Bananas Going?

Some like them ripe. Some like them green. Some like them slathered with peanut butter and fried. But most everyone likes bananas.

Now imagine a time when you can’t get them in the store anymore.

That’s where we’re headed, according to an alarming story I read not long ago in The New Yorker detailing the devastating blight which has been wiping out banana plants in Asia and Australia. In the U.S. most of our bananas come from Latin America, so we haven’t felt the impact of the blight yet. But the spread of plant viruses and pests is like the drifting of nuclear dust, only made more visible and with quicker results.

And the reason this blight looms as a greater threat than most is that, although there are more than a thousand different kinds of bananas in the world, the commercial banana industry is dominated by one variety: the Cavendish. That’s the one we slice into our cereal, tuck into our lunch bags, mash up for banana bread.

Once the Cavendish is gone, no doubt commercial growers will switch to some other variety and future generations will grow up never knowing what “real” bananas tasted like. And life will go on, as it tends to do, evolving, shifting, vanished species making room for upstart newbies. Sometimes I wonder what will take the place of humans once we’ve finished wiping each other out.

Of course, I’d like to think it’s still possible that we may learn something from all those bananas. The other thousand varieties of bananas which are resistant to the blight may not taste the same as Cavendish, or look the same – some of them have red or brown skins, for instance – but they have unique flavors and nutritional values which could spice up any meal. For this diversity we should be grateful.

As Michael Pollan pointed out in his brilliant and sobering book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of the most insidious problems in the modern food industry is the constriction of the food chain to a few links. The corporate empire built upon chemically dependent genetically engineered corn and soy  production encourages a synthetic diet as empty of true nourishment as the vapid marketing slogans used to sell it. “Coke Is It”? Really? I think not.

The word diversity has been bandied about so much in the last couple of decades that people tend to stop listening when they hear it. The word has become a kind of shorthand for everything from fairness in the workplace to  enrichment of our culture. But in terms of our planet, diversity is Nature’s insurance policy. It’s a failsafe system so that if we lose one butterfly to a menacing microbe we don’t lose them all. If we lose one elm to a bug infestation, we can still find shade under other trees.

The same principle applies with our own species. We need each other, all the shades of humanity, to ensure our strength and our future. Sure, we all have our differences. We argue, we fight. We kiss and make up. That’s what families do. It sure beats going bananas.

No Direction Home

I went back home last weekend.

Home. That place where, famously, if you go there, they have to take you in.

There are still a lot of familiar faces in the area where I spent most of my early life. And a lot of the familiar landmarks remain recognizable. East is still East. West is still West. But the direction home is no longer obvious.

The house where my family once lived together has been sold. The family itself was fractured long before. Friends have moved away. Businesses disappear. Trees age and die. The landscape alters.

I realize this is simply Time working its inexorable magic. Everything is mutable. But the human heart longs for something permanent. Thus our popular music overflows with clichés about home, “where the heart is,” “where my thoughts are straying,” etc., etc. Home, where, as George Carlin once pointed out in his brilliant monologue about the difference between baseball and football, you are safe.

Maybe that’s only in baseball. In real life, home isn’t reliably safe. Bad things can happen at home. Tragedy, heartbreak, cruelty and despair can suck the life out of any home. Yet, much as the longing for adventure and excitement lures us to seek out new places, the magnetic True North of Home grounds us to an emotional core. It’s the primal hug that makes sense of all human experience.

When I went “home” last weekend it was a bit unsettling to drive through the old familiar terrain and feel like a tourist. The actual reunion event was taking place in Delaware, a state in which I’ve never lived, though I have many fond memories of summers at the beaches there. And this event had the feel of another vacation, albeit truncated by the frantic pace of modern life.

Still, once I got there, and was surrounded by family members, some of whom I hadn’t seen in decades, the setting didn’t matter. The connection was immediate and profound. Time slipped a gear as the links of memory connected, the chain of shared experiences burnished to a new luster, bright as the silver on Patty’s necklace, lilting as Leslie’s laughter.

This is what home is to me now. Not a place on Earth, but a place in mind.

The hardest thing about growing old is the realization that it’s all going by so fast, and you really can’t take it with you. But as long as there are family and friends who share your sense of what makes life worth living, it doesn’t matter where you are. As The New Yorker writer Joan Acocella once put it: “Some people guard their home territory. For others, home is something inside them, and they can take it with them.”

That’s my new plan. With my home inside me, I’m home wherever I am.

What Lies Beneath

"Fin Art"

Images of whales abound in the Northwest. Tourists come from miles around in hopes of seeing orcas breach the surface of  Puget Sound. Cute cartoons of  black and white whales adorn everything from coasters to key chains.

Surrounded by the casual commoditization of the idea of killer whales, it’s easy to forget the power and awesome reality of the actual creatures.

But on a windswept expanse of open ground at Magnussen Park in north Seattle a remarkable work of public art conveys the mystery and the grandeur of whales in an unexpected way.

Seattle artist John T. Young created “The Fin Project: From Swords to Plowshares” in 1998 using 22 decommissioned diving plane fins  from 1960s U.S. Navy attack submarines. Massive steel fins rise out of the ground, some atilt, some buried deeper. The effect is subtle yet striking. As you walk among them you can’t help imagining giant creatures below the surface.

It’s what you can’t see that sparks the imagination.

The work resonates in many ways, but yesterday, as I revisited the site, I found myself thinking of the way we all carry on blithely on the surface of this Earth, taking for granted its solidity, its gravity, the secure foundation of our homes and hopes, forgetting, as we humans are so apt to do, that the Earth has issues of its own. The horrific devastation in Japan from the most powerful earthquake in its recorded history reminds us how puny we are in the big picture. The Earth shrugs, our fragile civilization collapses.

In the years to come, as we rebuild from this most recent natural disaster, more such events are inevitable. The continued survival of mankind will depend on our ability to help one another. Beating swords into plowshares is a start.