could have been the historical influence of capitalism. A search in Audible brought up “The Origin of Capitalism,” of which I’ve now listened to about half in the commutes between Duluth and Saint Paul. Confession: I know almost nothing about economics. But that book, written by Ellen Meiksins Wood in 1999, is rather remarkable. The central thesis is that capitalism is not innate within us but sprung to life in agrarian England in the late seventeenth century. It was concomitant with The Enlightenment. To be clear, Wood distinguishes between commerce and capitalism. They are not the same, she says, because commerce can exist within a subsistence system. Capitalism is different because it promotes the desirability of increased production and surplus, which results in the accumulation of capital. This is not to say that wealth was previously never hoarded. But it was collected differently, primarily in the form of things, artifacts, and by a few people. And those things were thought of as proof of status, not means of exchange. In the seventeen hundreds, fewer people began to do more of the work. English agriculture began to be modernized and transformed. That led to a surplus of workers in the countryside, so those people moved to the city. And then, in turn, those remaining in the countryside had to produce more to feed growing London.
A big part of what happened during this time was “enclosure.” This is just like it sounds – building a fence around your property. To the 21st Century ear, this seems ridiculous. Of course fields are enclosed, otherwise the livestock would run away. But overlapping common uses of land were common before this time, back into antiquity. As parliament eroded the powers of the monarchy, property rights took on different meaning. Control belonged to an owner, not a community.
Also, in the seventeen hundreds, there was quite a lot of intellectual churn about perception. What are we? What is real? Are senses reliable? Is this all a dream? This started (+ or -) with Francis Bacon who held that knowledge is the result of induction based on experimentation. He thought that nature is real and is revealed to us by our efforts at seeing and understanding it. Then of course there was Descartes who infamously said “Cogito ergo sum, I think therefor I am.” And William Blake, who believed that the corporeal world was that part of the spirit world which could be perceived by the senses. He looked at all art as allegory addressed to the intellectual powers, unavailable to the senses without intervention by the intellect.
How is all that connected to farming? It’s connected through John Locke, a man Blake despised. During the beginning of capitalism, in The Enlightenment, English jurists bought into the idea of highest and best use. If an individual took control of a piece of land and made it more productive than it had previously been, the courts upheld that was enough to own it. Productivity was more important than wealth in common. Locke believed that the real value of land came not from nature but from labor devoted to improvement. This had profound implications. Not only did he say that a man’s labor made the land more valuable and therefore his, but this applied to colonization as well. An acre of land in England was worth much more than an acre of land in America because the Indians in America realized no profit from their land. Unproductive land is wasted. A man who takes it out of common possession and puts it into production improves humanity. Productivity of property generates capital, exchange value. This was the fundamental justification of colonialist appropriation.
The Enlightenment and then Romanticism were taking in place in the context of increasing numbers of people moving to London, moving up in wealth and creating a society there, literally driven by coffee, which supported them intellectually. Newton described nature with phenomenal success. Calculus, variables, motion, and the theory of gravitation are about things that are around us every day. But by representing them as formulas on a page he removes us from them, abstracts them. Not co-incidentally the contemporary British Royal Society led the effort toward increases in agricultural productivity.
When I was in undergrad school, one of the assigned books was a literary criticism on William Blake, Fearful Symmetry. It was written by a professor at the University of Toronto named Northrop Frye. Because of my youth at that time (not to mention the new popularity of marijuana), I had trouble following Frye’s arguments. But I went back last week and read an excerpt on the internet titled, appropriately, “The Case Against Locke.”
Blake felt that the rise of capitalism and cities, although he did not express it this simply, had turned “England’s green and pleasant land” into “England’s dark Satanic mills.” He foretold the transition in literature from Wordsworth to Dickens. I remember lying in the Texas grass, as an undergrad, looking up at the azure sky and imagining seeing the bottom of Blake’s plow as it ripped through the illusory blue ceiling to reveal to us the holy and celestial mysteries beyond. What he called “allegory” was the gateway to enlightenment – satori by poetry.
Here, according to Frye, is the connection between Locke’s philosophy and Blake’s visionary poetry:
“that an eighteenth century English poet should be interested in contemporary theories of knowledge is hardly surprising. Blake had carefully read and annotated Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding in his youth, though his copy has not turned up. But as Locke, along with Bacon and Newton, is constantly in Blake’s poetry as a symbol of every kind of evil, superstition and tyranny, whatever influence he had on Blake was clearly a negative one. The chief attack on Locke in the eighteenth century came from the idealist Berkeley, and as idealism is a doctrine congenial to poets, we should expect Blake’s attitude to have some points in common with Berkeley’s, particularly on the subject of the mental nature of reality, expressed by Berkeley in the phrase, esse est percipi: ‘to be is to be perceived.’"
Locke, and also Samuel Johnson were interested in generalization. Blake was totally opposite: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” Blake agrees that knowledge comes via experiment, but he puts great importance on the mental attitude of the experimenter. He thought that people who doubted that reality is real were ridiculous and that if the sun, the object, doubted like us, the subjects, it would “immediately go out.” Again, he thought that what we call reality is the collective view limited by the inadequacy of the senses. Lying beyond what we perceive is glory (cue: Hallelujah Chorus.)
Looking back, at the transitions from the Enlightenment, to Romanticism, to Modern Times, it’s clear how those who went before us have guided us. It’s easy to look at what they thought and did and so tempting to analyze and interpret the forces that were acting on them and ponder how they were influenced. Now, in this crazy time, what are we thinking and what is influencing us? It’s pretty clear that insecurity is a big part of it. So many people are utterly disturbed about what they perceive around them. In the past there have been specific fears – people afraid of Nazis, of Cossacks, of Mongol hordes – but now there is literally an existential threat to our entire planet. Even the people who believe “there are enough trees” feel it on some level. The response we have mounted to this as a species is spectacularly inadequate. It is literally nothing. Everyone is just going about their business as usual. Why is this so? I think it is because there is no other choice. There really is not anything we can do. We are just going to have to experience whatever happens here on the human planet. That, at any rate, now, at the age of 76, is how I see it. And I get why the younger generation hates us. We started out so grandly, at Woodstock, and we ended up here - fighting over really fundamental, but, in the context of our survival, truly irrelevant, social issues. As youngsters, we talked about ideas. Now all we can talk about is turf. Plus - we aren’t going to be around for the fallout.
Sooo … Here at our restaurant – just now – how are we thinking about all this? What are we doing about it? Well, obviously, we now believe that nature is us, and we’re pretty sure that nature is real and is reacting to what we have been doing.
Industrial agriculture has become a survival necessity. Possibilities for course correction are very limited – but here are some ideas and actions: Duluth is not immediately threatened by global warming. There’s lots of water here and, so far, no one has tried to come and take it. It is warmer now, to some old timers freakishly warmer, but it’s not unlivable. The garden is still productive, and we have new gardeners who are committed to making it more productive. The more we can produce, the less we must truck in. We’re looking at everything we buy – where does it come from? We’re trying to get as much as we can from places like Food Farm in Wrenshall, Yker Acres, Peterson Beef. We’re talking about micro greens again – I tried them once before getting put out of business by Iron Ochre bacteria. We’re talking about lowering the BTU burden of our cooking – more foods that do not require high heat to complete. I want to extend the vines on the 19th avenue side of the building upwards so that they cool the patio and the dining room in the summer. We’re investing in a much more efficient oven for the bakery and maybe a Low and Slow cooker for the prep room – if we can find the right one. I have dreams of an outdoor summer kitchen and patio area – but that’s likely pipe dream. Everyday problems, e.g., how to deal with the laundry, are constantly under discussion. I am not sure what is going to happen to us as a community, as a society, as a nation and world. But my goal is to continue to think about this with something in mind in addition to financial concerns. That’s obvious, of course, but it’s also difficult. The problems are just so big. In some ways, I’m sure where we go from here will not be all that different from where we came from. But we just want our customers to know that we do think about things and we try to strategize what we are doing with them in mind.
Please join us in our anniversary celebration and share with us any ideas you might have.