Two new documentaries tackle the all-important question of our age, namely how humanity and nature can co-exist in a period of insurmountable capitalist contradiction, especially when humanity takes the form of small businesspeople hoping to exploit natural resources under duress.
Opening at The Landmark at 57 West on May 10th, “The Biggest Little Farm” is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles. (Nationwide screening info is here.)
Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.
Utterly indifferent to ecological values, the lobster fishermen depicted in Bullfrog Film’s “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds” are family and village-oriented. As long as they can haul in the valuable crustaceans and keep themselves and their respective towns in Maine and Canada prosperous, nothing much else matters. Not being able to see outside the box, they symbolize the short-term mindset of the ruling class. If lobsters become extinct because of unsustainable practices, the fishermen might turn to other profitable marine life. But when all animals become extinct except for rodents, pigeons and cockroaches, homo sapiens will be next in line.
“The Biggest Little Farm” begins by introducing John and Molly Chester, a handsome thirty-something couple living in a modest apartment in Santa Monica. He is a cameraman specializing in wildlife who has made a career working for cable networks like Animal Planet. As the director of the film, he has a keen eye for the vast array of living creatures that both inspire and bedevil him once he becomes a farmer. Molly Chester is a cookbook author and private chef who believes passionately in organic food. While they might have had fantasies about going back to the land, it was totally by accident that they took the huge leap to start Apricot Lane in 2011. John had learned about an unlicensed dog shelter in Los Angeles that kept 200 dogs in meager conditions. Kindhearted to all animals, including the snails that would eventually begin making a meal out of the fruit trees at Apricot Lane, he decided to adopt a black mutt he named Todd. He and Molly loved the dog but had no idea how to keep him from barking every minute they were away at work. When the landlord served them an eviction notice, the couple decided to become farmers based on their ecological vision.
Raising funds from a network of friends, they purchase land surrounded by factory farms. One is a former poultry farm that kept hens caged up in vast warehouses that thankfully went out of business. The other is a raspberry farm in which the plants are grown by the tens of thousands in carefully controlled greenhouses. Their intention is to build a farm that breaks with such industrial farming techniques.
To start with, they discover that their soil is totally infertile, a legacy of the monoculture that existed before they became owners. To redeem the land, the first step is to create an ecosystem that could replenish the soil naturally. This meant using organic fertilizer, fostering the growth of earthworms, and—most importantly—introducing a diverse array of crops that could mutually reinforce each other.
They rely on the advice of Alan York, a guru of organic farming. Not long into the film, when the Chesters begin to confront the difficulties of implementing his visionary ecological beliefs, John Chester—who narrates throughout—begins to seem a bit skeptical about whether York’s plans are feasible. When he notes that York is perpetually wearing linen, you get the impression that Chester is worried that Apricot Lane is relying on the wisdom of a Green prophet who might be as unyielding as those found in the Old Testament. York insists that it is not enough to grow one or two different kinds of trees. To consummate his over-arching vision, they must plant the seeds of seventy-fivevarieties of plums, apples, lemons, nectarines, etc.
Three years into Alan York’s master plan, everything appears to be coming together. The soil is fertile; the trees are bounteous, and the cows, pigs, ducks and hens are reproducing like crazy. Ironically, that’s when their real troubles begin. Coyotes feast on the hens. Snails infest their orchards. Gophers eat the groundcover plants that help the trees grow while starlings swoop down on their fruit. If they were trying to create a new Garden of Eden, you begin to wonder if an angry God was punishing them with the kind of plagues that were visited on the Egyptians.
Watching their dreams turn into nightmares almost made me bolt from the screening room. Was this going to be an ecological version of “The God that Failed”? After writing dozens of articles over the years condemning industrial farming, how could I tell my readers that organic farming is a chimera.? Suffice it to say that the drama of the Chesters trying to resolve such contradictions surpasses any found in a narrative film I have seen this year by far. John and Molly Chester are truly remarkable people who, like a modern Adam and Eve, are trying to set the example for a new Garden of Eden. When you keep in mind that the original was only a place where you could eat, reproduce and live a life of ease, that might be the future we deserve rather than shopping malls, air-conditioning, and war.
* * * *
The “Lobster Wars” refers to a conflict between American and Canadians over the right to fish in the disputed waters near the barren 20-acre Machias Seal Island, about 10 miles from the Maine coast and 12 miles from Grand Manan Island, which is part of New Brunswick. It all goes back to the treaties that ended the Revolutionary War, when England ceded control of all islands within about 70 miles of the American shore except any that had been part of Nova Scotia. If it weren’t for the lobsters that lived in the “Gray Zone” waters off Machias Seal Island, nobody would care. (The lobsters have nothing to do with Max Blumenthal’s website except maybe that they too are bottom feeders.)
In recent years, the contested waters have become the site of repeated skirmishes between American and Canadian fishing boats. In such an unlikely state of affairs that reminds me of Ali G’s advice to Brent Snowcroft “Why don’t we bomb Canada”, you have to take into account the revenue that is generated by commercial fishing. One of the fishermen interviewed in this perceptive documentary likened it to a Gold Rush. He certainly had a point since it is in demand everywhere in the world, especially China. In one of the more grizzly moments, we see a fishery manager showing off their holding pens for lobsters that are kept in a state of cold-induced hibernation until they can be packed up and sent off to a foreign destination. It is enough to make you swear off lobsters.
Unlike other marine life, the lobsters have been abundant in the Gray Zone waters. The film makes a passing reference to the cause: since the fish at the top of the food chain, especially cod, have been dwindling because of warming waters due to climate change and to overfishing, the lobster can propagate in peace. Like Apricot Lane, they are subject to contradictions.
“Lobster Wars” was directed by Andy Laub and David Abel who also directed “Sacred Cod” that I reviewed for CounterPunch in November 2017. In my review, I made the connection between cod fisherman and the Trump administration: “The film profiles a number of Gloucester cod fisherman who rail against government regulation like the typical Trump voter but probably understand that they are partly to blame. After government agencies put a ceiling on the number of cod that could be taken, the commercial consequences were devastating. For the fishermen, it was not just a loss of income. It was a loss of identity.”
The lobster fishermen are no different. Toward the end of the film, we hear from a former lobster fisherman whose trade was plied in Long Island Sound. He recounts that warming waters have driven the lobsters to the north. Now forced to rediscover himself financially, he has begun to create wooden sculptures of marine life that will not be affected by climate change.
In the press notes for “Lobster Wars”, the economic and ecological consequences are spelled out:
But with temperatures continuing to rise in the Gulf of Maine, scientists worry that the boom times in the Gray Zone may soon go bust as the waters become too warm for lobster.
And they have reason for concern. Since 2012, surveys along the Maine coast have found a steady decline of lobsters less than a year old. Without young lobsters to replace the older generations, the crustaceans could soon become overfished and their population plummet.
That happened in the rapidly warming waters just south of Cape Cod, where temperature gauges have shown an increasing numbers of days when the region’s waters are inhospitable to lobster, which tend to hatch their eggs and thrive in seas that range between 53 degrees and 64 degrees. One station in eastern Long Island Sound, for example, found that there had been nearly 100 days in 2012 when the water was warmer than 68 degrees – dangerously warm for lobster – double the average number of days that exceeded that threshold over the previous three decades.
As a result, the lobster population there has plunged.
Currently, “Lobster Wars” is only available as a DVD with institutional pricing at Bullfrog Films. However, there is a strong likelihood that it will eventually join “Sacred Cod” at Ovid, a brand-new streaming website that is a joint venture of Bullfrog, First Run Features, Icarus and other radical film distributors whose films I have reviewed for CounterPunch over the years. At $6.99 per month, you will have access to some great political films dealing with ecology, immigration, racism, and other issues that should be of keen interest to CounterPunch readers. Keep your Netflix subscription if you want to escape from reality (who can blame you?) but if you want to be informed about leading-edge social and economic realities, sign up with Ovid. It is indispensable.