How right he was. Written in a time when western civilization fled to the countryside for a deeper experience, Blake along with fellow Romanticists rebelled against science and its "over-thought" in order to get in touch with their gut instincts.
These men were tired of dissecting nature. They wanted instead to experience Nature's merits. Their motto: You can pin a butterfly to a velvet board and study it under a microscope, or you can sit on a bench amongst flora and fauna and have a butterfly land on your knee. For just one moment you and the butterfly acknowledge each other's existence. You photograph the miracle into your memory and actually touch beauty. No pinned butterfly will do that.
Just as 19th century Romanticists were tired of science playing God, and new industry dictating their wares, so we 21st century folk find ourselves tired of being pulled by dollars and look out to find something real. There is no better case in point than: Food.
There are many books out there today, Food, Inc., The Omnivore's Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, which dismantle the perils of our industrialized food evolution. All express how our dollars play a role in mad cow disease, genetically engineered corn, chickens unable to walk, etc. These issues are not hidden away somewhere in Auntie Em's attic. They are evident. Look at our glorious fat people. (God, I love you, my bigger brethren. You love to eat, and I love to eat and it's hard to find a rotund person without a smile at a dinner table.) The food on the table of the obese is cheap but also deadly. And, this is not here-say. All we have to do as human beings is see the disease brought about by our modern diet. All we have to see is the skyrocketing prices of healthcare. All we have to do is see with our own eyes one video clip of an industrialized farm in action, and that deep inner space that knows right from wrong will ring its alarm till we run out of the building.
Although dear Lord Byron may have been called "mad, bad and dangerous to know", I can't help but think this 18th century rebel spoke prophetically regarding our relationship to food when he wrote, "Our valley is no more: My father and my father's tent, my brethren and my brethren's herds, the pleasant trees that o'er our noonday bent and sent forth evening songs from sweetest birds, the little rivulet which freshened all our pastures green, No more are to be seen." When did husbandry die off and in its place we've chosen to tinker so much with mother nature that we seem to be staring at vials of our adulterated selves like Ripley in Alien 4? In my quest to accept Nature's gifts without dictation, what I ironically discovered was that real food, and I mean the kind with ethics, standing alone, just tastes better.
At 21, I had chosen not to be a part of nonsensical food eating. That meant I had decided to eat with awareness. It had to make sense to me and follow my ethical bent, which was at the time: "No blood, no organs." How simple that seems now, and it did all change as the years passed. First up to change was the organ rule. Utilizing the organs was wasting not, therefore they made it back onto the menu. But blood... that was still an issue. Then I decided. "I'll be vegan." That was met with many doctor bills that said, "We cannot fix this anemia with your diet." So I decided, "I'll just be vegetarian," which was met with another set of doctor bills that said "Why do you keep this up? Your iron level is so near catastrophic lows, if you ran a mile, you'd die."
Okay, I relented. I then realized I was missing the point. I was just choosing a philosophy that seemed ethical without getting into it down and dirty of my soul and asking myself what I believed. What was really important to me regarding food? Besides wanting to be healthy, I determined that I wanted to no longer contribute my dollar to the unethical raising and slaughter of animals. I didn't actually feel that eating animals was wrong. My Native American heritage taught me that eating them without acknowledging the Creator's gift and their sacrifice was wrong. This was a good beginning, so I pressed on to create "my system". Blake would be proud.
I had thus discovered I was a carnivore. I had completely reconciled this to myself watching Planet Earth and feeling more sympathy for the animals who could not catch their prey, than the animals upon which they preyed. And with a little research and effort, I learned to purchase meats that had been raised ethically and slaughtered painlessly without horror. And that, my friends, along with the still weird "this-is-wrong" feeling I get if a steak is too bloody, is my top gastronomic rule.
My purchases were first relegated to Whole Foods Market. I felt confident to buy my meats there, but I still wanted to contribute more to smaller individual businesses. It was one thing to buy ethical meat and another to know that it comes from Timbuktu where more gas is used to haul it to my table. I was ecstatic to find the Gramercy Meat Market, just around the corner from my home. I stumbled in there out of curiosity, but now I think it was fate. "Are your meats really all local and organically fed?" "Everything in here but me," was the proprietor Antero Pereira's response. I laughed. (He is a large brethren, with smarts just as large and the best pulled pork sandwich I've found in Manhattan.) Now I was really eating ethically, and my wallet was spending a third less. I was not needing a bus or taxi to get my food home and the meat was delicious. Nirvana.
I researched and read. My love for food plunged me into eating naturally and brilliantly. What I discovered was industrialized, processed and packaged food tasted less like food and more like filler. I could almost forget about why I was eating ethical food, because it was pleasurable. Why eat crap? It tastes like crap, smells like crap. Why eat it? I was in a natural food high, coasting along. And then I met Monsanto. (Monsanto is in the center of many controversies, which I am sure can be argued upside and down from many angles. But this is my food revolution I'm talking about here, so I encourage all readers to research for themselves.)
In a nutshell: Monsanto made a pesticide. Then it made genetically modified soya and corn that were resistant to the pesticide. It, of course, sold both to farmers. After creating these new food genes, it patented said genetically modified corn and soya, and sued any farmer found with crops holding the gene, regardless if the genes came through the air of a neighboring farm. Maybe Monsanto is really a new term for Mafioso. You have to buy their products and abide by their rules or lose the farm--literally. Afterwards I did quite a bit of research on genetically modified foods, and I was on a tear. I was pissed. It wasn't just meat anymore. I would vote with my dollar even more severely. The rebel in me got louder. What I didn't know was that my dollars were pooling with other dollars that were voting louder and louder and louder.
So who gets my dollar? The farmers at Union Square Market, the health food store between 24th and 25th on 3rd Ave. But I go deeper. I have learned to live without buying food products filled with GMO "corn-age". It seems to be working. I have been content to learn that Walmart wants organic products, and has begun stocking them in their stores. I am also happy to hear that Snapple has decided to use real sugar, that Starbucks has nixed the transfats. I see real change occurring. But before I get too happy, I hear that "sugar" is being made from genetically modified beet sugar. No need to mention the "M" word, although they are at play in this too. Guess I will just have to search out "cane" sugar now. I lean on hope for a brighter future. John Keets spoke of this kind of hope, "In the long vista of the years to roll, let me not see our country's honour fade: O let me see our land retain her soul, her pride, her freedom and not freedom's shade."
It takes genuine effort to try my best to eat within my "system". But now with a little initiative to meet and buy from real people within my own neighborhood, I am finding the revolution easier and easier to continue. From time to time, my "voting" has been met with rolling eyes from my peers when I don't eat fast food or commercial chicken, or when I always check the label for what I call "crapola". But I do not draw a rigid line down the table and make my fellow diners feel uncomfortable. I just may spout off from time to time at commercials touting high fructose corn syrup as "natural". That's a good way to see sparks. I was named after a Beethoven piece after all, Fur Elise. Rebel Romanticist Ludwig can play a dynamic ode in the background of my mind as I march down to the market, as I cut up vegetables for a stew, or have a whole small chicken delivered. With each slice of the knife, I say no to commercial feed lots. With each purchase from a local farmer, I cry "We want REAL food!"
Oh to have Lord Byron and Beethoven over for dinner. Alas they will just have to attend in spirit. But, if you live in the 21st century Manhattan and know me personally, you may have found this little rebellious streak in me to be a savory experience for all.
Above pics from top to bottom: Creation, by William Blake, portrait of Lord Byron, The Grammercy Meat Market window, Frontier Market's store front on 3rd Avenue (latter 2 photos by Elise McMullen)