Sunday, November 30, 2008

Victory Gardens For All

November 29th was a beautiful late fall day in Eugene. Blue sky stretched from Butte to Butte and the city of Eugene shined like an old barn that, after being hidden by fog for weeks, is suddenly exposed to brilliant light and sunny skies. Looking for adventure, I found my way to the Fairgrounds in Jefferson Westside. Following the sounds of drums, flutes, and Celtic violin I happened upon Eugene's Holiday Market- a tangle of shops selling woodwork, ceramics, tie dye, hemp clothes, pad thai; as well as the farmer's market where I listened to mycological tales and ate samples of fresh chevre. The path out of the Market lead me to Monroe and then to Blair street in the Whiteaker neighborhood. At the Whiteaker Station I met Charlotte Anthony, founder of the popular community garden phenomenon, Victory Gardens For All. Anthony, like many I have met, values community, living with the landscape, and sustainable agriculture, but something makes her outstanding. She is willing to work and get her hands dirty doing it.

Sitting in the sunlight out behind the Whiteaker Station, Charlotte, a woman who composes herself to speak but often lets out a big smile and laugh, began to explain the world of perma-culture. "Perma-culture can mean permanent culture or permanent agriculture, definitions vary," she told me. In a perma-culture, the whole community of organisms is involved in the process of living. "Stacking functions' is one of my favorite terms." She went on, "Many things coalesce, energy from the water, water from the water... compost in a greenhouse heats the greenhouse. Making the systems inter-digitate, we're part of it, it all works together, like a house facing south for solar [heat]." Many groups discuss these ideas and ideals but don't take the necessary steps to make their own local system operational. Charlotte Anthony started Victory Gardens For All so that people can actually make a little bit of these ideas into a reality.

"A lot people were buying houses in Eugene so they could garden, and then every year, instead of gardening, they bought a gardening book." For $50 Anthony and her team installs a fully operational garden, complete with healthy seedlings. The catch is that the homeowner agrees to help with 3 more gardens, and so becomes part of the gardening team. Victory Gardens for All has installed 350 gardens in Eugene and the group is currently looking into building large scale gardens with the Youth Eatin' Project and Food Security as well, other food oriented community groups in Eugene.

Victory Gardens For All applies the ideals of perma-culture to real life situations where residents and neighborhoods can benefit. The mission is to build a "neighborhood synergy of resources. [For example,] using algae and fish ponds to generate heat and electricity. Take everything- we can do it at a local level." She explained how we can harvest and store fruit from the trees in town instead of just letting it rot. Laughing she said, "No Child Left Inside, everyone gets out and enjoys and encounters nature... [we're usually] trying to fill our needs by buying, rather than being with nature, a world we can participate in." Victory Gardens For All provides people with a little piece of that participatory world.

Charlotte Anthony hopes to be "inspiring people by trying to show how food is grown." Seeing space come alive as a garden is inspiring -neighbors big and small, bacterial, mineral, vegetable, and human, become recognized as members of a community, each with their own important part to play.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

All American Holiday

As I understand it, Black Friday is a day of unrestrained capitalist greed, a day to wake up at 4 am and stampede the greeter at Wal-Mart. Such was not the Black Friday I encountered. At the food court of Valley River, Eugene, I found a warm hearted American holiday sweetened by frozen yogurt and temptations of Cinnabon.

Waking from a tryptophanic turkey coma at 11 am, after nearly 13 hours of sleep, the family convened to discuss the days shopping. Cell phones falling apart, jackets zippers broken, and a host of other small needs criss-crossed the breakfast table airways. Stacks of Consumer Reports ignored, internet consulted, and a phone number called, we settled on going to the Valley River mall. As is usually the case with my family, we managed to buy little, but strangely, we did enjoy our visit.

"All American Ice Cream, Frozen Yogurt, and Smoothies" was destination of choice. Like most vendors in Valley River, All American is brightly backlit. Brilliantly dressed young people with creamy skin and well kept hair serve with a smile. I went with white chocolate macadamia nut, dutch chocolate, and black berries on top. I was hungry and I was overdressed, dressed to walk around in November temperatures, not season-less mall temperature. My belly met frozen yogurt, and enjoyed it. As to the flavors, I can say that they did taste like macadamia nut white chocolate and dutch chocolate- if these things came from flavor tubes and were made out of sugary-syrupy substances. The blackberries were reddish and sat in a syrup of their own. The overall mixture was both tasty and satisfying. Thank you, All American. We then watched, entranced, the Cinnabon artisans roll dough and sugar. If only the Lipitor salesman had been there too, he could have been handing out free samples.

In the food court people were genuinely enjoying themselves, and not only the usual 15 and 50 age group- whole families filled the food court. Couples and kids young and old forked teriyaki sauce, rice, and meat into grinning mouths. I wonder if the satisfaction of Thanksgiving, that holiday we devote to family, cooking, and sharing, had rolled over into Black Friday, the one we usually give up to greed and capitalism. Perhaps this is the silver lining of the crashing stock market- we can still shop even if we don't have to buy buy buy; we can still stroll through palace-like malls devoted entirely to purchasing power, even if we don't purchase.

For the first time in quite a while, my folks and I walked through the mall as if we were in a mediterranean town, to see people, shops, and to relax. Thank you, All American.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Oakway Center, Chapala, hauntings?

In the little town of Oakway Center there is an alley between the main square with its venerable oak trees and the large asphalt blacktop where cars are parked.
In the alley a group of people have set out booths, tables, and chairs. On the walls electric candle lamps shed soft light. This alley, called Chapala Restaurante Mexicano, is a very pretty and soothing place to have a meal or a drink.
Here, they serve Mexican food. Perhaps the food is meant to be inspired by Jalisco where lake Chapala lies, or, perhaps the alley is meant to feel a bit like an alley in the city of Guadalajara located near lake Chapala.

I ordered a chicken enchilada and a chicken taco. Nestled beside them were "ranchero" beans, and a little brown sauce too.
I don't know their source, although they did have that distinctive Costco flavor. It all sat in a big yellow fiesta plate.
What does the food tell me about the place?
It tells me that the "owners" had access to rice, beans, chicken, iceburg lettuce, tomato, and chips. It tells me that as a customer I didn't need to know where it came from and maybe there is a reason I am not supposed to know.
But the dining environment could not be more peaceful...

There are a few things you should know about this alley and this town.
The alley closes every night; it is very regulated. There are only two entrances and nobody can come in who is not going to eat at the tables. The main town square with the oak trees is owned by the McKay Investment Company and regulated as well. Filled with the excitement of having found a little town like Oakway in Eugene, OR, I called up Oak Leaf Property Management and explained how great their public space is. I was told, "The important thing to remember is that it is not really public space. It's owned. A lot people think it's public and it's not... Most of the businesses are open from 10am-6pm although most of the national [chain stores] stay open until 9... We don't allow panhandlers." They are having a Christmas tree lighting on Sunday and they provide music in the summer. Yet still, even the owners don't live there. There is no castle nestled in the Center where the McKay family lives. The kind and polite people who staff the tables and kitchen in Chapala don't live there either.

In fact, nobody lives in the town of Oakway. In the festive alley of Chapala there are windows on the walls of the alley, even images of people looking out of those windows. Closer analysis, however, will reveal that these are only drawings of people. In fact, behind the windows there is nothing but empty wall. Empty.
The town clears out at night, and it seems there is some reason that nobody lives in town. Is it a haunted place? The owners have created laws that keep certain people away and regulate visitors. Why? Is it to protect them from ghosts, zombies, or those similarly afflicted?

Perhaps there are answers to these questions tied into the stories of places all around this place near the Williamette river. Perhaps, by peering into the shadows of places like Oakway, I can find the ghosts and zombies that the McKay Company and so many others are afraid of...

Valley River Center, made in China

Here in Eugene, Oregon, I decided to go on a little walk down by the Williamette river. Throughout Eugene the Williamette is flanked by large parks and community gardens right? I imagine it as the core of the city- it is geographically located between 3 of the city's largest shopping districts, Valley River, Oakway, Downtown, and further up the river it is close to downtown Springfield as well. At the Williamette I expect to see the best of Eugene's past and present meld into a bright future.

I headed through the Whiteaker neighborhood where smallish homes built of wood often stand in small gardens with picket fences and wild yards. To my inexperienced eye, I would say some of the hippie spirit remains in the Whitaker. I also saw a couple of gardens marked as "Victory Gardens" and I wondered if people had caught onto Michael Pollan's call for a vast new change of American food producing habits by planting gardens. He writes of it in his letter to Barack Obama.

I cut by Lane Community college down a bike path towards Sladen Park. There I saw a mysterious man trudging through the fir trees and I decided to continue to the river. At Jacob's Park along the river there is a beautiful stretch of beach filled with white water birds and a few ducks. I wonder if the birds come there to bathe in the patch of slow current or to ask for some food from people like me. The grass was spotted with green droppings. That is more than reconstituted bread, I thought. People seemed to be choosing the earthen path close to river rather than the asphalt bike path so I followed it right through some muddy spots and a carpet of yellow fall leaves. All along the river, here, there are tall deciduous trees and many still have brilliant yellow leaves that twinkle and twist in the wind. Many paths lead to private spots along the water. Later, i saw a man standing next to the water, and another fishing.

I crossed the foot bridge and found myself at the back side of Valley River Center. Rather, I found myself on the edge of a large parking lot. A few cars were parked closer to the buildings. Walking along the side of Executive Parkway, the access road to the parking lots, (there are no sidewalks) I wondered where I could find the entrance to Valley River Center.

The large cars zipping around were disorienting after the walk on footpaths by the river. In fact, the whole outside area of the Center was built on the scale of cars. After passing the large black monolithic empty seeming buildings sitting in the parking lot next to Keefer Mazda I found my way to Goodpasture Island Road, another street built on the scale of 10 foot long people powered by gasoline (cars). Finally, the entrance to Valley River.

Valley River is owned. I once tried to register voters here, and was asked to leave. I left, after all, it is someone's property. It was built, as a lord would build a castle, in 1969, and "heralded as the largest shopping mall between Portland and San Francisco". It still is and, in 2006 it was worth $187.5 million. Beyond it's walls are "over 130 national stores and restaurants." It's owner is the Macerich Company which owns 95 malls in 19 states, one of the largest such owners in the US.

I enter JCPenny, a large store with beautiful clothes in tight professional packaging. I notice that a shirt is made in China and I wonder- how much of the cost of these clothes comes from shipping costs?

Flannel plaid, made in China.
A hanger of shirts made in India.
Even the "Oregon Duck" sweatshirts are made in Pakistan. Is the "Oregon Duck" worth it's weight in petroleum fuel costs?
A childs "Fast Track Pinball" set, made in China. The clerks eye me.
Union Bay Bronco loose boot- Hong Kong.
American Living. A western style corduroy American Living shirt with an eagle and flag on it. Made in India. Hat with similar eagle- Made in China. A sweater with the eagle and flag knitted into the material all across the chest. Surely this is made in America. Nope, made in Hong Kong.
Havanera Guayabera shirts, made in China.

Finally, I ask a clerk, "My uncle is a patriot and I was looking to get him something made in America. Do have anything made in America here?"

"Maybe Levy's? Naw, not Levy's," he looks at another clerk. She agrees. He recommends I speak to a manager at customer service in their office.

I meet an older woman who says, "I don't know, you can check the tags, we don't order. Not much is made here anymore."

As I check a lamp stand made in China, a young lady in an American flag themed shirt working the floor says, "Everything here is made in China or Vietnam. You can check the 'Made In Oregon' store in the mall?" She smiles.

On the way I stop at a booth selling Hickory Farms sausage and cheese. I ask her where the sausage and cheese comes from. The lady finds a magazine somewhere in her booth; seeing the mailing address, she says, "Ohio!"
I ask where the food actually comes from, like, "where are the cows?" and she just shakes her head and says, "I don't know."

Inside this mall I could be anywhere in America- among the "130 national chains and restuarants." In fact, with all those clothes made in India and China I could be almost anywhere in the world- if the Macerich Company owned places like this outside America. Santa sits with a brilliant smiling little child on his lap. I know he and the elves live far away. I just didn't think they lived in China.

The Made In Oregon store is full of nicely wrapped transportable gift ideas! 2oz of Gary West meats Oregon Elk meat from Jacksonville, Or, $8. The beef is $6. 2oz of Tory's Smoked Sockeye wild salmon from Oregon City, $11 (I don't think you can catch Sockeye in Oregon city anymore, I might be wrong. It said, "Pacific Salmon" on the box, so I imagine it was from Alaska, although on the box there is a picture of a native man dip netting in the river.)

At the back of the store are the Pendletons. A Pendleton "trail shirt" that is "good for life" has a tag on its button saying "Exclusive Pendleton Fabric woven in our USA mills." Another tag reads "Oregon heritage of quality that is woven into every product. So when you buy a Pendleton, you're buying a part of Oregon." $98. You're also buy a little part of a factory in Mexico because the "trail shirt" is assembled in Mexico.

Only the Pendlton Blankets are actually made in the USA. These may be the only article of clothing sold at the entire Valley River Center that is made in the USA. Their tag reads "Pendleton Indian Friendship Beaver State Indian Blankets. Made in the USA." $110-$198. Another tag reads,

"Long before there were white men in America, there were blankets. Some were stitched together from fox or wolf pelts. Some were woven or twisted from thin strips of cedar bark fiber, bird, beaver or rabbit skins. Some were loomed from wild cotton and colored with native dyes.

Then from Europe, came wool and still more colors for the native artist's expressions. And later came men from Pendleton woolen mills, who studied the designs, striding to capture their true spirit in blankets produced with modern machinery. the work of those men resulted in the first Indian inspired Pendleton robes and shawls.

Today, that tradition of complimentary creation lives on in Pendleton Indian Robes and Shawls, still woven from the finest fleece wool, meant to be used and cherished from generation to generation."

Oregon's minimum wage law is $7.95 an hour. For someone earning such a wage it would take over 23 hours of labor to buy one 64'x80' blanket- the only article of clothing one can buy at Valley River that is made in America. (I suppose that is less than the perhaps 350 hours it can take, including preparation of materials (sheering sheep, cleaning and carding yarn, spinning yarn, dying yarn, and weaving), to weave a Navajo rug. These rugs are sold for $700 to $4000 each.)

Back over on the south side of the Williamette, in the George Owens Rose garden, there is a large Black Tartarian Cherry tree, perhaps the largest of its kind in the state. It stands approximately 161 years old this year. I wonder how many dollars I could pay for one cherry. Yet, I imagine, if this tree still bears fruit, most of it probably just rots in the grass.