anthropology, culture & society, feminism, love

food for thought

Over two years ago now (scary), I took a course at St Andrews called ‘Anthropology and Eurasia’. It was, by far, one of my favourite courses ever. During a seminar one day the group discussed an article written by the course lecturer, Dr Stephanie Bunn. The article was short and deceptively simple compared other dense texts but incredibly powerful. Put briefly, it was about food.

In Kyrgyz, the language of many nomadic peoples indigenous to Kyrgyzstan, the word küt means food–and bone, nourishment, ancestors, fate, the stars, sustenance, fortune, luck, family, and more. This had links to how the Kyrgyz people would divide up the meat of a sheep by family role and status. The eyes of the sheep were given to the oldest female as a sign of honour, and it went on from there. The sheep was raised, herded, cared for in different ways by different members of the family, and it thus reproduced and reinforced family relationships even as it was being consumed.

I remember how each young woman in the class seemed struck by this expansive way of tying food into so many aspects of life. One classmate, in particular, said something that I remember clearly even today.

‘Food,’ she said, reflectively. ‘I mean, that’s just not what it means here. I feel like every young woman here can say that food, for them, means something so different. Calories, weight, health, restriction, guilty pleasure, diets, beauty, fitness. On holidays and at Sunday dinners, it has something to do with family, but you always come back to how what you eat means for your worth as an appearance. And this applies to lots of men and women.’

I sat back in my chair and thought about this. Images raced across my mind.

 

 

What the hell, I thought. I then quickly tried to put together a mental map of food that somehow reflected my very limited, very western perception of Kyrgyz values. It looked so different.

The image that struck me in that moment did not render the eater an object of marketing. Instead, food became a focal point of connection to the cosmos, family, society, our bodies, our actions.

It would be a bit silly and ethnocentric to portray Kyrgyz people as somehow ‘innocent and pure environmentalists’. The dynamic and ever-shifting Western environmental values are based on individual and national history and philosophy; a Kyrgyz worldview, by default, must be different yet equally complex and varied.**

I don’t want to go into it all right away in a single blog post, but instead I wish to rest on a few questions.

In light and in spite of the fact that this concept küt exists in a very different cultural setting, what can we learn from it?

How can küt challenge our understandings of ourselves, our bodies, and our relationships?

What does küt make you think about your relationship to your environment?

What does food mean for you? Does it connect you to others or separate you from them?

It’s a powerful word, a powerful concept. I’ll leave you with küt as it’s far more eloquent than more of my words could be.

Sources

2016 Anthropology and Eurasia module as taught by Dr Stephanie Bunn.

images:

http://www.rosemarysheel.com/archives/kyrgyzstan-landscape

https://www.theapricity.com/forum/showthread.php?192502-Kyrgyzstan

https://xpatmatt.com/photos/kyrgyzstan-photoessay/

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/

http://www.hollysierra.com/files/?C=S;O=D

 

**disclaimer

I dearly hope my ‘mental maps’ as portrayed here isn’t in anyway trivalizing of the complexity of Kyrgyz culture or, on the other hand, U.S./broader ‘Western’ culture. This post is meant as a bite-size dose of anthropology, a way of posing a question, and not in any way representative of broad swaths of communities.

 

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culture & society, feminism, personal journeys, Uncategorized

I am not a strong, independent woman

Sometimes I go traveling or rappelling or hitchhiking by myself. Other times, I drink wine in the bathtub because it was a really hard day and I just want to listen to Celine Dion in peace, goddammit. Sometimes I’m strong and sometimes I’m a mess. Sometimes I’m independent and sometimes I just really, really need to be cuddled and probably want someone to give me chocolate five minutes ago.

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stacking stones at the Brough of Birsay, Orkney Islands: a balancing act

I don’t believe anybody can be strong and independent all the time.

The cliché really bothers me, mostly because ‘strong, independent women’ are pretty much made to look all the same. You know what I mean: in movies, you get a ‘strong, independent woman’ who’s innocent but sexy, as strong as a guy but still definitely feminine, independent but happy to take a guy on board. She’s different from all the other girls, acts like a guy, and is almost completely strong and independent.

This strikes me as a wee bit unrealistic, no? Also, the stereotype is based on the assumption that being strong and independent is a very male thing to be. Think of any Mission Impossible movie and you get my point.

This stereotype is dangerous because it focuses on one person or character as a ‘hero of the story’, an ‘intrepid adventurer’ but neglects to show a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses. It’s great we have Wonder Woman and Khaleesi (and I love them dearly), but I also think if we think that only unrealistically and narrowly-defined strong, independent women can do strong and independent things we’ll limit ourselves horrendously. I want to see more action movies with young, scared single moms as the leads; I want to see more far-less-than-perfect characters.

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Women–simple, everyday women–who are sometimes strong and sometimes weak can do incredibly strong things. They can go on adventures, be the unexpected hero like Bilbo Baggins, and be independent even though they sometimes also aren’t.

Instead of trying to be strong, independent heroes, let’s try to be strong characters: interesting characters who grow and evolve, fail and thrive throughout a long story that defies a linear plot and simple answers. Love the strength and weakness, the muscle and the frown lines, and allow yourself to feel everything that comes with being alive.

 

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anthropology, culture & society, mountains, munros, personal journeys, Scotland, travel & adventure, Uncategorized

where do we roam?

My father has told me several times throughout my life that freedom is the degree to which you are able to take responsibility for yourself. 

Caveats and social justice questions aside, I believe this no more firmly than I do on the river, at a crag, or in the hills. The ability to roam or wander and to know that you and only you can be responsible for your own safety–or your own ability to experience awe and joy–is distinctly empowering.

It’s wearing your mortality as proudly as a bird wears its feathers, letting your own awe and smallness take you deeper into the world.

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me getting ready to wild camp on the Trotternish Ridge with Maryam. Isle of Skye, Scotland

In Scotland, I mainly experienced this freedom by walking. If you’ve been around this blog before, you’ve heard me talk about it a great deal. Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ made this magic. Very simply, as long as you don’t damage someone’s property or trample their garden, you can pretty much walk anywhere that isn’t industrially dangerous. You can camp in fields as long as you don’t damage crops or disrupt livestock. You can cut across miles of pasture on your way up to a knife-edge ridge. This freedom strikes me as fundamental to the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions: you are responsible for how you care for the landscape, for your own safety, for navigation, for each step.

This freedom enables so many adventures. I climbed munro after munro, walked the entire 117-mile Fife Coastal Path and other hills besides with a dear friend, explored miles of the Moray Coast with another, and wandered and hitched across many islands.

Here in Pennsylvania, there is, quite sadly, no right to roam. It’s strange as ‘roaming’ seems to be very compatible with American mythology. Instead, I find some of that freedom on the rivers, the crags, and the creeks.

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Nick getting us ready to kayak on the upper Allegheny River

Nick and I have put in many miles this year thus far, kayaking parts of the Allegheny River, the Clarion River, the Kiskimenetas River, and Buffalo Creek. It’s been a lovely adventure. Oftentimes the waterways carry us past old railroads which have been turned into paths for cycling and walking–‘Rails to Trails’ for anyone who’s not familiar.  Primitive camping sites along some of these rivers give me a little of what I miss: complete responsibility for my food, my sleep, all my needs, just for a day or two.

At some point, I think I’ll tell the story of how the ‘right to roam’ was actually won in Scotland. It’s a good story with mass trespassing and angry union workers demanding a right to walk and move and enjoy their country without having to spend an arm and a leg. (Though the crags might take an arm or a leg from you for themselves.) I’ll explore how ‘adventure’ and ‘recreation’ operate in different places and amongst different sociopolitical systems. For now, however, I have a few questions.

What do you think of the right to roam?

Do you think the right to roam enhances or detracts from personal freedom?

Do you think that, if U.S. citizens were able to experience more of their environment more freely, there would be a greater desire for environmental responsibility?

What does ‘private property’ mean, and what does freedom mean to you?

Just questions to ponder. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy whatever adventure is readily available to you. Personally, I believe nearly every place offers its own unique freedom. It might not be as readily available to one group of people as it is to another, and that’s part of the inequality inherent in our current world. But I also believe that making the world such that more people might enjoy it takes going out there and enjoying it for yourself, claiming space and claiming adventure.

That’s the only way you can share the joy of the outdoors with others and advocate for the expansion and preservation of that joy.

Do and enjoy what you can, now, with what you have, and share your explorations whenever possible.

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anthropology, culture & society, mountains, travel & adventure

I love the outdoors, but…

climin

Nick and I climbing at Lion’s Den, PA, with Dalton and Brooks

My boyfriend, Nick, and I have been climbing outside about thirty times this year so far and love every minute of it. Yet, each time we packed up and left, we had a decent bag of plastic wrappers, containers, etc. I’d thought a little about the whole zero-waste thing and had brushed it off as worthy but nigh-on unachievable goal. This, though, hit me differently, and we started doing clean-ups.

Then, the other day, cleaning up alongside the road where I live, I found several health foods wrappers. Organic, all-natural, great-for-the-planet wrappers, on the side of the road.

It makes me think more broadly about the outdoor recreation and health foods industry. Gear and health foods are expensive and often come from far away, thereby consuming more resources whilst simultaneously creating a ‘healthy, outdoorsy’ experience that few can really afford to live up to. There’s always the next superfood or the next piece of awesome kit, isn’t there? It’s impossible to keep up. 

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swimming in the North Sea with Ayesha this past April, photo by Josh Grinham

 

This expensive ‘all-natural’ lifestyle is increasingly celebrated on social media. One doesn’t have to look far to see photos of avocados (from Mexico) and quinoa (once a traditional South American food in such demand few local people can afford it) salads being eaten on a filtered hike. I mean, I love quinoa and avocados, and beetroot and kale and cliff bars and all the other obnoxiously hipster food. It makes me feel good and I genuinely like the taste.

But, underneath all of this, we’ve unconsciously created a brand of exclusivity: not only does this ‘lifestyle brand’ exclude certain people all across the production and consumption line-up, but it also excludes a full awareness of everything that went into creating that image.

The speciality foods, the packaging waste that will long outlive us, the ill-effects on the lives of others—these are the things I don’t want to think about. I like the ease and convenience of pre-packaged food. I also like foods that make me feel better about myself.

I don’t have an answer for this. When one looks at the sheer number of landfills, of trash in the oceans, it can be disheartening. I’m tempted to veer between the extremes of giving up or becoming belligerently and self-righteously zero-waste. I don’t want to do either, but I know I have done both at different times.

Instead of an answer, I have a few questions:

What would it look like if climbers, mountaineers, hillwalkers, hikers, and backpackers bought local, in season foods and knew how to prepare them for the hills and the backcountry?

What would it look like if we all knew a thing or two more about responsible foraging?

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Nick and I enjoying camping and kayaking along the Clarion River with Dalton and Andi

 

What would it look like if a few friends got together and swapped foods they’d made themselves?

I just hope my kids and their grandkids can enjoy the crags, the hills, and the rivers I love so much. It’s not an original sentiment. But it is an honest question, and I hope someday I’ll have an honest answer.

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anthropology, culture & society, feminism, mental health, personal journeys

blubber

Here is a guest post I wrote for Women from the Blog, a wonderful site run by dear friends. Follow me there for the rest of this story. 

I was four years old and my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world.

She was much taller than me, and I felt very tiny next to her, especially when we compared feet and she tickled my toes.  I loved her hair, which was long and which I loved to watch her dry, and she had a smiling laugh, bright blue eyes and straight white teeth.  I remember being very young and showering with her and wishing, hoping that I would be like her when I grew up.  Even the water seemed to run over her skin and through her hair like it was made of magic.  She was flawless. 

I remember her reading me a book about whales.  I watched videos about them, too.  They sang in the deep, the book said.  The blubber meant dolphins and whales were more buoyant…follow me to Women from the Blog for the rest of the story. 

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anthropology, culture & society, Uncategorized

our rainbow bridges

It’s no secret that I love anthropology. Ever since I was a kid, I loved reading about different people and places, and, at the University of St Andrews, my Social Anthropology degree irrevocably changed how I think. But a recent visit with Oma–my German grandmother–reminded me of one of the most crucial lessons I learned throughout my whole degree.

It seems that every time I see my oma, I hear another part of family history for which I’d previously been a little too young. Germany during and after World War II was, of course, a very complicated place, a place whose figments often resurface in my mind and challenge my sense of identity.

I wonder what my great-grandparents thought about the war. I wonder which prejudices they carried, which dear friends they lost, which homes were bombed and burnt around them. The potential for baffled complicity with genuine evil terrifies me just as much as my sympathy for indescribable loss moves me.

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my oma as a little girl

Thus, the stories my oma tells me of her own small family during that time strike me hard. Recently, she told me the story of her biological father.

The man and soon-to-be father was taken prisoner by the Russians at the Eastern Front and spent five years in a Siberian gulag. My oma’s mother assumed he was dead. When her biological father finally came back, he found that his former best friend had divorced his own wife after falling hard for my oma’s mother so they, in turn, could be married. My oma only found out that the man she grew up knowing as her dad wasn’t, in fact, her father, when she was in her thirties. This, of course, was long after she had crossed the Atlantic and had two children of her own.

My oma has only one memory of her biological father–that of a sad man sitting across from her and her mother at a restaurant. My oma was three years old, and she remembers the thin and weary man signing papers. He pushed these papers back to her mother one by one and with a sigh.

Oma and I were bent over a sewing project as she told me this. My hands looked so long and clumsy next to her compact and quick fingers.

“I would never condone their actions. I can’t say I understand why they did what they did, and I would never do it myself, Schatzi,” she said, bending over me. “Hold that cloth tighter. There you go. You need to keep the tightness same.” She paused. “But Em, you also cannot understand what they went through. You did not see the darkness they did. You can talk about it for as long as you want, but you never really hear what they were thinking. I think about this from time to time.”

There was nothing to say after that; her words sunk deep into my head as my fingers worked.

My oma and I spent hours and hours talking about everything and nothing. She gives me a very deep sense of home; her accent makes me feel safe and her still-broken grammar carries the same mistakes my mother sometimes makes when she’s not careful, that sometimes even I make when I’m a bit spacy. We watched travel shows in German together and talked about people we trust, people we love, hiking trips we’ve enjoyed, and about how to best plan for traveling. We talked about traveling to St Petersburg together in a year or two, and we agreed to do our separate research.

When she left, I cried for a good half hour because I hadn’t been able to be a child with her and play with her and know more about her. Maybe I’m a total dork, but it struck me that this is the challenge with almost every relationship and in nearly any culture. You want to know a person, yet, at some point, it comes down to words. It comes down to a thin bridge made of sentences and memories. Sometimes, this seems just as implausible as following a rainbow to a crock of gold.

Making space in my life for these small stories continuously strikes me in a way I never anticipate. The words my oma and I spin together create a place where we can understand each other while knowing that, as she says, “One can never know what goes on behind the forehead of another person.” Our listening makes me keenly aware of the places words can never bridge, no matter what I wish, while also making me wish and work harder for the bridges I can build.

I believe this “making space”, this affirmation of the humanity of those who we will never understand, is anthropology at its best. How can I ever claim to understand or to study something or someone I do not first listen to out of love?

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