ASLE 2013 – been & gone





Water could have been the theme at ASLE 2013. At the opening reception, the Provost of KU promised us that Kansas is a great place when it’s not raining or snowing… but life does end up being a lot about water management when you get, as Lawrence did, five inches of rain in three days.  Lots of impermeable surfaces on the hilltop campus mean lots of extra drainage. I guess it all ends up in the Kansas River, which ends up in the Missouri River, which ends up in the Mississippi and on into the Gulf of Mexico, instead of back in the groundwater. Although as we heard from Kelly Kindscher, the impassioned ethnobotanist who led our Friday afternoon tour of the university’s Native Medicinal Herb Garden, some of the topsoil is very deep and there are clay deposits of such depth that may be separating groundwater from deeper water deposits.

My first conference appearance was on Wednesday when I chaired a panel called Race, Gender, Garden, Region which rambled across Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Gardens in the Dunes, gendered landscapes in early 20th century New England Ballads and an analysis of “A French Garden in England: A record of the successes & failures of a first year of intensive culture” by Helen Nussey and Olive J. Cockerell, a garden memoir from 1909, which sounded fascinating. It is charmingly illustrated by Cockerell – who had made a name illustrating fairytales – and faithfully records instructions, successes and failures. I’ll have to have a look next time I’m at the British Library.

The first plenary I attended featured Stacy Alaimo and Cary Wolfe. Alaimo kicked off her discussion of deep sea environmentalism with an apt New Yorker cartoon, and then took us through some of the decade’s worth of work from the Census of Marine Life. Wolfe, referring to his recent book Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame, riffed on such thoughts as what kinds of creatures is it ok to do what to; and whose lives count as lives and whose life counts as a “grievable life”.

Picking a couple of favourite presentations from favourite sessions – hundreds? thousands? to choose from – I was particularly moved by a paper by Hillary J Fogerty, from  Missouri Southern State University,  the irresistably-titled Why she can`t stop talking about the farmers market: Considering the role of activism and Advocacy in Food Studies Pedagogy and Curriculum. She described a research course for English students which she rewrote to allow students – largely from disadvantaged socio-economic groups – to study their own food security, developing research and writing skills while keeping food diaries, analyzing food advertising and ultimately in many cases changing the way they ate. She described students three years later shouting across parking lots at her to share weight loss, dietary changes and other improvements which were all the more remarkable for taking place in a town that is the headquarters for Tyson Foods, with Walmart down the road and in the looming shadow of Monsanto. Those students were likely directly dependent on those companies by direct or indirect family ties.

My other favourite, a no-brainer, was the personal essay by Dan Philippon describing a visit to Italy where he guest-lectured at the University of Gastronomic Sciences and spent time with his family visiting food producers in the Piemonte region. His talk, Slow Food or Small Food? Learning from Italian Producers, hinged on his visit to a small flour and polenta mill, Mulino Marino, and what he learned there about perceptions of quality, marketing, tradition and technology. He summed up his findings – what the producers he spoke to believed – as:

1. quality matters
2. organic and natural do not equal quality
3. history and tradition matter, but so do technology and innovation
4. local cannot be untangled from global
5. small food good; big food bad

I will finish in my next posting to mention my own paper, two different but inspiring plenaries and a field trip.

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