Change happens quickly. My daughter, Willow, and I butchered our first roosters recently. Our neighbor needed to help us through the process because even though I have eaten probably thousands of chicken dinners, I had never done my own slaughtering. My father remembers his father killing chickens and growing their food, but the last 100 years have been a time of unprecedented cultural change in the “developed world,” and many of the skills that were common in my grandparents’ era are exotic today. The alteration in values, expections, and social mores over a single lifetime will certainly have a place in history, and will probably take many more generations to sort out.
Of course a tremendous factor has been the availability of cheap energy. Millenia of stored solar power in the form of oil has fueled a technological whirlwind that has made possible; world wars, mass transit by air, inexpensive global distribution, and colonial exploitation on a scale previously unknown.
My grandfather was born in the late nineteenth century in northern Germany. He told me that he remembered when the train came to his home town and how the locals argued about whether a human body could stand travelling at 60 milles per hour. In his lifetime he saw the atom bomb and men walking on the moon. He also grew cherries and tomatoes and salmon-colored dahlias.
My parents, who were the displaced children of the second world war, grew up with internal combustion and the atomic threat. Their politics was global. The rustic skills that their parents inherited no longer seemed relevant as more and more agrarian tasks became automated and the worldwide food distribution network grew ever larger. My father grew backyard tomatoes (he still does). It was a luxury, a supplement to the endless assortment available in the urban marketplace, and a tranquil hobby. The social value of farming, gardening, and husbandry plummeted after the war. The local supermarket, SPD, opened in Nevada City in 1957, the year that I was born. The little piece of ground, the five acres and a mule so coveted for generations, was supplanted by the ideal of suburbia, and the American dream became a comfortable house and a small, ornamental garden. Family food gardens were relegated to the backyard, and composting or slaughtering were banned in many communities. Soon America was exporting the dream, along with all the hardware and distribution network inherent in acheiving it. It was a dream dependant on consumerism, and it is no surprise that advertising grew up concurrently with this version of utopia.
Originally it was a hard sell. Americans have always valued self-reliance and ingenuity, but as more and more people left the land behind, and took up occupations that reinforced non-technical skills, people simply forgot how to feed, cloth, and shelter themselves, or maybe it was just easier to depend on the systems that we initially trusted and then took for granted. And the system has been good to us. In just about any urban center in this country there is a staggering variety and abundance of food choice available.
This is beginning to change. The price of exotic food is rising, and as we begin the factor the evironmental costs of South American hothouse roses and monocrop Hawaiian pineapples, we are discovering that the consumptive model is non-sustainable both physically and spiritually. The local food movement and other social foody trends are indicators of the shifting nature of public opinion. Planned community CC&Rs are now mandating xeriscaping and native plantings. I believe the effects of public censure are massive. Peer pressure is more compelling even than economics. I can easily see how the front lawn, once the symbol of suburban success, and now reviled as the embodiment of water-fat, wasteful resource gluttony, could all but disappear within another generation.