On why I painted author, educator, and gardener Joan Gussow
Portrait of Joan Gussow by Robert Shetterly. (Credit: AmericansWhoTelltheTruth.org)
The artist’s essay that follows accompanies the ‘online unveiling’—exclusive to Common Dreams—of Shetterly’s latest painting in his "Americans Who Tell the Truth" portrait series, presenting citizens throughout U.S. history who have courageously engaged in the social, environmental, or economic issues of their time. This painting of author and gardener Joan Gussow, one of the first experts to advocate that we "eat locally, think globally" is his latest portrait of those who have dedicated their lives to fostering healthier lives for people and more sustainable systems for the planet. Posters of this portrait and others are now available at the artist’s website.
Joan Dye Gussow will be 87 this year. I visited her last August at her lovely home on the Hudson River north of New York City. The house, designed by her and her late husband, the painter Alan Gussow, abuts the road at the front. Most of Joan’s energy, however, goes into the narrow lot running behind the house down to the Hudson. The lot is all garden—vegetable and flower beds and fruit trees. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy decimated her garden, drowning it under six feet of water. At 83 she rebuilt her garden beds, raising them a foot and constructing a small dike to withstand frequent flooding. I did not paint Joan Gussow for the Americans Who Tell the Truth series because she is an octogenarian heroically struggling to save her gardens from climate change and its effects on a massive river. I chose to paint her because for longer than almost anyone else in this country she has been preaching the necessity—for human health, ecological health, and energy health—of local, organic agriculture. About Joan Gussow, Michael Pollan, author or The Omnivore’s Dilemma and whose portrait I have also painted, said, “Once in a while, I think I’ve had an original thought, then I think and read around and realize Joan said it first.” The New York Times calls her, “The matriarch of the eat-locally-think-globally food movement.”
An idea whose time has come is a curious phenomenon. What prepares a culture to adopt a new idea, an idea that precipitates a change in values and lifestyle? A change in language, a change in perceived wisdom? A change in how we instruct and raise our children?
Community gardens, young people returning to the land, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), the mainstreaming of organics, farmers’ markets, the obvious sanity of local growing are no longer revolutionary. The realization that the ramifications of industrial agriculture make it not only unhealthy by every measure, but also unsustainable has become a popular thought. Promoting these practices and ideas doesn’t elicit smirks and rolled eyes. One finds no resistance among consumers to locally grown food apart from the problem of price. Local, organic agriculture is an idea whose time has come. Of the major systems that support our unsustainable lifestyle, food production is one of the easiest to replace by common people in their own communities. It’s much harder to change the transportation system!
The part of this new awareness that has not yet become mainstream is the urgency. In the 1970s, Joan Gussow already understood the connection between the industrial farming of both crops and animals and climate change: Fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides, massive pollution and runoff, soil depletion, dead zones, chemical residue, vegetables without nutrients, mono-cropping, absurd energy usage to move fresh crops all over the world—on and on. These are the warning signals, the emergency sirens, that have been blaring for years. Add to these, climate change induced droughts, floods, and increased insect predation and the urgency factor becomes a piercing shriek. But perhaps it’s not fear that enables people to tune in to the frequency of urgency. Maybe it is just the opposite. When people are not afraid of an idea, but trust it, it’s time has come. Then they can be less afraid of the changes required to their lifestyles than the consequences of continuing with the status quo.
Joan Gussow was one of a handful of revolutionary thinkers (two others being Scott Nearing and Wendell Berry) who promoted local, organic agriculture well before its time had come. Such thinkers remind me of artists who sketch a window onto a solid wall and say, try it, it’s a real window, you can see the future! And it is real, you can see the future. They give us permission to see the reality of what seems imaginary. Joan Gussow was teaching nutrition at Teachers College, Columbia University in the 1970s when she published The Feeding Web, a book that brings together critical thinkers from around the world to examine food policy in the context of culture, advertising, capitalism, environmentalism, health and politics. They’re all related—they have to be when food is perceived as a center of profit rather than health.
To give you an idea of how Joan Gussow was thinking in the 1970s, I’ve copied below a few of the quotes I found in The Feeding Web. Reading them you will see why I painted her portrait. And, by the way, that book is out of print but attainable through used book stores. It is as thought provoking and challenging today as it was then.
She said: “…the purpose of advertising at this time, in this country, is to stimulate wants and instill needs, to promote consumption beyond need—i.e., overconsumption.” Joan Gussow was already critiquing an economic society based on overconsumption. She’s not just talking about the obesity epidemic, but the morality of measuring the success of an economy on ever expanding markets, selfishness, greed, resource exploitation and waste. She’s talking about a society engineered not for the welfare of the people but for the profits of the advertiser and the political system that supports the consumption.
She said: “Highly processed foods are not really cheap—they cannot be, for someone has to pay for the processing. That French Batter Mix, which contains more sugar, whey solids, and wheat flour… costs more—and provides less food value—than the eggs it presumes to replace.” In her calculations, she included the subsidies awarded to industrial farmers from income taxes, the health costs of people living on such poor food, the environmental costs of depleted and polluted land, the loss in children’s intellectual acuity and energy from a diet of processed food, the cost of the addiction to sugar, fat and salt, the cost of the parent’s loss of knowledge about how to prepare healthy food for themselves and their children — knowledge which can no longer passed on.
She said: “Children of the TV generation, they are stunned to recognize the depth of their own and their culture’s conditioning. ‘Are all of us,’ they ask despairingly, ‘irrevocably ruined?’ Are we so permeated with ‘pecuniary pseudo-truth’ and so corrupted by ‘monetization,’ that we are as a people no longer capable of rational action – even rational action on behalf of our own survival?”
This quote came directly from the responses of her students to the lessons Joan Gussow was teaching at Columbia University. In the 1970s she was not only teaching about food policy, but also about climate change, and what her students were commenting on was that even though they now understood the disastrous consequences of society’s encouraged behaviors, they found themselves unable to change. They were too accustomed to their habits and comforts. Their despair arose from their inability to even protect themselves.
She said: “When a society substitutes things for relationships, it turns out that there are never enough things to create satisfaction. Thus the risk, if we continue in our headlong ways, is not merely that the earth will be unable to tolerate the demands which our insatiableness induces us to make, but that, in the end, we will not be able to tolerate ourselves—or each other.” This is a profound thought. A society that purposely breeds dissatisfaction, which promises happiness through consumption, finally alienates individuals from each other because people are not perceived as having the same potential as things to provide happiness. And perhaps a corollary of this thought is that people then become another waste product in a disposable society.
I decided to use this quote on her portrait: “As for food, if we want to be responsible to ourselves and the planet, then the best most of us can do most of the time is to shorten the chain from the farm to our table, get as close to the producer as possible whenever we can… We have forgotten that food comes from the land. If we do not learn it again, we die.”
Contrary to what you might think reading some of these quotes, Joan Gussow is not pessimistic about human future on this planet. She thinks we can adapt and learn and modify our behavior. But we’ll do it in a different place than what it once was. To learn more about her, please visit her page on the Americans Who Tell the Truth website.