The Acorn Tree Syndrome Strikes Again

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From Gene Logsdon

When I wrote in this space some time ago about a teacher who had discovered that most of his students did not know what kind of tree acorns grow on, I thought that would remain the top story of the year in environmental illiteracy. (One reader ventured humorously: a corn tree?) But now comes an even more astounding example: a FritoLay ad in Time magazine of January 28, 2008, page 92, shows a field of luxuriantly green potato plants in blossom, a sack of spotless potatoes in the foreground, and some people stooped among the rows of spuds, apparently, brace yourself, picking potatoes into baskets!

Need I say more? Need I explain that the erstwhile potato grower does not harvest potatoes when the vines are green and blossoming. And you don’t pick them, you dig them. How could a company that deals in potatoes make such an embarrassing mistake? Please tell me this was somebody’s joke.

Actually, I’m not all that surprised. A friend once confessed to me her own early ignorance of nature. It’s in one of my books. She had decided that it was high time she learned how to grow her own food. She planted lots of potatoes. They grew wonderfully. Then suddenly, inexplicably, as she related the story, the plants died. Not a potato had been produced, she sadly told her friends. Surveying the scene of desolation, she tripped over a bulge in the soil. What’s this? It was a potato as big as a softball. She examined the soil more closely. Why, the ground was full of potatoes!

FritoLay is not alone in making such obvious nature-ignorant errors and the reason is simply that the errors aren’t obvious to most people anymore. Our civilization has out-grown its connection to nature. Almost every time a non-agricultural magazine tries to do a story on farming, embarrassing mistakes rear their well-intentioned heads. I was mortified once to see an article I had written about black raspberries appear in print with a blackberry for an illustration. Another time a field of oats was identified in the caption as a field of wheat. Just a week ago, I saw in an article about yogurt, a photo of cows grazing a pasture, or so the caption said. Actually, the cows were young heifers, not a milk-producing udder in the bunch. The grass they were “grazing” was brown and dead, okay for heifers maybe, but not at all the kind of pasture that will produce a profitable quantity of milk.

In seminary college, a friend of mine from the farm loved to bedevil other students over their lack of knowledge about farming. Once a group of us were sitting on a porch of a residential building next to a lane that led from the school buildings to the barn where much of our milk and meat was produced. (I swear I am not making this up.) A farm worker drove by on a tractor pulling a manure spreader.

“What is that thing?” One of the students asked.

“A marshmallow picker,” my friend said, smoothly and nonchalantly.

“Oh.”

And there was the famous incident in which President Nixon was asked, after he had been discoursing on farm problems, if he knew what a soybean looked like. He said he had never seen one, and was not at all apologetic. That’s how I first knew that agriculture was no longer a part of American culture.

I don’t want to sound over-weaning. I am sure that a group of nuclear physicists could easily fool me. Most knowledge seems these days to be the property of specialists. But food is something common to every human being and extremely important to every human being. Is it not scary when so many people no longer know that potatoes grow underground? Can the nature-illiterate vote intelligently about food issues? What else that finds its way into their stomachs are they ignorant about? How many potato eaters know, for example, that now most non-organic commercial potato plants have been genetically modified to contain Bacillus thuringienses that kills potato bugs that try to feed on it?
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See also Gene’s Just What We Need: Faster Tractors
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Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Author:
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land) 2007
Gene’s latest book: The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life
Gene’s Posts
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7 Comments

Liked your website, Gene, and your stories.

I’ll add my story…. We live in a fairly rural county which also touts much agriculture … mostly the mono-culture grains farms, though. During a recent localelection, I had one of the candidates stop by as I was harvesting and cleaning some root crops. This man was a well-respected man in the community, was a teacher at the local school, and had graduated in the agricultural field. We chatted about some of the local issues for a few minutes and then he fell silent as I continued to cut the tops off the plants we had pulled. He finally said … “are those beets?” I couldn’t raise my head for fear he’d see my mouth gape open in disbelieve. I replied, “no, they’re turnips and we have a pretty good crop considering the weather…” He agreed, we chatted a few seconds more and he left. So … the agriculturally-educated teacher in a rural/farming community didn’t know the difference from a beet and a turnip… I don’t know whether to cry or laugh … but it’s a true story.

To Steve Beltramini: It is so wonderful to get a letter like yours. It makes me realize that there is some worthwhile results of my writing madness. You are doing the REAL work, Steve. It is so reassuring to know there are educators out there in your mold. Keep it up.

To Dav Says: Uhh. I thought it was the San Francisco Giants…. Just joking. Your point is very well taken. All very true. The only part I might argue with you about is what you say about electricity. I think we need to know more about that too. When I was in high school, I was allowed to do electrical work. Almost electricuted another student in fact. But I feel a lot better that I can, for example, replace a ballast. I think we should all know how to make and hitch up a wind generator. Know how to replace or repair the electrical system on my old tractor. It bothers me no end that new cars are made (I think deliberately) so amatuers like myself can’t fix them. Thanks for adding a good caveat to my post.

To Bess says: Yep. Modern society thinks dirt is bad. Can’t show dirt. If something grows in dirt, it must be dirty. Everything is dirty. If a T shirt touches my skin one time, it must go into the laundry. Yes, our paranoia about dirt is not good. It reminds me of another fact. Hogs bred now for indoor factory production sometimes can’t stand outdoor winter weather. Honest. My brother-in-law let some out in cold weather and they died of pneumonia. Not even our hogs can handle dirt anymore.

To John Finlayson: Your macaroni plant story reminds me of another one we pulled at school. We were cleaning out a root cellar one spring, and the old potatoes still in storage had of course sprouted long white roots. A newcomer to country life was enchanted by those roots. My devilish friend said to him, very solemnly, “that’s where shoestring potatoes come from.” For a little while the newcomer believed him but we were laughing so hard, he realized the joke.

I am not at all surprised that what you have outlined has and does happen quite regularly Gene. Down here in NZ I can recall that about 35 years ago we used to have a very innovative and often funny TV programme called “Country Calendar” (it is still running today in fact) that basically took rural topics and themes and aired them for the urbanite to understand and learn from. Every now and then they would take the mickey out of them as we say and one very memorable show had a farmer in front of some vines (can’t remember exactly what kind they were now) and he was extolling the huge profitability of these ‘macaroni plants’. He said that the plants grew the vines and there was a small beetle that apparently ate into it and then proceeded to tunnel it’s way right through the entire length of the vine which the farmer cut off, packaged and sold. The programme was innudated with city folk wanting to know how and where to purchase these plants.

I still chuckle over that one even now. Sad but I guess a good laugh is still a good laugh! These kind of stories will only increase with the growing separation of most of the population from the source of the food upon which they depend for survival.

Cheers

More alarmingly, it is probable that someone, somewhere in Frito-Lay’s graphic design department did know that potatoes grow underground. But they deliberately designed the add to show the potatoes as clean and dirtless as though they were not from underground. They likely assumed their consumers would be ignorant of the truth and would prefer not to think of their food as coming from the dirt at all. They are likely purposefully propagating this ignorance because “clean” potatoes being picked like fruit is a more “marketable” image than dirty, dank, underground tubers.

Well, okay, but I think there’s also a fairly high rate of mistakes that don’t have to do with knowledge per se. A newspaper prints an article that identifies the team the San Francisco Giants. That doesn’t mean we’re sports illiterate – it just means no one caught the copy. It’s a much prettier picture to have people in the field with green plants – even if inaccurate – than digging brown balls out of brown soil. The difference between a heifer and a cow is one of time, not type or variety. (It’s not like they had Angus cows on there, either.) There are so many dumb names for machines (Bobcat, for instance) that marshmallow picker doesn’t turn my head, either.
I don’t want to say you don’t have a point, but I think you’re stretching evidence to create something that is less prevalent than it actually is. There’s many areas of our lives we’re not completely up on – because we don’t have time or easy access to information or interest. While basic knowledge is a beautiful thing, it’s unfair to expect a high amount of scientific literacy. (What’s the effect of B. thuringienses? How does it work? Can we expect it to continue working, to contaminate other species? Is it naturally occuring, like an innoculation of nitrogen-fixing bacteria?) Electricity is terribly vital to my life, too, but I have only a vague knowledge of wiring or the principles governing its use.

Thank you Gene, you don’t know it, but you really helped out a troubled kid earlier today. Allow me to explain if you will.

Here in Walpole, Massachusetts, there’s a residential treatment school I work at that is home to a number of emotionally and behaviorally challenged boys. I found one such boy – I have to change the name and call him Mike – age 16, (I know, not that young) in our school “time-out” room today, crying over his “useless” life, saying a number of self-hateful things. I believe he also said something about himself being “worthless.” What happened is that Mike was in the time-out room because he had earlier grabbed a peer by the neck in gym class after the peer had uttered some kind of put down. Mike has been with our program for a number of years and was trying to get back to living at home with his mom, (though that can’t happen either now, or probably not in the future either due to a number of external situations that I just can’t go into here.) He had just gotten more bad news from MA. DSS about him going home and he was feeling pretty low.

Here at Longview Farm, we are fortunate to have a large rural campus here in the Boston suburbs. We have a large garden from which we do a small CSA as well as supply some of the food for our program. Over 145 of our 166 total acres are wooded, with over a mile of hiking trails, wetlands, and so on. Another 20 or so acres are school yard, ball fields, former pastures, gardens, a (new) orchard, Christmas tree grove, along with some small fruit perennials including strawberries, brambles, blueberries, etc. We’re working right now, rescuing a rotting tool shed and turning it into our new chicken coop. Just this past week, Mike helped me rip off the old roof and lay down new plywood, paper, and put on the new roofing shingles. This fact was the basis of the pep talk I gave him today, wherein I tried to illustrate for him that, of course, he was far from useless. I’ll spare the details, but it worked.

Tonight I came across your Acorn Syndrome essay and I just had to dash back off to work and catch Mike before he went to bed so that I could read it to him. You see, Mike knows damn well that potatoes are dug, because he’s dug them for several years now. And acorns you ask? After helping me split several cords of wood and after many days in our woodlands, we can relax about Mike’s oak tree knowledge as well. For a kid that didn’t think he amounted to much in this world compared to the other “normal” kids out there going to “regular” schools, he went to bed smiling with the knowledge that maybe he’s not so relatively ignorant after all. (And unlike probably 98% of the other 16 year olds out there, he understands how that roof above his head is actually constructed so that it keeps out the rain too.)

In this age of high technology and hordes of task-management teams sitting around in front of their computers assembling next month’s consulting management report for Glizmo Gadget’s factory over in China, so few people have any knowledge of food supply, or nature as you well know. One challenge we face in residential treatment is trying to nurture and aid young people that have been neglected or abused and get them “caught up” so they can function in this increasingly abstract and absurd world of economic madness. Agricultural, silvercultural, and general nature knowledge, as you certainly have seen, on the other hand, is in extreme decline in our society, yet it is precisely this latter knowledge that is proving to be so accessible to my special education students. “Growing potatoes? Oh, that’s so third world, so 19th century” the web designers say. “Who needs it?” But what power my kids feel when they can connect with the food on the table or identify the garden veggie that they see on the shelf in the supermarket, or can sing along with a bird in the hedgerow that maybe they saw earlier at our feeder, knowing that it’s a chickadee and not some kind of dodo bird. It’s kind of evil, but when one of my students learns that they already possess a working understanding of the “ordinary” nature around them that the average high school student living down the street apparently doesn’t have, well, it gives my kids a new-found self-respect that no “esteem-building” classroom exercise ever could. It puts things into a new perspective for them. Combined with what they’ve come to hear recently of the fragility of the modern economic world due to energy concerns juxtaposed with the promising rebirth of the local food movement we’ve seen recently, my students are discovering (I think), that their developing nature knowledge may very well prove to be extremely valuable not only for their future, but for everyone’s. And that gives them hope.

Years ago the Boston social service agency that is our parent organization somehow let our program get out of agriculture and out of nature. (“It’s so old-fashioned!”) When I arrived at Longview Farm (at least they kept the name!) the old gardens and chicken coops were long gone. The school now stands where the barn I’m told used to be. Woodland trails became buried under deadfall, and even the clay on the baseball field was allowed to grow over with turf and was lost. But now, we’ve resurrected the ball field with new clay, put a chainsaw to the overgrown, blocked trails, created new gardens, and orchards and slayed the brush infilling our pastures. Our first batch of chicks in probably three decades could be arriving later this spring. Anybody who thinks all of this is too old-fashioned, quaint or otherwise too late-1800s just didn’t see how happy Mike went to bed tonight.

Thank you for your essays.

Stephen Beltramini
Longview Farm,
A program of the XXXXX, (Oops, I can’t say!)
Walpole, Massachusetts

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