Monday 23 December 2013

In the Christmas Spirit: Tidings of comfort for all (or, what if the food chain didn’t pass value UP?)

As I gather with my family to make our yearly buche de noel, a cake shaped like a tree branch that we make during the darkest week of the year as a practice that involves much cheer, warmth, coziness, and reminder of our love of trees (when they leaf out again, when they are burned in our fires and built into our projects, and here, at the very northernmost edge of fullsize holly trees, in the glory of evergreens), I am reflecting on some of the most powerful themes of my year-long project of mapping the geographies of food stories. Influenced by the work of Mike Mikulak, it seems that this year’s most important narrative theme may be one of asserted abundance in the face of fears of scarcity – and this seems particularly salient as I struggle to retain a focus on the interesting parts of reciprocity in seasonal gift giving.

Most conversations about environment, food, and resources in which I’ve participated this year have struggled, at some point, with the question of what it means to have “enough for everyone.” People seem increasingly interested in how to talk about climate change, income inequity, and food justice in ways that give more people entry points – rather than in ways that trigger “loss frames”: concentrating on how to get people enough comfort to embark on a different conversation with composure and ease rather than feeling destabilized and disregulated by the fear of loss, or, worse, disgust at others who might seem less deserving of what we feel we have earned, by having it, especially in the defensive light of fear of loss.

Christmas and the other yule holidays seem designed as a stay against the fear of loss, especially in cold northerly latitudes where the turning of the darkest days may signal a return to light – but also a long cold season ahead, particularly hard to face from the darkness. Caroling to others, spreading baked goods around, cheery lights and fires, and even presents all seem designed to press gently back on the dark with its threat of cold and want, largely by the reassurance that there is plenty to go around, in comfort, for all (as well as that the green will return and the forests will be maintained as plentiful sources of provision).

As I think about the moral economy involved in this cake log – the reminder that everyone needs forests, that they are not just for the few at the expense of the many, that they must be cared for over time, even when we want them most now, and even over generations, even though that may not be conceivable – I realize that the traditions of the yule log involve wishes that the coming year might bring good fortune for all, including much happiness and food. And this underlines one of the most prominent emerging themes in my conversations about food: food sovereignty, which in this light might be interpreted as an assertion of the value of maintaining good fortune in circulation amongst all our relations – not allowing value to escape “up the food chain” – the danger I interpret people being concerned about in the loss framed narratives about the commercialization of Christmas. So may your  yule log burn merry and bright, and may it be easy for you to share comfort with all as we head over the hump of the darkest days in its warm light to the cold and uncertain days ahead!

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