I know, you’re thinking, of course fish exist. I have seen fish, smelled them, eaten them, maybe caught them–there is no denying that they exist. Any yet, that’s the title of Lulu Miller’s delightful book, Fish Don’t Exist which tells the story of David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University, whose mission in life as an ichthyologist was to discover every species of fish–a quest he pursued with zeal, certainty, and rigor. When the great California earthquake shatters the ethanol filled jars. He grabs a needle and thread to start connecting the labels to samples. This is a tale of American grit–or so Miller had me thinking. Yes, I was hooked from the first chapter.
Miller is one of the co-creators of NPR’s marvelous Invisiblia podcast–she approaches Jordan with a journalists restless curiosity but this book is also a personal history and a reflection on our world. She covers chaos theory, reminds us of Voltaire’s critique of optimism, and the dangers of hubris. We follow her on her journey of discovery–both about Jordan and on the importance of meaningful connections. She grapples with our significance in the universe, and champions doubt to temper our impulse to be blind to the world’s complexity and bigness.
Fish Don’t Exist is one of my favorite reads of 2022. It is one of those books that changed how I see the world and affirmed my faith in doubt. Aren’t you wondering just a little bit about how it can be possible that fish don’t exist? Act on that curiosity my friends.
I pride myself on being an omnivore–at least I did until I read Michael Pollan’s,"The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals." In it, he explains how the food that’s on our plates–whether it’s a Big Mac from McDonald’s, an organic meal purchased at Whole Foods, a local meal produced by a sustainable farm or one that you might hunt for yourself makes it to the table. The book lives up to the dictionary definition of dilemma, "a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives." The story of how food arrives on our plates is complex–but Pollan explains it in heartbreaking detail–the amount of carbon fuel required to produce organic crops, the bushels of corn required to fatten a chicken to the guilty pleasure he gets from hunting–it’s all in there, in wonderful, engrossing detail.
Having read the book, I almost wish that I had not eaten from Pollan’s tree of knowledge–I want back into my ignorant Garden of Eatin’ where I was happy with the stories I purchased from Whole Foods or the convenience of my McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. Though I must continue eating, it’s impossible to revert to ignorance–instead, I have to live in denial. It won’t be the first time. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I lived close to Pollan’s ideal. My family had a garden, kept animals, and prided themselves on growing everything without chemicals and preserving foods through natural processes. When I wanted a turkey for an American style Thanksgiving celebration, they introduced me to my neighbors who introduced me to the turkeys. I thought, "I didn’t want to meet and greet you, I just wanted to eat you." but there I was holding the squirming bird to see if he was big enough. (He was.) I must admit, those were some of the most delectable birds I’ve tasted, but still I longed for the familiar seemingly antiseptic Butterball. They were so much less messy.
All of the sudden those folks who are trying to eat local seem a little bit more rational, and I’m longing for the days when my Lithuanian hosts would go out and grab the eggs from the chicken coop in the morning. I used to fret when I met an animal, and they told me when he was going to expire–"oh, the pig? Easter." I was still living in my saran wrapped cocoon of ignorance. Now my cozy cocoon’s been torn again–and I’m thinking, heh, isn’t New Jersey the Garden State? Maybe there’s an answer on a local farm…