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At the Market

Once a week, my town, like all small towns in western Massachusetts, has a farmers market. People bustle around with their NPR shopping bags, tripping over dogs on too-long leashes and fingering the expensive produce. My family and I head there after breakfast, like almost everybody else we know. We buy our kids homemade popsicles from a farm run by an overall-wearing architectWe buy our kids homemade popsicles from a farm run by an overall-wearing architect and smoothies made by a local yogurt-maker who has a solar-powered blender. There's a cheerful guy with a mountain-man beard who gathers mushrooms with his son and prefers bartering to actual cash.

I quite like going to the market, but whenever I describe it to outsiders I find myself being a touch snarky, as I was here. The people are pleasant, the produce is good — what am I sneering at? Part of the reason is that this marvelous scene has a small irritant. It's all over the market, in bright yellow, red and green:

The idea is clear: What is small and local is good, ecologically, aesthetically, and even morally. More than that, buying local means preserving the traditions of our area, and preventing it from becoming an anonymous node in the global network. Western Massachusetts has long had small farms, so that means doing what you can to keep them going, notably buying their produce. Local = home.

For years my family has gone to a nearby hillside farm that has been worked continuously since the 1790s. At some point, the owners established a peach orchard, and every year the old man who ran it would tell us dubiously that we could see whether there was any fruit to pick, and every year the trees would be groaning beneath their load of peaches, and every year the old man would do this stylized double-take as we brought down baskets of fruit. The old man died, and now the farm is run by these nice lesbians who don't do stylized double-takes but do make silly Photoshopped images of local children carrying six-foot-wide strawberries on their heads. Multiply these stories by a dozen and you see why people like the farms.

At the same time, though... local. There's a problem there.

Fractured Cerebration
The tables at the market are covered with tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, bell peppers, kale, chard, basil, and a dozen types of greens. In the fall they are joined by apples, pears, peaches, and fall raspberries. Not one of these species originated within a thousand miles of here. Nor did the corn and tobacco grown outside town; corn is from Mexico, tobacco from the Amazon (this species of tobacco, anyway — there was a local species that is now gone). The "local" we are trying to protect is in fact the product of global exchange.The "local" we are trying to protect is in fact the product of global exchange. Far from being an old-timey thrill, my farmers market is an exotic modern object.

The goal here is not to put the market down, still less the people who shop there. I share their delusions.

I, too, think of my garden and its produce as a kind of home. Futzing around with the plants is my refuge from email, deadlines, and my office desk. Animated by the bumper-stickers, I complained in one of the local nurseries that there was nothing in the entire space that was from anywhere within hundreds of miles. Embarrassing in retrospect, I issued this gripe as I was at the nursery cash register, paying for seedlings of bell pepper (origin: Mesoamerica), eggplant (origin: South Asia), and carrot (origin: Europe).

On the one hand, people want the wash of goods and services that the worldwide market provides. No one forced me to buy the tomato or pepper seeds I plant in my garden — or, for that matter, seeds for bok choy or Japanese eggplants or shiso, an Asian herb that we like. On the other hand, I resist the implications. I want to have what everyone everywhere has, but still be aggressively myself. Simultaneously denouncing and promoting globalization, I, too, am an example of fractured cerebration.

Here in this blog, I am not proposing any solution (plug: I take a stab at edging toward one in my book). But I should note that many Powell's online customers, too, share my delusions. In my town, lots of people buy their books at They're folks who like local, independent bookstores, of which Powell's is an exemplar and avatar. But what exactly are they thinking, reaching 3,000 miles with the globe-spanning Internet to shop locally? They — we, I should say, because I'm one of them — are examples of fractured cerebration.

A Really Good Book
These blog posts are supposed to sound like chatty messages from a friend while actually being a marketing device for a commercial product (my book). Creepy, right? To cancel the whiff of bad faith, at least a little, I thought I would talk about other writers' books — stuff that I could tout with a clear conscience, because I get no benefit from it.

One of the great thrills of my professional life was getting a warm letter from John Hemming. An amazingly admirable guy, Hemming has contacted native Amazonian groups that had never encountered Europeans; co-founded Survival International, one of the most important indigenous-rights organizations; directed the Royal Geographic Society for a quarter of a century; and run some of the biggest scientific studies of the Amazon. All the while, he wrote books — really good books, each and every one.

For my last book, 1491, I pilfered heavily from his gripping, grim The Conquest of the Incas. (I provide the link with a heavy heart; unconscionably, Hemming's U.S. publisher, Harcourt Brace, has yet released the revised, updated edition of the book available in England. I hear that this will change, though.) My new book depended in equal measure on his Tree of Rivers, an account, superbly readable, of the Amazon's tragic collision with Europe. Equally at home with natural science, geography, and history, a big book with big themes, I can't say enough good things about it.

Here is one passage that I underlined:

In the mid-nineteenth century the United States became more ambitious [about exploiting the Amazon]. Its heading hydrographer and oceanographer, Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, in 1853 published a study of Brazil's Amazonian and Atlantic waters. He noted that winds and currents made it easier to sail to the Amazon from Florida than from Rio de Janeiro, so that the Amazon is but "a continuation of the Mississippi." He was convinced that the region had the potential to be a second Eden — provided that it was not occupied "by an imbecile and indolent people [but by] a go-ahead race that has energy and enterprise equal to subdue the forest and to develop...the vast resources that lie hidden there." Maury prompted his government to send "The Amazon Exploration Expedition." Naval Lieutenants William Lewis Herndon and Lardner Gibbon descended the Amazon, with secret instructions to report on its potential. They were wildly enthusiastic, [claiming that the Amazon would have] "the power, wealth and grandeur of ancient Babylon and modern London... " The book by Herndon and Gibbon was a best-seller. One enthusiastic reader was Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain"), who was "fired with a longing to ascend the make a fortune."

÷ ÷ ÷

Charles C. Mann, three-time National Magazine Award finalist and winner of the National Academies Communication Award for the best book of the year, writes for such diverse publications as the New York Times, Science, Vanity Fair, Fortune, and many others.

Books mentioned in this post

Charles Mann is the author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

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