By Madronna Holden
What is your idea of hell? In 1976 Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee (from the Grays Harbor area of Washington State) told me his version of the traditional story in which Bluejay visits the Land of the Dead. There, amidst entire nations of Indian people and animal species, Bluejay found a white man, munching away, declaring, “Eat it all up!” Cultee’s version of hell was tragically prophetic. In a consumer society that seems hell-bent on eating up the natural world, we also have a current epidemic of obesity among children. As indicated in the PBS special recently aired on this topic, the loneliness, shame, and personal agony of these overweight children does not seem far removed from anyone’s idea of hell.
At the end of show a panel discussed ways to address the childhood obesity epidemic. It is no small health challenge. Those who suffer obesity at such a young age tilt the odds toward losing their eyesight to diabetes before they reach thirty. Panel members spoke of regaining cultural choices in place of fast (maybe we should call it “fat”) food. They also discussed impoverished food choices in underprivileged communities, where less expensive foods supply calories without nourishment. How many white bread buns or candy bars or chips does it take to give the body the nutrients it needs? Until its nutrient needs are met, surely the body will still hunger. I love one solution to changing their children’s eating habits put forth by members of a Latino community on the PBS show: sharing meals together.
One thing the panel did not address was what the desperate hunger of these children might be telling us, especially when we place it alongside the other diseases of hunger in this nation of plenty—such as anorexia and bulimia. When a child cries over a hamburger he feels he should keep himself from eating, we feel his helplessness, his sense that he has no real power—or right—to nourish himself.
Certainly our media works to distort and manipulate our sense of our own hunger. It is more than lack of exercise that associates obesity with hours of television viewing; it is exposure to this kind of propaganda. Disassociation from our authentic hunger is a boon for a system built on consumption. As an addiction counselor once phrased it, “We can never get enough of what we don’t want in the first place”. Those who never get enough will never stop consuming.
Only a nation out of touch with its own real hunger would allow the pollution of its food—and reward those who create such pollution with financial profits. How can we tell children that they should limit their eating when consumption is so tied into with success in our society—even as our levels of consumption are undermining the natural sources of our nourishment?
Take the pollution of breast milk, which Sweden (but not the US) has effectively addressed by prohibiting the use of dangerous chemicals found in that milk. The chemicals in breast milk reflect the chemical burden we all bear, though infants bear this burden especially uneasily. Their own chemical exposures are linked with escalating rates of autism and developmental disabilities—and of cancer, which is currently the main killer of children in our society.
Recently, a study of the Mohawk community at Akwesasne, where diabetes is epidemic, found that the larger their body burden of particular chemicals, the more likely they were to have diabetes. Tragically that body burden is linked to the consumption of the traditional healthy fish diets of the Mohawk. The problem is that these fish now come from polluted waters—not, need I say, polluted by the Mohawk.
Another growing body of research links obesity with body burdens of particular chemicals as well. It is no surprise that endocrine disruptors should disrupt our body’s ability to metabolize food and regulate our weight. And it is no secret that impoverished communities bear the brunt of environmental pollution and so have the highest body burdens of endocrine disruptors such as dioxin, chlorinated pesticides and fire retardants.
A nation that sanctions such pollution by rewarding it with profit is also a nation divided. It is a nation very different from the kind of society where hunger is shared and satiated by those who live close to the earth that sustains them. In the traditions of elder Henry Cultee’s people, only “low class” people failed to share food with others. “If someone was hungry, somebody else would come along to help”. In this context, it was bad manners even to ask, “Are you hungry?” You just brought out the food. Cultee’s views were linked to an intimate respect for the shared earth that sustained his people for generations.
There are parallel beliefs where people live close to the shared earth that nourishes them. An elderly neighbor of mine tells me that in her natal Czech farming community one did not say “thank you” for a gift of anything—such as the fruit or flowers I sometimes bring her—that comes from the earth. She lavishly praises me (far beyond what my small acts deserve) for my labor and thoughtfulness, but for the gifts themselves she thanks the earth. My Czech grandfather had a similar reverence for the natural world—a reverence that also mandated sharing. My father tells of the time the police caught two men stealing meat from his tiny Iowa butcher shop. When they asked my grandfather if he wanted to press charges, he replied, “If they are hungry, the meat belongs to them. Give it back.”
Hunger is not a sin, nor is nourishing ourselves. Nor is poverty, for that matter. I agree with my grandfather’s assessment that true poverty is expressed by those who have too much when others are starving.
I would like to suggest that if we wish to cure the epidemic of obesity outlined in the PBS special, we should feed ourselves well, addressing our hunger for such things as community, belonging, purpose, acceptance, creativity, time to ourselves, and physical exercise—not to mention sustaining food, fresh air and clean water. One of the hopeful signs I see is the (literal!) sprouting of urban gardens in which healthy eating, care for the land, and community are combined.
A world in which we truly nourish ourselves would be one in which we listen to our bodies to tell us how to meet our physical hunger (even if we have to work to relearn this), and our hearts to tell us what unique gift each of us is meant to give back to the life of our shared world.
In which we care together for the earth upon which we rely to feed us all—rather than “eating it all up”.
You are welcome to link to this post. Note, however, it is copyright 2008, Madronna Holden. Feel free to email me if you wish to pass it on in any other way than linking to it.
Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, Ecofeminism, environmental philosophy, Environmental psychology, Health, Health and healing links, Our Earth and Ourselves, Working for justice, worldviews | Tagged: community and health, comparative worldviews and health, Henry Cultee, hunger, obesity |