Book Review: Seagulls Hate Parsnips

A Fair Trade Book (?)

Title: Seagulls Hate Parsnips

Author: Virginia Tanzer

Date: 1989

Publisher: EPM Publications

ISBN: 0-939009-23-4

Length: 196 pages

Illustrations: drawings and map by the author

Quote: “At the 1964 New York World’s Fair…less than half the people questioned were able to identify Delaware as a state.”

Delaware is, as Tanzer explains early in Seagulls Hate Parsnips, the second smallest of the United States. “Nine miles across at its narrowest, and hardly a hundred miles long,” Delaware has at times been populated by more than ten times as many chickens as humans. In fact, Sussex County, the southernmost and largest county in Delaware, was the home of 200,000,000 chickens and 110,000 humans at the time of writing.

Tanzer wrote from Sussex County, and her purpose in this book is to celebrate the place and time of which she wrote. “Maryland’s Eastern Shore is awfully nice, but not as nice as Sussex.” New to the place, she liked everything she found, even the local accent: “Lots of people in the County are Volunteer Farmen, who shore do a good job fighting fars.”

Of course, she recognized that many of us would be content to read about Sussex County, Delaware, rather than live there. “FLAT IS BEAUTIFUL! If you yearn for mountains and hills and things like that, try Colorado,” and, “No matter how long you live here, or how involved you get in community life, you will never be considered a Sussex Countian. To qualify as that, your grandfather should have been born here. And even if he was, and your father was, but you, by some quirk of fate, were born in Pennsylvania, you will still be considered an outsider.”

Actually, several of Tanzer’s “hints” to people considering a move to Sussex County are applicable to many of North America’s rural communities. It’s not that the residents of places where “Almost every native…is related to a large proportion of other [natives]” don’t like the eighty-somethings who moved in as children and have been active citizens ever since, who are still deemed noteworthy as what a legendary Vermont town called “dearly loved strangers among us.”  It’s partly that they’ve not travelled much, themselves, and find other people’s memories of travel interesting.

Tanzer was a “dearly loved stranger” in Sussex County. Although her book follows a claim that the place has “the nicest weather in America” with, five pages later, a report on a particularly dramatic storm at sea, people seem to have encouraged her to write about how Rehoboth Beach got its name, why people pick up and move entire houses, and so on.

She notes that, before large-scale immigration from India began, Delaware recognized its own five racial categories: White, Black, Red, “Oriental…and Moor.” In other parts of the United States “Moor” was sometimes used to express a more favorable perception of North Africans than of sub-Saharan Africans, even as the misguided “courtesy” of misidentifying any African-American the speaker happened to like as a presumed descendant of North Africans. Delaware’s Moors were another close-knit community that could be described as “triracial isolates,” genetically comparable to Tennessee’s Melungeons, North Carolina’s Lumbees, etc. In the early twentieth century the government of Delaware burdened itself with the obligation of providing separate schools so that neither “Moor” nor Nanticoke children would have to sit beside Black or White children. Tanzer documents that the Moors isolated themselves by choice, and discusses four distinct theories of how some distant connection with Morocco may actually have existed.

If I find her reports on the Moors particularly interesting, it’s because they were one detail of Delaware’s natural history that is not equally applicable to Maryland. Tanzer writes at length about Delaware’s flowers, gardens, birds, farms, and summer tourists, without mentioning any real difference between any of these things and their Maryland counterparts.

She does, however, describe an attempt to follow a friend’s recipe in which she produced a cake that even the seagulls wouldn’t eat. That would have been quite an achievement. I have never seen anyone cook a food item seagulls wouldn’t eat in Maryland.

Speaking of food, you wouldn’t expect two states as small and as close together as Delaware and Maryland to have evolved different “foodways,” but I notice something about Seagulls Hate Parsnips. I don’t believe a book about Maryland could be written without some discussion of crabs. Although Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, and vegetarians are well tolerated in Maryland, real Marylanders eat crabs. They don’t even park the crabs on clean sand to get the crabs’ bodies to empty out immediately before they eat the things. They can hardly overlook the reality that blue crabs are scavengers, designed to eat anything and particularly attracted to raw sewage. How people who know this can swallow something that looks like a giant beetle, at best, I have never understood.

Tanzer, writing about Delaware, is able to evade the question of eating crabs. Or is she? She had written another book, Call It Delmarvalous, about the “linguistic pe­culiarities and culinary specialties” of the DelMarVa peninsula. Presumably that would be where she admits or denies any personal experience with the culinary specialty of Maryland. I’m not sure I want to know.

Anyway, Seagulls Hate Parsnips is an interesting and enjoyable read. It is particularly recommended to anyone who has trouble remembering the names of the original thirteen states because two of them are hard to find on a small map. After reading this book you will remember that that blurry line down the edge of Maryland is a separate, special, historic place.

Seagulls Hate Parsnips is written for adults and contains jokes and references children won’t understand. It is, however, more family-friendly than the average daily newspaper. Sophisticated kids who want to learn about things that interest Real Grownups more than teenagers, e.g. property taxes, might like this book.

According to Spokeo, Tanzer is still living in Delaware at the age of 101, having been born in 1913. It is, er um, 2015 now, so this information could be wrong. If you buy either Seagulls Hate Parsnips or Call It Delmarvalous from either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, by sending $5 per book + $5 per package (i.e. if you order both together you send $15), I’ll try to send $1 per book to Virginia Tanzer or a charity of her choice.

Morguefile Book Review Cat:

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Book Review: Another Turn of the Crank

A Fair Trade Book (hurrah!)

Title: Another Turn of the Crank

Author:  Wendell Berry

Date: 1995

Publisher: Counterpoint / Publishers Group West

ISBN: 1-887178-28-7

Length: 109 pages

Quote: “[C]onsumers…are beginning to see that a sys­tem of food production that is dependent on massive applica­tions of drugs and chemicals cannot, by definition, produce ‘pure food.’”

The thing I can’t understand about Wendell Berry is why his books seem to be better known in Washington, D.C., than in my home town. I suspect prejudice may be involved. Virginians who didn’t go to Berea College can form a habit of looking down on Kentucky. Big mistake. By way of correction, I’ll disclose that Berry is one of the few contemporary thinkers (as distinct from reporters) George Peters used to read regularly; when I miss working on his FacTapes, I read Berry. It would be hard to think seriously about the role of farming and hand crafts in the twenty-first century without reading Berry.

Wendell Berry wrote many different kinds of things: biography, fiction, poetry, literary criticism, and practical essays about his farm in Henry County that used to be published in Organic Gardening & Farming; but Another Turn of the Crank is a sort of quick summary of his philosophy.

It’s a Green book, of course. Finding myself frequently out of step with people in the Green Party, I’d even go so far as to say that Another Turn of the Crank is, for me, the Green book. I’ve written about Sick Greens, Bitter Greens, Hazy Greens, Poison Greens, Fluorescent Greens…this book defines what I’d call True Green ideas at their best. Except for the last one, the points made in this book repeat ideas Berry has written about at greater length in other books, but this is the book that pulls his politics and philosophy into a coherent order:

  1. “Nothing that I have written here should be construed as an endorsement of either of our political parties as they pres­ently function…The ‘conservatives’ believe that an economy that favors its richest and most powerful participants will yet somehow serve the best interest of everybody. The ‘liberals’ believe just as irrationally that a merely competitive economy, growing always larger in scale and controlled by fewer and fewer people, can be corrected by extending government charity to the inevitable victims: the dispossessed, the unrepresented, and the unemployed.” (Pages ix-x.) “Communists and capitalists are alike in their contempt for country people…Moreover, the old opposition of country and city, which was never useful…is, in fact, damaging to everybody involved.” (Pages 15-16.) Berry predicts that the real political issue of the twenty-first century will be between the current powerful support for an unsustainable global economy and the efforts of small farmers to preserve a sustainable local economy.
  1. “A reader would also be in error who concluded, from this book’s reiterated wish to restore local life by meas of local economies, that it is ‘antigovernment.’ On the contrary, one of the fundamental purposes of these essays is to serve the cause of democratic government as established by the Consti­tution…[C]entral planning is of a piece with absentee ownership and does not work…The proper role of a government is to protect its citizens and its communities against…economic conquest just as much as conquest by overt violence.” (Pages x-xi.)
  1. “I believe that for many reasons—political, ecological, and economic—the best intelligence and talent should be at work and at home everywhere in the country. And therefore, my wishes for our schools are opposite to those of the present-day political parties.” (Page xi.)
  1. “Now that the issue of sustainability has arisen so urgently…we can see that the correct agri­cultural agenda following World War II would have been to continue and refine the already established connection be­tween our farms and the sun…Instead, the adopted agenda called for a shift…to the expen­sive, filthy, and limited energy of the fossil fuels…It called also for the displacement of nearly the entire farming population.” (Page 2) “[F]armers…must learn—or learn again—to farm in ways that minimize their dependence on industrial supplies. They must diversify, using both plants and animals. They must produce, on their farms, as much as the required fertility and energy as they can. So far as they can, they must replace purchased goods and services with natural health and diversity and with their own intelligence…If farmers hope to exercise any control over their markets…then they will have to look to local markets. The long-broken connections between towns and cities and their sur­rounding landscapes will have to be restored.” (Page 5.)
  1. “Always ask of any proposed change or innovation: What will this do to our community? How will this affect our common wealth? Always include local nature—the land, the water, the air, the native creatures—within the membership of the community. Always ask how local needs might be supplied from local sources…Always supply local needs first. (And only then think of exporting their products, first to nearby cities, and then to others…Develop small-scale industries and businesses to su­pport the local farm and/or forest economy. Strive to produce as much of the community’s own energy as possible.” (Page 19.)
  1. “To say that the right of private property has often been used to protect individuals and even global corporations in their greed is not to say that it cannot secure individuals in an appropriate economic share in their country.” (Page 49.)
  1. “[N]ot just forest land but allland, private and public, farmed and for­ested, is ‘natural.’ All land is natural and all nature is a com­mon wealth.” (Page 54.)
  1. “[Y]ou cannot get good care in the use of the land by demanding it from public officials…If we want the land to be cared for, then we must have people living on and from the land who are able and willing to care for it.” (Page 55.)
  1. “We have tried…preferring ourselves to the exclusion of all other creatures, with results that are manifestly disastrous. And now, conscious of those faults, we are tempted to correct them by denigrating ourselves…[W]e cannot be made kind toward our fellow creatures except by the same qualities that make us kind toward our fellow humans. The problem obviously is that we are not well practiced in kindness toward our fellow humans…especially, I think, toward human children…who are being aborted or abandoned, abused, drugged, bombed, neglected, poorly raised, poorly fed, poorly taught, and poorly disciplined. Many of them will not only find no worthy work but no work of any kind.” (Pages 78-79.)
  1. “I am moreover a Luddite…not ‘against technology’ so much as I am for community. When the choice is between the health of a community and technological innovation, I choose the health of the community.” (Page 90.)
  1. “Why should rest and food and ecological health not be the basic principles of our art and science of healing? Is it because the basic principles already are technology and drugs?” (Page 98.)
  1. “[W]e had better under­stand: sex and fertility are joined…sex and the world are joined.” (Page 81.)

Obviously, any book that tries to make these points in 109 pages is going to be a slow, dense, serious read even for True Greens to whom the ideas are familiar. This book includes some witty remarks and some anecdotes, but it’s much “heavier” than its small physical size suggests.

There are points on which it’s possible for True Greens to disagree with this book. Berry complains about the plight of small farmers and small business owners trying to obtain loans and credit from big-chain banks. George Peters would have said, and now I would say, that these individuals’ problem is their need to remain independent of the banks in the first place. Berry thinks the Internet destroys communities; online readers probably think it helps build communities. Minor points, these.

Then there’s a point of word usage on which Berry disagrees with most of the English-speaking world. All the English-speaking countries had a postwar baby boom. While the “Baby Boomer” generation in the U.K. was shaped by growing up in economic hardship, and the “Baby Boomer” generation in the U.S. was shaped by growing up in economic “boom times,” there is at least a general agreement that “Boomers” are people born between 1945 and 1970.

Berry, who was born in 1934, learned the slang word “boomer” at the time when it referred to the semi-nomadic lifestyle of those who always rushed toward the sites of the brief economic “booms” created as Americans discovered and exploited our natural resources. He opposes “boomers” to the “stickers” or “nesters” who wanted to stay in one place, use its resources prudently, and form social bonds with neighbors. He admits that these tendencies probably coexist in most of us, and feels that morality requires us to check any “boomer” tendencies we have and strengthen our “nester” tendencies–our topophilia. What Berry means by “boomer” is fairly close to what I mean by “greedhead,” what some other Greens mean by “land-rapers,” and what several people, a hundred years ago, seem to have meant by “capitalist.” In any case, it’s not a demographic defined by date of birth…and it’s not a thing anybody wants to be.

So far as I know, every time Berry has used the word “boomer” in this idiosyncratic, obsolete way he’s taken a page or two to define what he means, so confusion is not possible for those who read the whole book or article. I mention this point for the benefit of those random readers who try to judge a book by reading a page somewhere in the middle, who may have thought Berry was insulting their age group. He’s not…we’ve been his best students and biggest fans.

I’m tempted to say that everyone needs to read Another Turn of the Crank, because I wish everyone had already read it, but no. This is a book for adults who’ve had a fairly extensive, fairly liberal education, and some work experience. In previous books Berry built up his evidence in support of each of his points, and cited his sources; in this book he gives readers an overview of what he’s already studied and concluded. If these thoughts are at all new to you, Another Turn of the Crank would be a challenging place to begin learning about them. Everyone may need to read this book, eventually, but not everyone is ready for it yet.

So, if you’ve not read earlier Berry books, where should you begin? Home Economics and The Gift of Good Land were written earlier, for a more general audience…I think that might still be a general audience of university students, but at least he identified and recommended the supplemental reading that can help you understand his True Green thought.

At latest report Berry was still alive (“They tell me I have a web site, but I didn’t do that”–his publisher maintains a book sale site, and a fan maintains a site for fans) so Another Turn of the Crank is a Fair Trade Book. To buy it online, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, and from this total of $10 I’ll send 10%, or $1, to Berry or a charity of his choice. (If you want four copies, send a total of $25 and I’ll send Berry or his charity $4.)