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Environmental Literature: A Supermarket Pastoral

Do you ever shop for ideas on environmental literature while filling your basket with fresh produce from the vegetable aisle? No? Well, luckily Michael Pollan does and his thoughts in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) are fascinating.

I particularly enjoy Pollan’s idea of the “supermarket pastoral” which I am going explore in a wider context of literature concerning the relation between man and nature. 

“Organic” on the label conjures a whole story, even if it is the consumer who fills in most of the details, supplying the hero (American Family Farmer), the villain (Agribusinessman) and the literary genre, which I think of as “supermarket pastoral.” Just look at the happy Vermont cow on that carton of milk, wreathed in wildflowers like a hippie at her wedding around 1973.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)

At the end of the article, you will find my suggestions for seven ways of introducing environmental literature through the concept of supermarket pastoral. Enjoy:-)

The Original Hipster Authenticity

Pastoral — idyllic or bucolic — poetry is a mode of literature known since antiquity. The most famous early practitioner is the roman poet Virgil, who wrote his eclogues during the Augustan period (70-19BC). Virgil set his poems among the shepherds and rural surroundings of Arcadia — an idealized Sicily. 

The pastoral is a deliberately conventional poem expressing an urban poet’s nostalgic image of the peace and simplicity of the life of shepherds and other rural folk in an idealized natural setting. Classical poets often described the pastoral life as possessing features of the mythical golden age.

In recent decades the term pastoral has been expanded in various ways. William Empson identified as pastoral any work which opposes simple to complicated life, to the advantage of the former: the simple life may be that of the shepherd, the child, or the working man. In Empson’s view this literary mode serves as an oblique way to criticize the values and hierarchical class structure of the society of its time.

M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms

You might picture Virgil as the original hipster, who saunters through the countryside looking for authenticity. As suggested above, however, the artifical nature of the pastoral serves as an obligue form of social criticism. In a similar way, the Spanish photographer Juan Aballe’s series, Country Fictions foregrounds its own artifice and allows the squalor and poverty of nomadic rural life to shine through the romantic facade:

Displays of Artifice

In this excerpt from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan discusses the ways in which the “evocative prose” of the wholefood market neatly glosses over the more troubling aspects of “the organic movement” whiich has turned a multimillion dollar industry far removed from the local family farm. Words like “certified organic” or “humanely raised” or “free range” are little more than marketing ploys designed to seduce customers and make them feel like their choices make a difference. As consumers, we generally want to believe in the image of happy cows frolicking in green meadows, while still reaping the economic benefits of industrial farming.

This is nothing new. In fact, Virgil’s sauntering poet also wanted to have his cake and eat it too: he longs for the simple pleasures of nature but can only enjoy them through the highly cultured lens artistic sensibility.

Seeing through the displays of artifice, however, may well be an inherent quality of the pastoral. In Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to his Love (1599), the speaker tries to seduce his love with vivid images of nature. While the girl in Marlowe’s poem makes no reply, she does raise her voice and challenge the mellifluous language of her lover in Sir Walter Raleigh’s counter poem The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd (1600).

More recently, during the early countercultural movement of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg’s poem A Supermarket in California makes use of pastoral images to challenge the consumerist conformity of American Society. In the wholefoods sections these days, the subversive elements of the pastoral are usually pushed into the background and the bucolic imagery blinds comsumers to the reality of the industrial organic complex. Compare and contrast:

The Passionate Shepherd to his Love

Come live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

And we will sit upon the rocks,
Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull;
Fair lined slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold;

A belt of straw and ivy buds,
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me, and be my love.

The shepherds’ swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my love.

Christopher Marlowe (1599)

The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd

If all the world and love were young,
And truth in every shepherd’s tongue,
These pretty pleasures might me move
To live with thee and be thy love.

Time drives the flocks from field to fold
When rivers rage and rocks grow cold,
And Philomel becometh dumb;
The rest complains of cares to come.

The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields;
A honey tongue, a heart of gall,
Is fancy’s spring, but sorrow’s fall.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,
Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies
Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten–
In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

Thy belt of straw and ivy buds,
Thy coral clasps and amber studs,
All these in me no means can move
To come to thee and be thy love.

But could youth last and love still breed,
Had joys no date nor age no need,
Then these delights my mind might move
To live with thee and be thy love.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1600)

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
         In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
         What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

         I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
         I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
         I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
         We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

         Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
         (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
         Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
         Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
         Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Allen Ginsberg, 1955

Environmental Literature

Oh, the cow in the meadow goes moo,
Oh, the cow in the meadow goes moo.
Then the farmer hits him on the head and grinds him up,
And that’s how we get hamburgers!
Nooowww, chickens!

Phoebe Buffet, Animal Song (From Friends, 1996)

Pastoral imagery is a vital component in much classic environmental literature. In both his essays Wild Apples and Walking — sometimes referred to as “The Wild” — Henry David Thoreau extols the virtues of a simple life in natural surroundings.

In recent years, Thoreau has become the posterboy for romantic environmentalism — and ironically many of his thoughts about evils of private property encroaching on the domain of nature — are now fodder for what Pollan labels “industrial organic”. Compare Thoreau view of nature with the world of the campaign video “Organic Food for All” created for Penny Naturgut in 2019 by a production company appropriately named Emote:

Nowadays almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap. A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise.

I looked again, and saw him standing in the middle of a boggy Stygian fen, surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.

Henry David Thoreau, Walking (1862)

7 Ways of Introducing Environmental Literature

The supermarket pastoral may be used in several ways as introduction to environmental literature. Off the top of my head, I would suggest the following task and assignments:

  1. Field Trip: Go to your local wholefood store. Take pictures of marketing based on the supermarket pastoral template. Pick up and translate marketing material: folders, brochures, retail magazines.
  2. The pastoral: Read, analyse and compare the poems by Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh and Allen Ginsberg.
  3. Organic Food for All: Analyse the campaign video with emphasis on setting/world building, stereotypes, mood/tone, pastoral elements.
  4. Write a nonfiction essay: Written assignment with stylictic analysis of “Supermarket Pastoral” by Michael Pollan.
  5. Storyboard that: Create an online storyboard for campaign advertising organic procducts.
  6. One Minute Lectures: Watch examples of One Minute Lectures in class. Have students research and write a one minute lecture on an evironmental issue. Students present their lectures in groups of five.
  7. Country Fictions: Write short prose pieces based on Juan Aballe’s photography. Include 10 adjectives with positive connotations.

Enjoy:-)

Published by Morten Mølgaard

cand.mag i engelsk og dansk, litteraturnørd og formidler.

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