(originally posted August 25, 2010) Every year when the kids were little we marked the official end of summer with a blowout weekend at the Mendocino County Apple Fair, held in Boonville. Saturday night we went on all the rides and ate junk ‘til our sides ached; Sunday morning, usually with a strange assortment of hung-over house guests in tow, we somehow managed to slide into the old wooden stands at the fairgrounds with a minute to spare before Guido Pronsolino welcomed the crowd to the start of Sheep Dog Trials. Remember the movie Babe? No animated pig in sight, but the same loyalty, patience, and hushed nail-biting tension ~ even better when it happens in real time.
The County Fair ended up being a hyper version of the pen marks we made on the door frame to show how fast the kids had grown: no sooner did we let go of their hands for a second to reach for the caramel corn than they were shouting over their shoulders, we’ll call you on the cell when we’re ready to leave, disappearing into the fairground crowds just as a few years later they would disappear into their own lives. But hell, that was bound to happen. At least the memories we were making were good ones.
To this day Boonville puts on a proper fair with a parade, a rodeo, sheep dog trials, pie eating contests, a fairground full of rickety (thus exceptionally thrilling) rides, and large exhibition halls filled with every variety of crop grown and animal raised in the county, all spit polished and groomed to what contestants hope is an award winning shine. It was in those 4-H buildings one summer that I first began to understand what a mutually dependent relationship between a farm animal and a human could look like, and where it starts in a young person. You haven’t lived until you’ve spent time with a bright eyed nine year old wearing a green sash who speaks with the authority of someone who can put food on the table.
Growing up in a big city all I’d ever known was the social relationship people have with their pets, starting with the BFF status we invariably confer on them. The relationship between those young future farmers and their animals was different. These were kids who cared for their animals from birth with a matter-of-fact understanding of just how they fit into a farming family’s dynamic. As far as I was concerned the blue ribbons weren’t awards for how perfectly they groomed their animals but for all those early mornings and late nights they’d swept and cleaned and cared for them like their lives depended upon it, which, once upon a time, it did.
The Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Fair isn’t associated with 4-H ~ it’s just a wonderful community event now in its 100th year with the big green heart of a Gravenstein apple, which Sebastopol, with the help of Slow Food, is trying to bring back from the verge of extinction. So I wasn’t expecting a real county fair experience when I set out to go two weeks ago with a group of friends. We wanted to hear great bluegrass by John Youngblood & Company and eat Gravensteins to excess. We scored on both counts: Just as the sun came out John played an incredible set on a stage beneath a giant canopy of spreading oak trees. We ate apple pie, apple fritters, and (in my case, at least) drank copious amounts of hard cider. We saw a display of very old tractors and tried out ingenuous farm tools that had never been patented (some, like the recumbent bike that cut useless roundels out of redwood trees, for obvious reasons). It wasn’t until a much needed trip to the port-a-potties sent me to the furthest corner of the fairgrounds that I found that animals had, in fact, been invited to the party.
Sebastopol is not deep country, not anymore, so it was understandable that the animals on display weren’t many, but it was hard to miss the fact that not one of them would ever end up on the dinner table anywhere. There were cashmere sheep with Jean Tierney eyes, llamas groomed like large exquisite poodles, and miniature donkeys that had been saved from a coal mine ~ I’m assuming somewhere far from Sebastopol. Had I inadvertently stumbled upon the Jonathan Safran-Foer collection of farm animals?
Safran-Foer, in case you somehow missed it last year, is the author of Eating Animals, a passionate and highly personal rant on why he believes the human diet should not contain animal proteins. Safran-Foer is a wonderful writer ~ Everything Is Illuminated, his first book, was a tour de force ~ but in Eating Animals he bullies the reader in much the same way a Jehovah Witness arrives at your door with the ‘either/or’ option of accepting their version of religion or going to hell in a handbag. I have no doubt that expanding one’s vegetable diet would be good for the planet, if not for our health, but there is a big difference between making the decision not to eat animal proteins and an insistence that everyone else make the same commitment ~ which would mean, by extension, that we stop raising animals for food.
Michael Pollan tackles many of the same issues In Defense of Food as Safran-Foer does in Eating Animals, but manages to reach an inclusive endgame ~ he believes that through shared community values that directly effect the marketplace we can still make profound changes in the way food is produced in this country. The first step is to become more thoughtful eaters. The little I managed to read of Safran-Foer’s book struck me as guilt driven, written by a man so petrified by the idea of raising healthy children in a messed up world (and who isn’t) he’s gone into the wall building business: this side of the wall (vegetarians only) is good, that side (the rest of us) is bad. It’s the kind of thinking that can only serve a divisive agenda, creating antagonistic groups of people who, while they certainly differ on eating habits should be waging the same war when it comes to fighting for respectful, responsible stewardship of the earth. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Even if we put aside the case that the human race is predisposed to being carnivorous ~ we ignore at our peril that we have only made it this far in history by a profound reliance upon domesticated animals. A lot has gone wrong with that seminal relationship in the last century, starting with the way we treat animals in the corporate food system that by and large replaced them with machines. But if we can find our way back to it, a culture of mindful animal husbandry holds many answers to the real complexity of farming well. And, as Wendell Berry writes in so many of his wonderful books, there is real complexity to farming well.
Look, there’s little doubt that dependence on machine based agriculture and overdependence on the chemicals their use has engendered has lead us to where we are today ~ mired in the wrong kind of shit, the kind that fertilizes nothing. But the historic relationship between farmer and animal, which should be built upon respect born out of mutual dependence, goes hand in hand with a natural cycle that could provide a roadmap to re-claiming ecological (and quite possibly psychological) health. The widespread soil erosion, toxicity and decay we’ve seen with the rise of mono-culture mega-farms that have proliferated in the last fifty years have gone hand and hand with the destruction of our rural communities, the direct result of not having what Berry’s friend Wes Jackson calls the “right ratio of eyes to acres.” These are issues that cannot be addressed in any meaningful way if we eliminate the central dynamic of personal farming that has animals at its center.
I had a good time at the Sebastopol Gravenstein Apple Fair with my friends, but I left feeling like it was a bit of a lost opportunity. County Fairs have the potential to embody two essential American traits we are fast losing: inventiveness and the ability to admire accomplishment based on hard work, not luck or the hubris that often comes with fame. Walking around a crowd-filled fairground isn’t the same as walking around a crowded mall ~ the mall is a sales construct that teaches us nothing, it exists with the sole purpose of selling a false sense of security. Programmed to replicate the same controlled experience over and over again, all it can inspire is a faster technological response to a shrinking list of stimuli. When are we going to wake up and see that all technology has thus far afforded us is the ability to know more and more about less and less?
A County Fair is an opportunity to have a unique experience with people you can choose to recognize as your community. It’s about hand-grown food, and hand-made craft. Not all of it’s good, of course, but if you don’t like the apple pie at one stand, there is another one a few steps away touting a different family’s recipe. Pies at small County Fairs aren’t flavor profiled by a chemist in some food lab a thousand miles away, their taste testing was done in kitchens like yours just up the road where dogs and kids wander in and out and the oven door has a loose hinge. No doubt every generation had added something to the mix, but they still call it Grandma’s Recipe because, at heart, it still is.
With or without the kids, I’m going to the Boonville Fair this year. I long for that smell of hay with a hint of cow manure you get the minute you step out of the car, full moon rising, into the big field that serves as a parking lot and head off towards the fairy lights of the fairground. At some point the smell of cotton candy takes over, but it’s nice to get a whiff of the real smell of a place, before that overlay of sugar kicks in.
LINK The Mendocino County Apple Fair in Boonville is September 17-19th. Rodeo is Saturday Night. Sheep Dog Trials start at 10 am Sunday.