Thursday, September 10, 2015

Dead Stars As Cranberries

"We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.  We reflect on our practice and virtue and whether we are worthy of this offering." - Zen Buddhist meal verse
In our cooking practice, we try to put our undivided attention into the work of slicing the cranberries and not being absent-minded in our activities, nor so absorbed in one aspect of our actions that we fail to see their other aspects.

But when we put our full attention and understanding to it, we see that the statement "we sliced the cranberries" is woefully inadequate and very egocentric.  It really misses the mark.  The cranberries were around long before we started slicing them and "we sliced the cranberries" only describes when we got personally involved.  We should reflect on the effort that brought the cranberries to our table.

We purchased the cranberries at Whole Foods, so there was the effort of shopping. carrying them to the register, purchasing them, carrying them to our car, driving back home, carrying them into our house, and then placing them into the freezer, all before the actual cutting began.  And when we consider that someone prior to us constructed the Whole Foods store, staffed it, stocked it, and managed it; when we consider the entire biographical history of the cashier that rang us up; when we consider that the car we drove in was manufactured by others (and probably overseas at that) and powered by petroleum which formed millions of years ago, was extracted from the earth, refined, and transported to the gas station where we bought it; and when we think about the construction and history of this 70-year-old house where he kept and later sliced the cranberries, the imagination begins to stagger about how many people, virtual armies of persons unknown to us, were involved in getting the cranberries to our kitchen.

But let's look even further back, before we saw the cranberries in the Whole Foods freezer.  The package says the cranberries are a "Product of Canada," so they're most likely from British Columbia's Fraser River Valley region, where some 95% of Canada's cranberries are produced (although they could possibly be from the New Brunswick, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland or Quebec production regions).  Someone had to plant them, someone had to irrigate them through the summer months, someone had to flood the fields and harvest them, someone else (most likely) packaged them for shipping to the distributor, someone drove a truck (petroleum!) to take them to the distributor, where someone else repackaged them and froze them, and then another person drove them to our local Whole Foods store (if they didn't, in fact, go to some intermediate warehouse first).  Someone at Whole Foods had to empty the truck and stock the freezer, just so we could come along and become a part of the cranberries' long journey.

With just a little more imagination, we can begin to imagine how every one of the components in the cranberries' long journey were also on a long journey of their own, and how every component of those journeys were themselves in constant motion, and so on and so forth (turtles all the way down).

But let's look even deeper still.  The cranberries grew from soil that was an erosional remnant of the nearby Coast Range mountains, which themselves were once seafloor that rose to great heights due to subduction of the Pacific plate beneath the North American continent by geological tectonic processes.  The water that nourished the cranberries was a part of the global cycle of precipitation, runoff, storage in the ocean, and then evaporation back to the atmosphere, and only briefly interacted with the cranberries.  And the cranberries derived their nutrients from the soil and water using energy from outer space - the Sun, part of the Milky Way, part of the visible universe, which in turn resulted, as I understand it, from the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago.

In fact, every atom in every molecule of the soil, the water, the nutrients, and the cranberries formed in stars - if not the Sun, then long dead stars that exploded and scattered their mass across the cosmos. It's only in the unimaginably high pressures and temperatures of stars that fusion of protons and neutrons can create more complex atoms from simple hydrogen, and every atom in our bodies and in the cranberries that's not hydrogen (and many that are hydrogen) are from dead stars.  Us slicing cranberries, on a large enough space/time scale, is nothing but dead stars cutting dead stars.

And that's just the cranberries.  The bread we baked last weekend also contained bananas, walnuts, butter (cows!), flour (wheat!), salt, baking soda (whatever that is), and a whole lot of other ingredients I can't remember right now.  So if we think enough about it, it's not an overstatement that our banana-cranberry bread contained the efforts of the entire universe, and it was nothing less than the entire universe that consumed the bread.

Innumerable efforts bring us our food.  We really shouldn't just take it for granted.

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