Finding Joy in 2020: Recommendations from ASLE Leadership

2020 has been challenging. In this short series, we would like to offer some possibilities for hope, joy, or just plain fun by featuring recommendations of environmental literature, art, and media from some of ASLE’s leadership. The first entry takes us from Detroit to Japan, first pointing to ways of thinking differently about food and then illustrating the potential for meaning in unexpected places (animated asparagus, prehistoric turtle kaiju).

Heidi Scott, Contingent/Independent Advocacy Seat

I recommend the short film “Detroit Hives” for a little sweet uplift in this darkened season. It’s the story of a Black couple from Detroit who have innovated on their degraded urban space by keeping bees in the Motor City. In common with other Urban Farming initiatives, their work solves several problems at once: it brings wildflowers to brownscapes, it provides (medicinal) food for the locals, it boosts bee populations, and it gives Tim and Nicole a burgeoning project that is expanding into the community through beekeeping workshops and visits to local schools.

Nicole: “You don’t have to have a million dollars in your bank account to have an idea. You have to go for it.”

Our industrial food system, for all its marvels, is headed for a terminal end unless we can figure out ways to take the petroleum out of our food-making process. Our food system is also racist and classist: just like other Environmental Justice issues, people of color and the poor too often are surrounded by low-quality fast foods and few other options. Tim and Nicole are two innovators who embrace the proud history of their city and uplift their neighbors by providing a link to the land. Even in this scarred ex-urban space, the pollinators that make so many of our food crops viable can thrive with a bit of care and community support.

There are dozens of good films on urban agriculture projects with an EJ ethos, and these stories have the potential to recruit a new generation of food growers who presently see no link between their work and the food on their plates. Sedentarism, hypertension, depression, isolation, poor nutrition, purposelessness: let’s pour some honey on it.

Detroit Hives from Spruce Tone Films on Vimeo.

Mika Kennedy, Graduate Student Liaison

Silver Spoon (2013) is an animated Japanese TV serial that follows 15-year old Hachiken in his first year at an agricultural high school in rural Hokkaido. What I love best about Silver Spoon – and what makes it particularly well-suited to 2020 – is how genuinely devoted all of the characters are to each other’s success and well-being. The series doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties inherent in pursuing a career in agriculture – whether that means waking up at 4AM to tend the cows or braving the razor-edge of staying afloat financially as a small farm – but if Hachiken wants to learn how to make cheese, this desire instantly becomes a collective passion: Students and faculty alike go all-in to offer help and guidance. Silver Spoon is about taking delight in mutual aid; it is about rescuing and nurturing goodness in oneself and in the world.

I feel like it’d be so easy for the series to replicate the easy animosity of the snobbish city boy vs. country bumpkins tropes, but Silver Spoon doesn’t waste your time. The interpersonal dramas that generally power high school narratives are largely absent. Instead, the series offers beautifully rendered explorations of how to milk a cow; how to birth a calf; how to smoke gouda; and how to let go, when it’s time to see your hogs to slaughter. You learn with Hachiken and his classmates – not all of whom are training to take over small family farms, but who may also have their eyes set on industrial operations or veterinary school, offering a broad illumination of what “agriculture” looks like. The first season can be overly didactic, but the second half is pitch perfect! And overall, the series does a fantastic job of remaining heartwarming and affirming without falling into the trap of presenting an uncritical rural fantasy. If you’ve ever wanted to cry over animated asparagus, Silver Spoon has twenty-two 20-minute episodes just for you. Want a first look? Check out this Silver Spoon clip about grooming your cow for a beauty pageant!

Bridgitte Barclay, Executive Council

Barbarella-styled nearly extinct aliens, a gigantic prehistoric flying turtle, a colossal shark-like kaiju, alien invasive species, suitmation, and the most wonderfully absurd kaiju fight scene – Gamera vs. Guiron (1969), directed by Noriaki Yuasai, is my recommendation for an environmental creature feature that we all need this year. Gamera is a jet-fueled, fire-breathing irradiated prehistoric turtle that emerged in Gamera, the Giant Monster (1965) and became a protector of all children. The suitmation – actors in rubber monster suits – is one of the quintessential elements of kaiju film fight scenes, and the campiness of these offer catharsis in post-war Japan, what Susan Sontag calls an “aesthetics of destruction.” They camp real atomic violence and so disarm some of the fear through parody (and militarized science is often sort of a butt of the jokes). In this film, children Tom (Chrystopher Murphy) and Akio (Nobuhiro Kajima) land on Terra, earth’s mirror planet on other side of the sun, and are attacked by near-extinct silver-spandex-clad alien cannibals, Barbella (Hiroko Kai) and Florbella (Reiko Kasahara). They are the last of their species because of the invasive Pterodactyl-looking Space Gyaos. (I’ll note for Christy Tidwell that I’m using Pterodactyl for broad understanding, but really it’s Pterosaur.) The Terrans release Guiron, a shark-bulldog-dinosaur creature to fight off the Gyaos, but all the kaiju fight. What makes this film wonderful, though, is that the fight scenes are especially absurd, and that’s saying a lot. Gamera masters fight-gymnastics and lands a horizontal bar dismount before being wounded by throwing stars that Guiron somehow houses in his fiery temples. The plot doesn’t make a lot of sense; it’s an afterthought to the fights. Gaps in plot and the exaggerated action are what make the film so campy, and camp is a way to create community by emphasizing the absurd in an absurd world. It gives us some solidarity and laughter, so it’s what we need this year. Check out this clip for a taste of the film’s fun – including Gamera’s fight-gymnastics!