Friday 1 May 2020

The Martian

American resilience on Mars
Yesterday was much healthier. I transplanted the later-sprouting broad beans; I took a lunch break; I weeded the gardens; I knocked off at 6 and went for a walk with B.A. It was short, as we wanted supplies from Tesco. We had to wait for about 20 minutes outside. There's a new queuing system, apparently, but for all that it was harder to maintain "social distancing" in the store and many of the shelves are bare again. Perhaps Thursday evenings at 7 are a bad time to go.

We ate supper watching The Bookshop, which is much, much slower than The Martian, our Wednesday night fare. I absolutely loved The Martian, which looks like a sci-fi Western, but is really an old-fashioned film about American problem-solving and derring-do. If you don't know, the premise is that an American astronaut, played by Matt Damon, is left for dead on Mars, but he is very much alive.

"I would have given up at once," Benedict Ambrose remarked. If forget it this was before or after Matt Damon performed surgery on himself and stapled the wound shut.

"That's because you're not American," I said smugly although I, too, am not American. (I have American ancestors, though: there was some border-crossing over two centuries in that part of the family.)

To be fair, though, nobody who would give up at once would be permitted to become an astronaut. I am sure that, when there is a real Mars mission, NASA will pick the astronauts on their characters, part of that being the ability to solve problems and another part the refusal to quit.

I loved the problem-solving in The Martian, as well as its excellent "problem, recovery, worse problem, recovery, even worse problem..." plot structure. Were it not for the swearing, I would recommend it to my writing students in a heartbeat. Apart from a salty joke that went over even my head (I think) and the swearing, it is entirely family-friendly and may inspire gazillions of children to become scientists, if not astronauts and, above all, to not quit.

The Martian also features growing food on Mars. That part was extremely cool.

This morning I got up a bit later than usual, made my coffee, went out to visit my crops and the apple blossoms, and reread "The Problem of Tobacco" before sounding out another chapter of Baltic.

"The Problem of Tobacco" is rather exciting because it reveals that the Great Literary Ecologist of the 20th Century is or was a tobacco farmer. Thus, Berry comes to grips with the moral implications of the near-certainty, in 1991, that tobacco is toxic. He points out early on that a lot of other things, like car exhaust and cocktails, are toxic, too.

The moral dilemma is that that tobacco, while lethal to some people, has sustained generations of  other people. Fortunately for his community, but unfortunately for other farmers, by 1991, tobacco was the one kind of crop that was good for the soil, farmers, their culture, their community, and their wallets. This was because of the "tobacco program" that preserved tobacco farmers from the unhelpful dog-eat-dog competition between other kinds of crop farmers.

Berry's proposed solution to the moral problem of tobacco is the replacement of the tobacco crop with food crops which would be sold to local communities. What the individual can do to make this possible is "to start buying produce from local farmers."

Yesterday I put in an application to a local farm to be one of their new customers. They had lifted their ban on new customers during the coronavirus crisis. They are about 18 miles away. There is a closer veggie box program (11 miles), but they aren't taking new customers yet.

There are a lot of neat things about this chapter, including the description of community life for tobacco farmers, the declaration that we are "an addictive society," and that one of our unhealthy addictions is the automobile. I am highly sympathetic to all of that, and the last one is easy for me because neither B.A. nor I, for various reasons including character flaws, can drive.

Let me just say from the beginning that although I think it is admirable to get through life without owning a car, it is not admirable not to know to how to drive. B.A. took lessons but never took his test. I never took lessons at all. Bizarrely, I have taken firearm lessons, but not driving lessons. I can't drive, but I can shoot. I am not sure when I will rectify this odd lacuna. Perhaps never.  But at any rate, we are living proof you can keep yourself employed, fed, watered, exercised and entertained without owning a car---as were my maternal grandparents to me.

My grandfather bicycled to his work, about 10 minutes away, and my grandmother walked to her pin-money jobs and took the bus on her shopping expeditions. And here's the thing. Tobacco did kill my bicycling grandfather, but my smoking, walking grandmother was quite demonstrably more healthy than my non-smoking, driving grandmother. They both died in their 80s, but I believe my non-driving grandmother had the healthier life--despite the tobacco, which she quit cold-turkey in her late 60s.

I have a lot more to say about automobiles and "The Problem of Tobacco" but I see that it is past 10, so I must get to work.


  1. Hi Dorothy, you should perhaps have a look at an article on Rod Dreher's blog on jazz, which, oddly, has some thoughts on the writing of Wendell Berry, who Dreher admires immensely. He raises his lack of humour despite citing him as a far better writer than he himself--Dreher--will ever be, and how this effects the quality of his writing...very interesting stuff.

    1. Thank you, I will! I often read Dreher, but I missed that one.

    2. I've read it! Thank you.