August 2017 Update: The War Between Past and Present

I hope you’re enjoying the summer as much as I am!

I would like to share with you the name of a documentary I recently watched and enjoyed: Chasing Coral. A team of divers, photographers, and scientists set out on an adventure to discover why coral reefs around the world are vanishing at an unprecedented rate.

Chasing Coral features startling images and facts about the oceans. Made by the director of 2012 award-winning documentary Chasing Ice, Chasing Coral arrived on Netflix a month ago. I recommend the film to anyone interested in the past, present, and future of the oceans.

On the topic of coral reefs, I learned only recently that sunscreen can be lethal for them. An article in The New York Times titled “Is Your Sunscreen Poisoning the Ocean” states that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the world’s reefs annually. Most sunscreens contain a chemical called oxybenzone that researchers find is toxic even in minute doses—a single drop in six and a half Olympic-size swimming pools—is enough to be deadly. Some other chemicals in sunscreen are poisonous too.

Fortunately, we don’t need to choose between the health of our skin and the health of the ocean. We can simply eschew chemical sunscreen in favor of mineral sunscreen, whose active ingredients are titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Such sunscreens are available on the market; here is a list of reef-safe sunscreens.

I’ll make sure to pay attention to my sunscreen going forward.

In other news, I just returned from a family trip to Algonquin Park, the oldest provincial park in Canada. I was pleased to see two moose grazing knee-deep in a pond, but what I really wanted to see was a beaver—that accomplished architect of dams, the builder of lodges, the furry, flat-tailed, webbed-footed national animal of Canada, deserving of the expression “busy as a beaver.” I walked past several ponds in Algonquin Park, and, though I saw lots of beaver lodges, I saw not a single furry snout emerging from the water.

On the day I left Algonquin Park, however, I took a walk close to my parents’ home. What did I see in a small pond in the suburb that evening? That’s right—a beaver!

The lesson: We don’t have to go far to find nature.

In addition to being a part of our day-to-day lives, nature can exist—and should exist—also on farms. One of the most memorable parts of my Project Animal Farm journey was a stay at a Mennonite missionary farm in Belize. In addition to immersing me in a different culture, the stay conveyed me to a time past and introduced me to traditional farming practices.

The farm whistled and sang with birds, among them cattle egrets, great-tailed grackles, kiss kiddies, northern jacanas, laughing falcons, woody ground doves, and white barn owls. It was a bird-watcher’s paradise.

The excerpt below describes a day from my stay, a day that freshly illuminated for me the relationship between the past, present, and future. I’ve edited it a little for clarity. If you’d like to read more of the chapter, click here. The farm is pictured below, but my poor photography skills don’t do it justice.

A Stay at a Mennonite Farm in Belize (Sonia Faruqi)
A Stay at a Mennonite Farm in Belize (Sonia Faruqi)

Chapter Thirteen: Barefoot in Beautiful Belize

Each of my days with the Lemon family began with a breakfast of pineapple and papaya drizzled with lemon or orange juice.

Ten-year-old Katie and I would then accompany eighteen-year-old Abbey as she milked cows or mixed dirt—all the while humming and singing, bouncing and skipping, as though nothing in Abbey’s life could be more enjoyable than cows and dirt. I would ask Abbey about the colorful birds flying overhead and Katie would eat guavas off trees.

After morning chores would come a long, jovial walk along a dirt road bordered by shrubs and sprawling trees. I would walk in flip-flops; the Lemon women would walk barefoot. “Mennonites like being barefoot,” I was told by Katie and Abbey’s mother Geraldine Lemon. I took my flip-flops off, too, but the gravel and pebbles were hot and harsh against the soles of my feet, and I returned to my footwear promptly.

In the afternoon, we would have lunch, often a salad prepared by Nancy. Almost all meals in the Lemon home centered around fruits and vegetables.

My favorite part of the day was late afternoon, which brought with it tea time. Over a pot of tea and a plate of brownies, Geraldine would read aloud to her daughters and I from a novel, favoring Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and James Herriot. I asked her whether she had any modern tastes in literature. “I don’t like reading modern books,” she explained, “with their bad language and themes, and with their four-letter words and their ‘Oh my God!’”

After tea time, missionary neighbors would descend upon the house. One day, Abbey introduced me to a young missionary couple with three small children in their arms. “Sonia’s studying animal agriculture,” she said.

“Not agriculture, Abbey,” her mother Geraldine corrected sharply. “Sonia’s studying animal husbandry.”

I’d met well over a hundred people in agriculture by then, and no one but Geraldine Lemon had made that distinction. But “animal husbandry” is an essential distinction. It entails a whole different kind of relationship with farm animals, one that implies a view toward stewardship and shepherding rather than dominion and exploitation. Animals are not meat, milk, and egg machines to be pushed to the limit but are, rather, comrades in the circle of life.

For their opinions on animals and their way of life, however, Mennonites are ridiculed. They are viewed as dinosaurs, as relics of the past persisting into the present. They are people who have not been left behind, but who have chosen to stay behind; for this slap to the face of modern society, they cannot be forgiven.

I’d been among the ranks of such close-minded critics when I’d arrived, but I was no longer. I found it courageous and marvelous that Mennonites farmed as they did, eschewing the agricultural rat race toward industrialization, favoring husbandry over machinery. In their opinion, and in my newly formed opinion, the past and the present need not be at odds. The present can become stronger as far as it draws from the best of the past.

“If we open a quarrel between past and present,” said Winston Churchill, “we shall find that we have lost the future.”

To read the Belize chapter, click here. To learn more about the Project Animal Farm journey, visit here. Thanks for reading!