In this week’s New Yorker

November 21, 2010

In the Thanksgiving-related Food Issue, Burkhard Bilger writes a fascinating long article about a culinary trend new to me, fermented foods. I was fascinated to see that the article centers on an old acquaintance of mine from ACT UP and Radical Faeries, Sandy Katz, author of “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.” (Go, Sandy, aka Sanderkraut, aka Sandorfag!). Besides providing a glimpse of life at a pseudonymous Radical Faerie sanctuary in Tennessee, the article definitely speaks to my own sentiments about the silliness of modern-day germ-phobia:

“In the past decade, biologists have embarked on what they call the second human-genome project, aimed at identifying every bacterium associated with people. More than a thousand species have been found so far in our skin, stomach, mouth, guts, and other body parts. of those, only fifty or so are known to harm us, and they have been studied obsessively for more than a century. The rest are mostly new to science…Given how little we know about our inner ecology, carpet-bombing it might not always be the best idea. ‘I would put it very bluntly,’ [UMass Amherst biologist Lynn] Margulis told me. ‘When you advocate your soaps that say they kill all harmful bacteria, you are committing suicide.’ The bacteria in the gut can take up to four years to recover from a round of antibiotics, recent studies have found, and the steady assault of detergents, preservatives, chlorine, and other chemicals also takes its toll. The immune system builds up fewer antibodies in a sterile environment; the deadliest pathogens can grow more resistant to antibiotics; and innocent bystanders such as peanuts or gluten are more likely to provoke allergic reactions. All of which may explain why a number of studies have found that children raised on farms are less susceptible to allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases. The cleaner we are, it sometimes seems, the sicker we get.”

Bilger also bravely sits down for lunch with opportunivores, people who eat roadkill and do their grocery shopping by dumpster-diving. Yikes!

In Talk of the Town, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the scary ignoramuses angling for power in the newly established Republican majority in Congress: “John Shimkus, of Illinois, is one of four members now vying for the chairmanship of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. At a congressional hearing in 2009, he dismissed the dangers of climate change by quoting Genesis 8:22: ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.’ He added, ‘I believe that’s the infallible word of God, and that’s the way it’s going to be for His creation.’ ”

Aside from the fabulous Roz Chast cartoon (above), my favorite thing in this issue is this poem by Clive James:

“Whitman and the Moth”

Van Wyck Brooks tells us Whitman in old age
Sat by a pond in nothing but his hat,
Crowding his final notebooks page by page
With names of trees, birds, bugs, and things like that.

The war could never break him, though he’d seen
Horrors in hospitals to chill the soul.
But now, preserved, the Union had turned mean:
Evangelizing greed was in control.

Good reason to despair, yet grief was purged
By tracing how creation reigned supreme.
A pupa cracked, a butterfly emerged:
America, still unfolding from its dream.

Sometimes he rose and waded in the pond,
Soothing his aching feet in the sweet mud.
A moth he knew, of which he had grown fond,
Perched on his hand as if to draw his blood.

But they were joined by what each couldn’t do,
The meeting point where great art comes to pass —
Whitman, who danced and sang but never flew,
The moth, which had not written “Leaves of Grass,”

Composed a picture of the interchange
Between the mind and all that it transcends
Yet must stay near. No, there was nothing strange
In how he put his hand out to make friends

With such a fragile creature, soft as dust.
Feeling the pond cool as the light grew dim,
He blessed new life, though it had only just
Arrived in time to see the end of him.

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