Symbiophrenic Incursion: Food for Thought—Knowledge Chains around Food Cycles    
 Food for Thought—Knowledge Chains around Food Cycles0 comments
pictureSunday, September 20th 2009, by Brenden Macdonald

Brenden MacDonald
English 402: West Coast Literature
April 19, 2008

Food for Thought—Knowledge Chains around Food Cycles

The need to eat connects humanity to a complex and subsuming ecology, and we maintain our ecological connections via understanding how and what to eat. Maintaining understanding of how and what to eat helps maintain our ecological connections, and our understanding about any integral aspect of life is necessarily an affair of communities. More and more people understand the need to “create sustainable communities[,] that is, social and cultural environments in which we can satisfy our needs without diminishing the chances of future generations,” as put in an essay titled “Ecology and Community” by Fritjof Capra, director of the Center of Ecoliteracy (1). I will look at some west coast British Columbian writers who have thoughts about food knowledge and ecological connections. Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson, is a particularly strong example of literature with a complex focus on food, ecological cycles, and the links of human knowledge that clasp within a community’s culture. In our culture, there is a disconcerting extent of disconnection from and ignorance about environmental and food cycles. I relay these readings of west coast writing because we need to tell stories about food.

The easy evidence is all around us: common poor nutrition habits and food-related health issues; lack of knowledge about the origins of the food on the table and about techniques of growing, preparation, and distribution; and lack of general knowledge concerning biological and ecological patterns related to the existence of food. On the positive side, knowledge about food and about ecology is increasing, such as the blossoming organic and health food industry, growing signs of curiosity about food origins and politics, and increasing recognition and reform involving environmental issues. Awareness and knowledge are paramount in averting disconnection to food cycles just as they are paramount in averting the human risks to global and local ecosystems. Maintaining knowledge of food cycles is the responsibility of communities, and indeed has been performed by human cultures forever. The stories and perspective about food and its procurement that we clasp in chains leading from generation to generation and individual to individual maintain our involvement in nature’s cyclical systems.

Writing in 1982 in an essay titled “West of the Great Divide—A View of the Literature of British Columbia,” Allan Pritchard notes the theme of “conservation” as a part of BC literature and remarks that in some literature, “traditional cultures provide…models of the ideally harmonious relation between man and nature” (Pritchard 100). Eden Robinson, a Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations writer born in Kitamaat on the west coast of BC, wrote the novel Monkey Beach, whose story represents the Kitamaat\Haisla region and culture. A good number of passages depict eating, human food culture and economy, and Haisla traditional ecological knowledge. Right at the start, the novel makes reference to food economy, the “bad fishing season” experienced by Jimmy who is the missing brother of narrator Lisamarie who is contemplating him having just disappeared the night before when out on a usual fishing trip (Robinson 2). Making a life on the sea can be a dangerous occupation.


It may not be eating, but the first few pages refer to coffee, then smoking, which recur as tropes through the novel, along with alcohol. The issues explored with these tropes are interesting in my reading because arguably all in all they are addictive consumables, not nutritional, and (for hunger suppressing qualities) food substitutive. Through the novel, Lisamarie is ambivalent toward smoking, at times enjoying and at times ripping her room apart in desperation, thinking “[f]unny how you never appreciate a cigarette fully until you know it’s one of your last. Morbid thoughts” (Robinson 124). This view of tobacco contrasts Lisa’s grandmother Ma-ma-oo’s belief that “tobacco is for the tree spirits. You take something, you give something” (Robinson 152).


A member of the Nu-Chah-Nulth First Nations, of central west coast Vancouver Island, once told me a story: before and after taking a great tree from the forest for use in longhouses or canoes, or even before taking cedar bark, members of the community would bury fish and animal organs and leave fruit and sacred plants upon the ground by the tree to revere its gift with a gift. Naturally, when a huge, thriving tree is cut from the forest and reveals so much sunlight anew to the forest floor in one patch, such gifts of the human community provide a wild nutrient brew-ha-ha for berry bushes, medicine plants, and new trees. In Monkey Beach, Ma-ma-oo uses cigarettes in “asking for [the] protection” of the “tree spirits,” but traditional cultural contexts of such practices were also known to be beneficial for the cycles of plant and animal nature that are important to eating and ecology (Robinson 152). The respect for gifting to nature along with the spiritual appreciation of living things is a powerful way that traditional cultures maintain valuable knowledge. On the other hand, though, the desperation for cigarettes portrayed in Monkey Beach reminds me of “the sickness” I’ve heard a good number of my First Nations friends talk about in various ways, the social problems that face certain individuals and face endangered cultures, languages, and knowledges—the forgetting and dislocation of culture.


Son of the late Chief Dan George and the chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (or the "people of the inlet") in Burrard Inlet near Vancouver, Leonard George wrote an essay called “Native Spirituality, Past, Present, and Future” wherein he considers the history of his land. He conveys that “[t]he aboriginal people of North America had a system in place that allowed them to live in this land for thousands of years” very well in terms of sustainability and social prosperity (George 161). Things were never perfect anywhere, of course, but several of North America’s aboriginal cultures definitely did live in a manner of deep respect for the Earth and maintain between generations chains of knowledge about food through the telling of ecologically wise stories. Such knowledge as the difference in berries in terms of the plant, the berry’s taste, seasonality, and edibility are transferred in stories and memory: “Thimbleberries are completely different from salmonberries and come out just a bit later,” as Lisamarie tells (Robinson 77). A community’s link to certain knowledge, such as which berries are poisonous, usually is not put in complex spiritual contexts as much as shared and taught as the experience of an area that is the well-known home to a community. Pritchard also discusses “the making of a home” as a prevalent trope in BC literature (Pritchard 101). Lisamarie may go home from berry picking to watch “The Young and the Restless” before eating salmonberry stew, and Ma-ma-oo “[would] shout at the TV” and Mick would chime in “[i]t’s only TV. Everyone’s stupid on TV”; Lisamarie experiences through the novel clashes between the ways of Haisla tradition and contemporary ways of living (Robinson 77). The relation in Monkey Beach between contemporary ways and traditional, aboriginal ways of living constitute for Lisamarie and her family some tension between their native culture’s connection to ecological knowledge and the contemporary culture’s trends of forgetting and thereby unlinking the chains of a culture’s ecological knowledge.


Monkey Beach continually portrays Lisamarie, her family, and her friends as variously in between the old food ways and the new. Very untraditional food in terms of First Nations culture is eaten during the celebration of western traditional holidays, from “hot chocolate and sugar cookies…a beer and a slice of mincemeat pie” on Christmas to “chocolate Easter bunny” feast that leaves Lisamarie “marvelling at how big it was and how much chocolate [she] had” (Robinson 71, 135). Ma-ma-oo, however, carries the knowledge of oolichan fish and grease, using it as food, medicine, and more. Lisamarie doesn’t like the taste of the grease herself, but knows a lot about the fish, including how human contact has left their habitat “polluted by all the industry in town” (Robinson 92). One reason she recognizes the impact of humans on the fish is that her mom told her stories that “the runs used to be so thick, you could walk across the river and not touch water” (Robinson 92). Lisamarie’s family lives with contemporary as well as aboriginal tradition.


In terms of contemporary food options, they don’t always eat well. Uncle Mick, Lisamarie’s “cool” role model, “said it was his job as an uncle to get [the kids] hypered up before he sent [them] home” with “double scooped ice cream and candy” (Robinson 61). I don’t think Robinson was paid for the product placements, but her characters eat copious amounts of branded junk food, from “Jell-O powder…Oreo cookies and Kool-Aid” on the schoolyard on page 44 to Mick’s home-cooked “Kraft Dinner with wieners and some grape Kool-Aid” on page 52 and “Kraft Dinner and bologna” on page 115. Notwithstanding, Mick also lives close enough to the land that he buckets from a nearby stream water that is “burning cool and sweet with the taste of trees” (Robinson 103). However, it is only more indicative of the addictive, harmful lifestyle of contemporary culture and bears relevance to my overall reading that unhealthy food brand Kraft was owned by Altria before 2007 when sold to Altria shareholders, Altria which owns the Philip Morris cigarette companies. Food should not be considered and consumed for tastiness alone (like entertainment) as a contemporary commodity sold along items that are meant to addict, and food should not be sold with the intention of addicting, which has been a growing wonder about some food products and additives, definitely not restricted to Kraft.


The kind of contrast in representation of food from the intricate degrees of knowledge sharing about plants and animals to the binging on junk food and cigarettes is one interesting device (of many) in Monkey Beach that highlights the division between the traditional cultural ways of the Haisla people, which promote a strong and healthy connection to the land, and the contemporary modes of living, where the consumer gets from the store pre-packaged and precooked food and junk food, both of which are usually unhealthy. The modern food choices of the characters in Monkey Beach, especially compared to the more ecological stories about food, are one mode of expressing the novel’s theme of cultural dislocation. The dislocation of knowledge chains concerning food cycles, followed often by eating less healthy and by attending less to the environment, is a worrisome manifestation of cultural problem zones.


In Burning Water, the fictional version of George Vancouver’s search for the Northwest Passage and charting of coastal geography, George Bowering also employs numerous references concerning food and eating, with some interest such as in Monkey Beach toward aboriginal ways of knowing. For example, the title, “burning water,” is a phrase coming from Aztecs, roughly corresponding to the concept of imagination (Bowering v). The novel places an emphasis on imagination as a beneficial and essential faculty for properly living and as contrasted with the work of the mind’s “fancy.” The first passage of the novel consists in a conversation between two “Indians,” a young bloke in the throes of fanciful “vision” and one “about ten years older, a world-weary man with scars here and there” (Bowering 5). The younger one tells the older one: “The old folks told me about them. They said you went alone to the woods with no food for a week or two, and you would see visions. Well, maybe I have not been eating much lately” and he continues after the older one tells him he eats enough, “I am still growing. Surely you would not deny me the nourishment I require to take my place as a full man of the tribe” (Bowering 5). Because the younger one is in a flight of his fancy, the old one starts talking “facts” about fish: “He is a fact whether he is hidden under the surface or changing colours on the rocks. To make this fact your fact, you need skill and a well-made hook” (Bowering 6). The younger one’s fancy interests me: he does need nourishment, but he is not strongly connected in thought to how well he is eating or to how properly he should understand, according to his elder, the realm of spirituality and food.


While Burning Water comes across with great humour (the vision of the younger Indian is none other than George Vancouver’s ship, the Discovery), Bowering’s exploration of imagination and fancy also contemplates the realm of facts. In this first passage, the reader is given hints about First Nations customs of fasting, which are an important way to cleanse the body as well as prepare for spiritual journeying, and about the fact of needing skill (knowledge) to acquire food. In the list of facts about the Discovery, Bowering writes on page 13 the following:

Her storerooms were packed with salt beef, salt pork, peas, beer, and sauerkraut. Few sailors got sick aboard this ship. Captain Cook had taught Mr. Vancouver that you might keep the storerooms washed down with vinegar, and periodically smoke them out with a mixture of vinegar and gunpowder, lighting fires between the decks to force convection currents.


This is the first hint at what turns out to be very humorous play between the captain, George Vancouver, and his crew, who don’t particularly like, or understand for that matter, his insistence on the eating of sauerkraut, which wards off the vitamin C deficiency better known to sailors in 1792 as scurvy. Two pages later, William Blake is mentioned as “the best example you can think of if you’re looking for a poet or artist of the period and you want one who was interested in fact” as well as describing him as a “printer who did not eat a balanced diet”, a humorous contrast with the fact of eating properly hinted at in the conversation of the Indians and by the passage of food facts about the Discovery (Bowering 15). The need to eat well is consistently pointed out as a definite fact in Burning Water, whether the characters understand food safety and nutrition or want to eat a balanced diet.


When two sailors have a petty skirmish due to one not bathing, one yelling “[d]amn it, sailor, get thee downwind of me, or I will throw this sauerkraut down the front of your blouse” and the other, “[w]hy, just yestermorn I saw a gull fall dead from the rail into the salt, and all from perching downwind of you,” the one who threw the sauerkraut received twenty lashes and the other ten lashes as ordered by George Vancouver, because “[h]e was, as we have seen, a fanatic about sauerkraut and discipline” (Bowering 160). The novel contains many of these playful representations of the trouble in getting uncooperative, unknowing beneficiaries to eat well against their will, neither wasting food nor feeling pernicious about the precious facts of nutrition.


Holmes Rolston III in an essay, “F/actual Knowing: Putting Facts and Values in Place,” asks the following: “How do our facts depend on our acts? Do we humans always put in place, or sometimes find put, placed there before us, what we variously value on Earth?” (Rolston 137). He talks of “greening” our beliefs, realizing, for example, that the oxygen we breathe places us in the biological context of being a component to some cycle, some network. Since certain facts about nature’s organization (like the ecological food cycles) totally subsume human activity, Rolston writes that “environmentally grounding [our beliefs about our cultural activities] will require knowing and appropriately respecting these vital life processes—of which we are a part, but which also are “in place” and “take place” apart from us” and writes about such processes as “our respiratory (and perceptual) interactions; these extend systemically and are hardly anthropocentric” (Rolston 138). We are integrated into ecological systems with such intricacy that the system of Humanity\Earth transcends anthropocentric design while at the same time grounds all our social activity. For George Vancouver, his love for sauerkraut is highly anthropocentric—he desires to keep his crew healthy—but his knowledge about Sauerkraut won’t be confirmed until the early twentieth century when vitamin C becomes isolated for the first time. Whether we know it, we always ‘take place’ in the ecosystem which has us ‘in place.’ To reverse my essay’s title in an interesting way, food cycles deeply take place around any knowledge our culture can chain.


Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach and George Bowering’s Burning Water explore life in the same regions on the west coast of British Columbia. Monkey Beach connects the reader in some way to the area by means of many stories about food knowledge, as well as charting an intersection between contemporary and traditional food identity. Burning Water tells a story about the charting of and coming to know the area with numerous references to the discipline and fact of eating properly and the role of the imagination: “Your imagination tells you where to drop your hooks” (Bowering 8). There are other west coast BC writers, including non-fiction writers, who refer to food knowledge and ecological factuality and do so making more direct connections between food, ecology, and human knowledge.


For example, in the collaborative work, Full Moon, Flood Tide, Yvonne Maximchuk and Bill Proctor state that “[t]he most significant factor affecting the lives of people who live by the sea” is the natural cycle of the tides culminating in the flood tide of each full moon (14). The authors relay to the reader that salmon migrate into rivers to spawn during the flood tides (the best time for fishing) and that during the corresponding “low, low tide[,] The old saying on the coast was, ‘When it is low tide the table is set.’ This was the time, often at night, you could dig clams or gather abalone, mussels, crabs and barnacles” (Proctor and Maximchuk 14). I want to pay particular attention to the “old saying on the coast” in relation to the particular ecological cycles and food gathering. That a system of regional knowledge can become encapsulated in an old saying indicates that the chaining of knowledge runs deep in any regionally long-situated, ecologically stable culture. The authors of Full Moon, Flood Tide relay that the “more we know and understand about the world we live in, the greater our respect and appreciation of it” (17).


Proctor and Maximchuk also relay that logging and over-fishing, which occurred without proper knowledge to ensure it to be sustainable and life friendly, injured spawning rivers and streams and depleted salmon stocks:

The [Wakeman] river’s once mighty salmon runs were reduced to a fraction of their former size and the mighty Chinooks have all but disappeared. Nature is trying to heal the wounds in the valley with many kinds of plants. Some…are considered problems…are sprayed with pesticides, which kill much of the new growth and filter into the water, damaging salmon fry. The river is capable of regaining its health, but we human beings will have to help. (139).


These writers are sensitively aware that traditional ecological knowledge is important and are doing their share to inform others in the land about traditional and scientific ecological knowledge that will ensure healthy connection to the cycles. Human industrial economy gave us many fish to eat, but now we can’t eat nearly as much as we used to while our activity continues to prevent the fish from returning to something of their former success. Knowing about such systems of eating and human-consequence ecology will enable us to achieve sustainable cultures. The excerpts, particularly the “old saying”, from Full Moon, Flood Tide that I read gave me the idea of connecting natural cycles such as the tides to cultural chains of knowledge such as clam gardening. If the links in the human chains of knowledge about food and ecology break down or do not form in some culture’s storytelling, then the potential for risk will increase that the culture may act in a way that will disrupt important ecological cycles that subsume our biological needs. The only stories we ought not to pass on are of the best places to fish!


Ernie Crey is a member of the Cheam band of the Sto:lo nation, a near to west coast writer (from Chilliwack,) one who would have grown up seeing the Pacific salmon coming inland from the great Fraser River. In an essay titled “The Children of Tomorrow’s Great Potlatch,” he writes the “day will soon come when First Nations people and whites will sit together to take part in the greatest potlatch of all. They will talk and sing about the wonderful world they will be leaving for their children” (Crey 150). Crey writes that prior to this potlatch, “the whites must learn more of the First Nations history, because understanding is essential to create solutions and harmony” (Crey 150). For instance, “coincident with the creation of the residential schools, the Indian Act was amended to outlaw potlatches…outlawed not exclusively at the behest of the Christian denominations [but because] government officials and individuals at the head of fishing and lumber companies also wanted the “potlatch laws” introduced” (Crey 153).


To the government and industry, Crey writes that “residential schools represented a workforce the companies could draw on in future in order to expand their wealth and thereby their influence on the Pacific Coast” and to the Christian groups, “the residential schools were factories producing souls for Christ” (Crey 153). However, to the First Nations, “[p]arents and children were made strangers to each other. In the schools, children did not learn the meaning of family…It is a universal truth that one learns to be a parent in a family, not in an institutional setting” (Crey 153-154). These schools “virtually obliterated Indian family life and therefore, severely compromised the social order of most Indian communities” leading to higher “incidence of family violence and poor health due to diseases linked to self-destructive lifestyles and poverty” (Crey 154). Separating First Nations communities from the ways of the potlatch (a celebration of peace, prosperity, and sharing that happens between members of different communities) and from their traditional forms of family has harmed their links to ecological knowledge concerning healthy lifestyles. Monkey Beach depicts contemporary Haisla life as a challenge, such as passages about Cookie, Mick’s lover, when Mick’s friend Josh tells Lisamarie, when she asks how Cookie died, that she “got kicked out of three residential schools” for so-called behavioural issues by the time she was fourteen (Robinson 145). There is a subsequent, revealing scene where Josh accidentally tells Lisamarie more than before; while they drink whiskey at a sombre party (itself telling of cultural sickness), he reveals that Cookie was viciously murdered (Robinson 305-9).


In an essay titled “Sechelt Women and Self Government,” Theresa Jeffries, or Sxixixay, of the Sechelt band on the west coast offers her knowledge whose chain links to at least her Grandmother who “would teach us to recognize the right cedar trees, pinpoint the straight roots, and gather far enough from the tree so that the tree would survive. Through stories and myths, she would teach us about our family, our history, and our responsibilities” (Jeffries 82-83). In speaking of the present time (writing in 1991) and noting the lingering dislocation of cultural modes of life, Sxixixay writes that “[i]n order to feed and clothe our families, we rely on outside jobs rather than on the natural resources of the land. We recognize that sacrifices have been made” (Jeffries 85). Hopefully, in all the time it takes for the Sechelt “to rebuild a strong and dynamic community,” western cultural forces will allow traditional cultures to maintain the basic and highly valuable ecological knowledge strewn throughout their community’s chaining of stories and knowledge through the generations (Jeffries 86). Sxixixay notes the Sechelt “as a people have taken steps to strengthen the ties with [their] ancestors by strengthening [their] language and culture,” where the stories and knowledge sufficient to create traditional, sustainable communities persist (Jeffries 86). Knowing that necessary critical measures to maintain traditional cultures must address the imperial, colonial, economic, and repressive cultural forces of the global world, Sxixixay writes that the “process of change…applies not only to the Sechelt but also to the people living on the outside communities” (Jeffries 86).


As Michael Milburn (of East Coast Canada) describes in his essay, “Indigenous Nutrition: Using Traditional Food Knowledge to Solve Contemporary Health Problems,” contemporary global culture must develop the “recognition of a relationship between diet and the chronic degenerative diseases characteristic of industrialized culture” such as perhaps, Ma-ma-oo’s heart problems that the “oolichan grease…would be good” for (Milburn 418 \ Robinson 238). Tying cultural identity to food and health issues, Milburn writes that an


integrated approach, using both Indigenous and Western nutrition, is another possibility for the future, one that respects the diversity of Indigenous foodways and the holistic foundation of Indigenous science. For Aboriginal communities, the path of the ancestors represents both a means of cultural renewal and a solution to the problem of diet-related disease. (427)


For Western civilization to move toward sustainability, people must continue, or start, to tell stories that speak in some way to food and eating in order to add links to the cultural chains of knowledge concerning food and ecological cycles. To understand science and healthy eating and to remember traditional and regional ways of food that we have carried a long time is to respect the great inherent value, potential, and sensitivity of ecological networks and of sustainability. Works such as Monkey Beach, Burning Water, and Full Moon, Flood Tide embody the most visceral way to get these food and ecology lessons into people’s heads: telling them something new in interesting ways and giving them new knowledge. Literature, science writing, and story telling between people has done, and can do, a great deal for promoting and preserving important cultural knowledge about the food cycles and ecosystems that are the subsuming ground from which we arose. We need to tell stories about food.

Works Cited

Bowering, George. Burning Water. Gatineau, Quebec: Gauvin Press, 2007. (1980).

Capra, Fritjof. “Ecology and Community”. Brochure. Center for Ecoliteracy. 5 Dec. 2005 .

George, Leonard. “Native Spirituality, Past, Present, and Future”. Jenson and Brooks. (160-168).

Crey, Ernie. “The Children of Tomorrow’s Great Potlatch”. Jenson and Brooks. (150-158).

Jeffries, Theresa M. “Sechelt Women and Self-Government”. Jenson and Brooks. (81-86).

Jensen, Doreen and Cheryl Brooks, eds. In Celebration of Our Survival: The First Nations of British Columbia. Also BC Studies Vol. 89. 1991.

Milburn, Michael P. “Indigenous Nutrition: Using Traditional Food Knowledge to Solve Contemporary Health Problems”. The American Indian Quarterly Vol. 28. Summer/Fall 2004. (411-434). April 2 2008. Project Muse.

Pritchard, Allan. “West of the Great Divide: A View of the Literature of British Columbia”. Canadian Literature Vol. 94. Autumn 1982. (86-112).

Proctor, Bill and Yvonne Maximchuk. Numerous excerpts. Full Moon, Flood Tide: Bill Proctor’s Raincoast. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing, 2003.

Robinson, Eden. Monkey Beach. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001. (2000).

Rolston, Holmes. “F/actual Knowing: Putting Facts and Values in Place”. Ethics and the Environment Vol. 10.2. Autumn 2005. (137-174). March 28 2008. Project Muse.



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