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The Sociology of Pumpkins

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The Sociology of Pumpkins

H. Bradford, 9/25/2016


For the first time in eight years, I am not in school.  You might think that after all that time I would be a professor, doctor, or lawyer, or at the very least well on my way to becoming one of those things.  Nope.  I’m just a pretty ordinary person.  Not particularly accomplished.  Two master’s degrees, two bachelor’s degrees, student debt, and the growing paranoia that if I am not in school that my brain will start to decay into mush.   I can see it now.  It looks a lot like a Jack-o-Lantern left on a front porch until the following March.  Just a mushy, discolored, vaguely orange, puddle of goop on the steps.  That is my brain.  No, I must rage against this.  I must learn new things.  I must not forget the old things.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  Write about things.  Write about sociological things.  Write about pumpkins.  Most of the history in this piece is derived from a book that I just read called Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, by Cindy Ott.  While the book provided a pretty good history of the pumpkin, it did not have much theoretical analysis of pumpkins.  I suppose most people don’t consider the theoretical implications of pumpkins.  So, here is it, a sociological analysis of pumpkins.  My late night rage against my dying life.  You know, since someone has to write about pumpkins…sociologically.   


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Cognitive Schema:  


I learned about this in my undergraduate course on Social Psychology.  Basically, according to Eviatar Zerubavel (a name that sounds more like a Final Fantasy villain than a sociologist) we are a part of thought communities which think a certain way about the reality around us.  Our thoughts are shaped by cognitive schemas, or frameworks that pattern how we think about things.   For instance, usually we view butterflies and moths as two separate things.  We lump colorful, pretty, slender, diurnal insects into the category of butterfly.  As the same time, we lump plump, hairy, dull colored, nocturnal insects into the category of moth.  Each of these categories have a shared social meaning.  Women get butterfly tattoos, but probably wouldn’t get a tattoo of a moth.  Gardeners attract butterflies to their gardens, but don’t particularly want to attract moths to their lights.  There are social organizations to protect Monarch butterflies, but one would be hard pressed to even name a single species or family of moths.  Moths and butterflies, as social concepts, are examples of cognitive schemas.  They are social objects with some shared meanings.  Thus, if a fat, dull colored insect flutters by at night, it may get lumped in the moth category.  A brightly colored Luna moth might perplex some people, but generally this lumping and splitting happens without incident.  Things are more complicated with gender or race, wherein cognitive schemas have a greater political and social consequence.  When we think of female we might think: pretty, weak, emotional, passionate, illogical, breasts, long hair, pink, or thousands of other thoughts that create a framework of how we think of women.  Of course, this pigeon holes people, creates difference, divides people, justifies oppression, and ignores all of the gray in-between areas.     


Compared to gender or race, pumpkins are pretty benign in terms of power, but not devoid of it.  The first European colonists to the United States came here with pre-existing ideas about fruits and vegetables.  As such, they classified pumpkins variably as cucumbers, melons, or squash.  Botanically, it is true that a pumpkin is in the same family as cucumbers, melons, and gourds (Cucubitaceae), but socially we make distinctions.  Further, even in the scientific sense, these things are divided by families.  In a pre-scientific taxonomy world, the lines between melons, squash, gourds, and cucumbers were blurry.  Today, pumpkins are viewed as something special and separate from squash, and certainly not a type of cucumber or melon.  Botanically, a pumpkin is, in fact, a squash.  Socially, a pumpkin is above a squash.  No one promotes squash spice lattes or squash pie Blizzards.  Even as a child, I was dubious that my mom’s squash pie was as good as a pumpkin pie.  There was something psychologically different about eating a squash pie compared to its pumpkin counterpart, though this is likely because the squash came from the garden instead of a can.  


With that said, the pumpkin became more than a squash sometime in the mid 1800s.  This is around the time that Halloween and Thanksgiving became popularized as holidays.  It is also a time when the U.S. was moving away from its agrarian roots to a more industrialized society.  The pumpkin emerged as its own entity because of its symbolic value as an icon of plenty, harvest, and rural America.  It also possessed symbolic value as an icon of the North (especially New England) during the Civil War.  The South traditionally used sweet potatoes in pies and desserts, rather than pumpkins.  Abraham Lincoln even made pumpkin pie the national dessert.  Thus, pumpkins were viewed as a food of anti-slavery and a food that represented American history (even though pumpkins were not idealized by colonialists).  It is a similar symbolic value that makes it popular today.  It is an icon of fall, rural living, simplicity, and nostalgia.  It is also a Thanksgiving symbol and symbol of America.  As such, in our American thought community, the pumpkin exists as something more than an winter squash.  Of course, there are other factors that allowed the pumpkin to become a social object that is apart from and above squash, cucumbers, and melons.  


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Use Value:


Use Value is a Marxist term which basically means that an object is valuable based upon its usefulness.  For instance, a pencil is valuable because it can be used to write.  A tree has use-value if it provides fruit or shade.  For most of the pumpkin’s history, it was valued for its use-value.  To colonists, it was useful as a food during lean times.  Since pumpkins store well, it could be eaten through the winter.  It was also used to feed animals.  Even as pumpkins became more popular in the 1800s, they were still used for pies and desserts.  Pumpkin farming was not a profitable venture, as even at the end of the 1880s it was still one of the least profitable vegetables-worth about 1/10 of a cent per pound.  In Marxist terms, pumpkins had use value as a food, but very little exchange value as a commodity.   Yet, in the early 1900s, something changed.  Perhaps owing to decline of rural living, there were pumpkin shows and pumpkin growing contests as rural life became a spectacle.  Pumpkins also had value as Halloween decorations.  In the earlier half of the 1900s, pumpkins started to become more profitable as demand increased and canned pumpkin made its use in foods more convenient.  Today, 87% of pumpkins are grown for decorations.  Ornamental pumpkin farmers net about $691 per acre, a modest amount, but still useful in providing income to small scale farmers.  Pumpkin festivals inject money into local economies through tourism and farms themselves are autumn tourist attractions.  Thus, in the last century, pumpkins have largely shifted from having high use value and little exchange value, to higher exchange value and little use value.            


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McDonaldization of Society:  

The commodification of the pumpkin can be connected to a trend towards the McDonaldization of society.  George Ritzer coined the word McDonaldization to describe the rationalization and homogenization of society.  This process is the result of four trends: calculability, predictability, control, and efficiency.  A McDonald’s restaurant generally has a standard menu with uniform, predictable service and regimented workforce.  Part of the process of a pumpkin becoming a pumpkin (in the social sense) rather than a winter squash was increased control over the production of pumpkins.  Because most pumpkins today are used for decorations, they must possess qualities which make them predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient.  For instance, if a farmer grew off colored, lop-sided pumpkins, they might not appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  The classic or standard pumpkin is the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, which is an heirloom pumpkin from the 1700s when pumpkins were still considered melons and cucumbers.  There are several varieties of pumpkins that have been developed from the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, made specifically to appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  Autumn Pride, Casper, Paint-a-pumpkin, Spooktacular, Ghost rider, and Spirit are examples of pumpkin varieties that have been developed because their size, color, and shape conform to consumer expectations.  Varieties like these have been bred to remain orange longer and have sturdy stems for carrying.  That is, they can be relied upon perform in a predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient manner.    

On the non-decorative end of the spectrum, the predictability of pumpkins is more pronounced.  In order for something to become a commodity, the item in question must have a predictable supply, be transportable or exchangeable, and be profitable to sell.  The industrialization of food made food products more transportable, predictable, uniform, efficient, inexpensive, widespread, and plentiful.  Consider pumpkin pies before industrial agriculture and food.  A person would have to either grow their own ingredients or purchase them locally.  Then, these ingredients would be assembled over the course of hours.  Pumpkins require cutting, gutting, steaming, and peeling.  With the advent of canned pumpkin, a pie could be made easily and cheaply, with more predictable results.  Efficiency, control, predictability, and calculability made products more uniform, which generally appeals to consumers.  For instance, Libby’s (which accounts for 85% of the canned pumpkin market) uses their own variety of Dickinson Pumpkin for the canned pumpkin pie.  Dickinson is a variety of squash that they developed themselves.  These pumpkins actually look more like butternut squashes, but since they are only seen in their canned form this hardly matters.  The company uses fields near their factory to make transportation easier and utilizes smaller contracted farms near their Illinois factory to supply them.  Libby’s provides the seeds to the contracted farmers, but hires other farmers to harvest the pumpkins with machinery that they supply them.  Then, pumpkin loaders are used which can loan a ton of pumpkins onto trucks within 20 minutes.  These are dumped directly onto conveyer belts that move the pumpkins into their factory.  This is all a very predictable, rational, and efficient process.  At the same time, as a labor practice, rationalization increases profits by extracting more surplus value from workers.  If workers are trained minimally, complete tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible, with few mistakes and high output, their labor creates more value for the producer.       

     

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Cultural Capital:

 

According to Pierre Bourdieu, a person’s status in society depends upon their capital.  But, unlike Marx who viewed capital in a strictly economic sense, Bourdieu believed that capital could exist in a social sense as well.  Of of these forms of social capital is cultural capital, or knowledge, attitudes, education, and skills a person possesses.  The original colonists viewed pumpkins as a low class food or the food of primitive people.  They denigrated the pumpkin as rustic and uncivilized.  By disassociating themselves with the pumpkin, really, they were asserting their difference and superiority over Native Americans.  Later, Europeans looked down upon colonists for eating pumpkins, again as a sign of their backwardness.  The foods that one eats is an example of cultural capital.  That is, anyone who is affluent or powerful should not be eating pumpkins.  The conventions of what one eats and does not eat is a form of cultural capital.  Eating the wrong foods could be a sign of one’s race or social class.  To be with the “in club” of those with power, one must adopt their tastes and habits.  Of course, access to economic capital often determines what one eats.  A poor rural person may have no choice but to eat pumpkins.  A Native American might have genuinely liked to eat pumpkins as there was no negative social sanction for eating them.

Today, things have changed and pumpkins are no longer looked down upon.  However, we are in a society wherein obesity and unhealthy eating habits are a sign of poverty.  Thus, eating healthy foods is a sign of greater cultural capital.  Eating a pumpkin soup or pumpkin and quinoa salad is more respectable than eating a hotdog and fries.  Thus, on one hand, pumpkin could be seen as a sign of cultural capital.  On the other hand, because pumpkin spice has proliferated across various fast food and coffee shop chains, it has come to be seen as common.  It is viewed as both feminine and white….and ordinary.  Things that are feminine have traditionally been looked down upon, though whiteness has usually been viewed positively in our racist society.  Perhaps, the lovers of pumpkin spice are not doing whiteness right.  In our globalized pluralistic society, a truly educated and elite white person should seek out exciting, exotic, ethnic and interesting foods.  A taste for the unknown and an adventurous palate are signs of cultural capital.  While the pumpkin spices: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon are certainly exotic, as they come from far off places, they have become too ubiquitous to be seen as ethnic.  A person who likes pumpkin spice is therefore seen as provincial or commonplace, much like how pumpkin eaters of the past were looked down upon.  It is also looked down upon for being feminine.   Rape, unequal pay, unpaid labor, sex work, sexual harassment, and domestic violence are all easier to justify if women aren’t viewed as worthwhile to begin with.  

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Hypermodernity and Consumption:

 

Simon Gottschalk argued that we are living in a hypermodern society.  Hypermodernity is characterized by such things as extreme individualism and hyper consumerism.  He also observed that there is a certain narcissism and megalomania embedded in hyper consumerism.  This megalomania is evident in the use of superlatives such as better, bigger, best, most, fastest, etc in advertisement.  Hyper-consumerism itself is characterized by extreme individualism that stomps out social considerations.  I think that the best illustration of this is the phenomenon of the giant pumpkin.  The giant pumpkin originated in the late 1800s as a spectacle at the world’s fairs.  In 1903, the record sized pumpkin was 403 pounds.  In 2010, the record holding pumpkin was 1,810 pounds.  To obtain pumpkins that size, they must be overwatered, overfed, pruned, and shaded.  The pursuit of the giant pumpkin is an inherently individualistic pursuit as it is done to test the boundaries of size, win prize money, and obtain attention.  The ecological and social costs of the inputs, such as fertilizers and water use, for a pumpkin that will never be eaten and can hardly be moved, is not even considered.  


Perhaps applying hypermodernity to giant pumpkins is a bit of a stretch.  However, I do remember watching this TV show back when I was a child.  The show was called Amazing Stories, and in one episode, a woman purchased some special pumpkin seeds from a traveling botanist (which sounds like an awesome job!).  She became obsessed with growing a giant pumpkin, but is cruel to everyone around her.  She is miserable about having lost the contest so many years in a row and convinced that she will finally win.  Indeed, she grows an enormous pumpkin.  However, she has no means to tow it.  She drags it behind a vehicle, destroying it along the way to town.  Even though the pumpkin is disintegrated, she is convinced that it is still the largest pumpkin.  In the end, she sees that everyone bought the special seeds and that everyone else successfully brought their perfect pumpkins to the contest.  She is a loser once again, left with nothing but the tattered remains of her dreams…and the pumpkin.  The episode really spoke to me as a child.  I remember it after all of these years.  In any event, her jealousy and megalomania drives her destroy her pumpkin and herself.  Blinded by her hyper-individualism, she can’t fathom that perhaps the seeds were a trick or notice that others may also be growing pumpkins.  In a way, we live similarly, trying to assert our individual existence through Pinterest projects, the things we buy, or our facebook photos.  Our giant pumpkin is the identity we cultivate.  The water and fertilizer are the things we buy.  In this way, the pumpkin is a symbol of hypermodernity.  Okay, maybe it is still a stretch…


Conclusion:

I am sure that I could think of other sociological theories or ideas to connect to pumpkins.  It is actually a fun little exercise and a bit of a challenge to think back at some of my coursework.  Perhaps I could connect pumpkins to Foucault’s power-knowledge, as who has the power to decide what a pumpkin is?  Scientists have a monopoly on defining a pumpkin.  To some degree, the food industry has power to determine what pumpkins are.  Pumpkin contests define the rules to what a pumpkin is or is not.  For instance, a pumpkin must be 80% orange to count as a pumpkin in some contests.  Maybe pumpkins could be examined from a feminist perspective.  Peter Pumpkin eater had a wife that he put in a pumpkin shell to control her!  How about the fact that women must haul their kids to pumpkin patches for photo opportunities.  Or the fact that women are looked down upon for our taste pumpkin spice candles, lattes, ice cream, etc.  I say, there should be no shame. Take back the Spice!  Really, the sociological possibilities are as endless and complex as a long tangle of pumpkin vines.  

Commie on a Cruise

Commie on a Cruise


I learned long ago that people judge the way one travels. I had a history professor who asked the class if anyone had been out of the United States. I said I had and he asked me where I had been. I told him, but he scoffed and dismissed me when I said it was a two week bus tour of Europe. At the time, I worked as a housekeeper at a hotel. The trip was something extremely expensive. I nearly ran out of money on the trip itself. But to him, it wasn’t an authentic experience because it was a lowly bus tour and only two weeks. He said, “Oh, you went on one of those whirlwind tours.”   I went from feeling proud and happy to feeling embarrassed. The man called himself a socialist but was oblivious to his own privilege and elitism. (In another instance he chastised me for playing video games, saying that it was better to spend time reading.)


This spring, I went on a cruise. I am embarrassed to talk about it for a variety of reasons. On one hand, from an environmentalist perspective, I may as well tell people that I traveled around on an oil spewing toxic waste barge. From a socialist perspective, the workers on the ship work long shifts with miniscule pay. The workers are hyper exploited. Beyond this, it is seen as something old people do. So there is a little bit of ageism. It is also viewed as tacky and inauthentic. When it comes to cultural capital, cruises (at least on the mainstream cruise lines) are viewed as a tasteless way to travel. Middle class liberal sorts prefer long term travel, study abroad, conferences, retreats, socially conscious travel, or self-catered travel.

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Well, I went on a cruise. I’ve gone on one before. There are many reasons why I have gone. The previous time it was with my boyfriend who hates travelling. So, it is a way to travel that appeals to the people that I know. I always travel alone. Even if I join up with a group tour, I end up alone. As for my previous cruise, I was actually meant to travel with a companion, but it fell through. Thus, for me, a perk is the potential to bring someone with me. None of my friends or family are really into travel.


But, even going alone, another incentive is that the price is pretty low. It is a great way to see some countries for a fairly low cost. When I went on a cruise this spring, I bought the cheapest room. I didn’t gamble. I don’t like shopping. I don’t drink alcohol. So really, once I was on the ship, I spent almost nothing. Spending nothing was a fun little game (well, I did buy excursions). This is a super deal for someone like me who isn’t lured in by the overpriced…everything…on the ship.


Finally, cruising is pretty easy. It is fairly hassle free and generally relaxing. Even having the cheapest room was better than having and FINDING my hostel in Minsk. There is no stress of finding accommodations or food, since it is all right there on the boat. And since the ship is enormous, visible anywhere on most islands, it seems fairly impossible to get lost.

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With that said, here is a communist’s experience with a Carnival cruise:

I chose to go on a 10 Day Carnival Cruise to the Southern Caribbean. The cruise included Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Tobago, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico. This seemed like a pretty good deal because a.) I really wanted to go to Grenada because of its brief history of socialism. b.) When I was 19, I told myself that I would one day go to St. Lucia after I read Omeros by Derek Walcott. c.) It was a new island each day! d.) I was curious about learning more about the other Caribbean countries on the itinerary.


I chose Carnival because it was fairly inexpensive and because I like that it attracts more diverse vacationers.

With that said, I began by cruise by walking from my hotel in San Juan to the cruise pier. I didn’t want to pay for a $40 transfer, so I walked. I felt proud of this as navigating the cobblestone streets with my bags made me feel strong and capable. When I arrived on the ship, I found that almost everyone on the cruise was from the U.S., with a smattering of Europeans who appeared to be either from Germany or Scandinavia. Most of the passengers were retired, but there were people of all ages and even some college aged individuals. From the conversations, it seemed that these people had more working class backgrounds. There were teachers, nurses, police people, truck drivers, fire fighters, etc. but most were retirees. The majority of the cruise passenger population was from the Southern United States, overweight, and white. However, I believe that about 10% of the cruise passenger population may have been people of color, including a few large African American families that were travelling together. In this sense, the cruise was not at all an elitist adventure. My impression was that it was everyday people who had been saving up to go and treating themselves to some pseudo-luxury. The people looked like the people you might meet at Walmart or Old Country Buffet. Of course, there were better dressed, fit, middle class people, but for the most part, the people on the ship reminded me of my mother or people who might be friends with my mother. Just average Americans. I don’t mind that since I live in a communist bubble (speaking mostly to socialists and feminists). It is interesting to be around people who have no qualms with going Black Friday shopping, going to church, and eating at buffets. (By the way, I do like buffets. I like salad bars and as a vegetarian, I have a much easier time finding food at a buffet. I often pick healthier meals when I eat at buffets. My main gripe is that the food quality is never awesome).


As soon as I got on the ship, the buffet was open and passengers immediately took to stuffing themselves. I have read that cruise passengers gain 1-2 lbs a day, which seems impossible. However, buffet for every snack and meal, plus drinks could easily result in this. I also read that cruise passengers drink eight times the amount of alcohol they normally drink. Well, just as I was going to buck the trend by resisting the spend, spend, spend mantra of the ship, I decided that I was going to avoid gaining weight by eating sensibly. In the end, I actually lost two pounds on the cruise! Yes, I have work to do in becoming a fat positive feminist. Still, there is something a bit unnerving about watching people eat so much and thinking about the enormous amount of food waste. It is an environment wherein consumption of all sorts is encouraged.


The consumption was one of the more bizarre aspects of the ship. The ship is a cashless economy. The room card doubles as a charge card. Thus, each time you do a fitness class, buy a soda, or purchase a souvenir, you just hand over your room card. You receive a bill at the end. A person can check their balance at a kiosk, but the ease of spending and the high prices surely results in some unpleasant surprises.   Beyond the bizarre shopping mall feel of the ship is the shopping while at port. Upon disembarking from the ship, passengers are handed a map. However, the map is devoid of landmarks or tourist attractions. It is a shopping map. The shopping map is entirely useless as a navigational tool as it is minimally marked. The map tells passengers where to shop for the best deals on watches, jewelry, and souvenirs. Passengers are also warned not to leave the shops near the pier. Thus, passengers really don’t see the country. They see the weird, strip mall-esque duty free zone by the ship. I went on ship sponsored excursions, but I also ventured beyond the piers into the cities to explore on my own. I found very few tourists who ventured far from the ship. For instance, I explored Bridgetown, Barbados for a few hours on my own and only saw three cruise passengers in the city. It was very similar on the stops in Grenada and St. Kitts. Passengers really didn’t explore beyond the thin belt of shops near the ship. But, everyone travels for different reasons and everyone has different comfort zones. If passengers don’t explore, it is probably due to mobility issues and the fact that the ship itself seems to discourage it.   Of course, if passengers were empowered to explore on their own, the ship would not make money off of the excursions or deals that it has with various shops.

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(A busy shopping street in Bridgetown, Barbados. No cruise passengers to be seen)

On the ship, most of the food service and housekeeping staff appeared to be Asian men, with the Philippines representing most frequent country of origin.   Bar staff, child care staff, and program staff tended to be young and white. Desk service staff appeared to be female and Eastern European. So, it was interesting how there was a racial, gender, and ethnic divide in the work. The most visible staff were always white, young, and English speaking. Because of the cashless economy, tips are charged at the end of the stay. However, I wondered how the tips were divided among the staff or if the staff even received the gratuities. Because of this, I left a little extra in my room for the housekeeping staff. Actually, I felt bad that everyone on the ship had to work so hard. To mitigate this, I kept my Do Not Disturb sign up for two days. I figured that I really didn’t need daily housekeeping as I had plenty of towels and could tidy my own room. Despite my efforts to create less work for the staff, the head of the security came to my room to check on me. He demanded to know if I was alright, as I had left my sign up for two days. Oops! I explained that I had left it up because I didn’t need room service, but after that, I just let the housekeepers do their thing.

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                (The handiwork of an overworked housekeeper)

Another curious aspect of the cruise atmosphere is the social construction of fun. The word fun is thrown around all of the time. Everyone having fun? We have another fun show coming up this evening! Even the daily newsletter/schedule is called “The Fun Times.” There are various activities to keep passengers entertained. These include various musical performances, magic shows, mini golf, the pool, the water slide, contests, comedy shows, etc. I decided I really wasn’t interested in any of them. Instead, I spend my time reading, writing, or walking on the fitness track. Each night I made a ritual out of watching the sun set and doing some star gazing. Because I was only 8 degrees above the equator, I desperately wanted to see the Southern Cross.  I actually spend some time doing writing and research while on the ship, as I was finishing my Master’s Degree in Teaching. Time on the ship provided ample time to finish the 80 page paper I was working on. But, I also spent time in one of the six Jacuzzis on the upper decks. I enjoyed doing this at night while star gazing. The only problem was that the ship creates an enormous amount of light pollution. As such, it is hard to star gaze. The night sky should be dark and clear in all directions, but the deck lights block out the stars. As a whole, I felt alienated from the fun. I was alone almost the entire time, but enjoyed eaves dropping on my fellow passengers to get a peek into their lives and world views. Unfortunately, Carnival’s idea of fun is not nerd friendly. So, I made my own fun. However, I did participate in trivia! This was a highlight of my time on the ship. I even won a trophy for winning at trivia. I had a proud moment wherein a won a trivia game as a solo player against various teams. From then on, when people saw me, they said, “there’s that smart girl.” It was very flattering and lots of fun, of course.

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(Fun for everyone.  Except me.  Though, I do regret never trying out the waterslide)

The only other thing I will note is the pseudo-luxury. Now, I got the impression that no one on the cruise was really rich. Rich people probably wouldn’t go on a Carvival Cruise. They would go on a more exclusive yachting trip. Even the upper middle class have would probably pick a different cruise line. The passengers had money to spend, so they weren’t the poor. To me, they really did seem like my idea of average Americans. The original goal of Carnival and other mainstream cruise lines was to make cruising affordable. So, while it is affordable, it is still presented as a luxury. This is why passengers are encouraged to buy expensive jewelry and watches. It is why they are told to get spa treatments. It is why there are formal dining nights wherein passengers must dress up if they want to eat in the dining room. There was even an art sale. All of this is a packaged way to sell the idea of luxury to everyday people.  I think it is a way for working people to ape the lifestyle of rich people. In a way, it is also an escapism from social class. Thus, I think that for many passengers, the cruise is more about a vacation FROM class than it is an escape TO a destination. For a moment in time, and in that space, the passengers get to experience spending without consequence (until they get their credit card bill). Of course, people are still divided by the expense and location of their rooms, but I am sure there are many others like me who retire each night to their tiny interior cabins.


I enjoyed my time on the islands, but I will discuss them in a future post, as I would like to write about what I learned about each of them. While the visit to each island was brief, I stuffed my days and tried to make the most of my short time. I do believe that I learned quite a bit about each of them and that it further piqued my curiosity about the Caribbean.


So that was my experience. It was a lot of consumerism. It was a lot of complaining older adults. It was a lot of exploited workers. It was boot camp for the ideology of fun and spending. It was lonely. I felt isolated and alienated. But, at the same time I enjoyed it. I made the experience my own by reading, walking, star gazing, playing trivia, doing school work, and making the most of my time on the islands. If I did it again, I would prefer to have a companion. Can I justify the ecological damage? The banal hedonism? The Donald Trump supporters and offensive t-shirts? I find it all kind of fascinating. People may judge me for it, but I would go again.

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Sociology of Ferns

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Today I visited the Tettaguche State Park with my friend Adam.  It was my first time visiting the park and part of a larger goal of visiting four new state parks this year.  So, I woke up at 6:30 am and drove us up the north shore of Lake Superior to head to the park.  The goal was to attend a 9 am hike on the topic of ferns.  As it turns out, the hike was guided by a local lichen expert, Joe Walewski.  He has written a book on lichens and is currently finishing up a guide to ferns.  The hike was also joined by Kurt Mead, who wrote a book on dragonflies.  It was fantastic that we were able to share our morning and the hike with these two experts.  As no one else showed up for the hike, we had their full attention for over three hours.

Before the hike began, Joe asked us what we knew about plants or ferns and why we were interested in the hike.  I honestly just love to learn.  Prior to the hike, Adam did not know that there were different kinds of ferns.  There is no shame in this, it is simply that ferns don’t call attention to themselves in the way that trees or flowers do.  To look at this socially, flowers and trees play a larger role in society.  Flowers are given as gifts or planted in gardens.  Trees are used for a variety of useful things (fruit, timber, maple syrup, landscaping, etc.)  In this way, most people can probably identify and name dozens of flowers and trees.  After all, people can be named after flowers (rose, violet, heather, lily, petunia, etc.) and streets are named after trees (elm, oak, birch, maple, elm).  There is a nightmare on Elm Street, but nothing significant ever happened on Ostrich Fern street.   How many ferns can you name?  Prior to the hike, I could name two ferns.   It should be noted that the social importance of ferns is variable.  In Victorian times, there was a fern craze wherein people wanted potted and garden ferns and made use of fern motifs in designs.  However, today most people don’t yearn for ferns.

Because we aren’t naturalists or trained in botany, we entered the hike as blank slates when it comes to ferns.  I have a bit more history in studying plants, so I know that ferns are ancient and reproduce with spores, but I don’t have much knowledge about ferns.  In a way, this made the hike very exciting.  As we hiked, Joe asked us to identify the ferns and make observations about them.  This was difficult because we lacked the cognitive schema to make such observations.  For instance, when looking at a fern, what do you look for?  For most things in life, we have some cognitive schema.  For instance, when looking at a human we classify them according to race, gender, class, ability, etc.  This is because (for better and for worse…and mostly worse) we are socialized to put people into categories.  These categories have power and impact how we relate to these other humans.  When looking at a fern, we have no such cognitive schema.  So, Joe had to prompt us to look at such things as the shape and size of the leaves, which direction they pointed, the color of the spores under the leaves, where the fern was growing, the size of the fern, the shape of the fern, the coil of a fiddlehead, and other details that would otherwise go unnoticed.  We used magnifiers to look at the coloration of teeth along a stalk of horsetails to determine which species we were looking at.  I had to look at several specimens, as it was hard to determine if the teeth were black or if they had a white outline.  There is enough variation within a species that these subtle details may make it hard to identify the plant.  So, in botany, a population is looked at and generalizations are made (ignoring the diversity between specimens).  In this same way, we are trained to “see” race or gender.  We categorize broadly.  The difference is that there is little social power in classifying horsetails.

It was fascinating to be socialized into naturalism.  During the hike, our world view had to change.  We couldn’t simply walk and passively enjoy nature.  We had to actively look at nature.  We were trained how to look at nature in a particular way.  We were given new language and new cognitive schema.  I have never really paid attention to ferns.  They are sort of the background plants of a forest.  During the hike, I saw tiny ferns that depended upon a certain fungus to grow (botrychium).  There were ferns that grew on rocky surfaces (fragile ferns).  There was a fern that looked like a gnome’s beach chair (beech fern).  We were told that we were looking at the fern equivalent of an old growth forest.  Never before had I appreciated the beauty and diversity of ferns.  Of course, like any socialization process, there are also rules, language, and behaviors to learn.  For instance, we learned about lichens and how to classify them based upon their physical characteristics (crustose-crusty flat lichen, foliose-like a leaf, fruticose-like a little tree).  We were taught how to identify major characteristics of plants and use these with a plant field guide.  We were taught only to eat the fiddleheads of ostrich ferns.

I was struck by all of the things that go unnoticed.  We saw a tiny orchid (Rattlesnake Plantain) which was so small and shy it would have easily been overlooked.  A patchwork of lichen-each an entire ecosystem- is tread across without notice.  Reindeer lichen flourished like a foamy green forest.  There are no caribou to eat it.  We searched for some arctic remnants (Hudson Bay Eyebright and butterwort) but didn’t find any.  These plants survived the retreat of last ice age and have been too far south for 10,000 years!  They survive because of the Lake Superior microclimate that is just cool enough to keep them alive.  This is so fragile and precious!  Climate change could so easily destroy this little botanical time capsule from glaciation.

As adults, it is hard to find that sense of wonder in nature or in general.  I have found that aging tends to lead me towards more disenchantment with the world and more broken narratives.  I am unable to believe the things I once believed.  But today I felt like a child playing in nature.  I felt wonderfully privileged to learn about nature with the guidance of the naturalists.  This knowledge is invaluable.   It is also humbling.  Ferns have been on earth for 360 million years.  They have silently survived the extinction of dinosaurs, giant amphibians, trilobites, and ammonites.  Maybe they will survive our extinction and the death we spread across the planet.

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