The Vital Flow

24 Aug 2009

We hunt animals, farm them, slaughter them, and eat their meat. We catch birds and spear fish. Even if we are vegetarian, we ingest the proteins and sugars which plants have stored over time through the vital action of their roots and leaves. Why do we have to deprive other creatures of life when we eat food? Because living means being part of the environment, exposing our bodies to the great cycle of planetary processes. The environment passes through us, and thinking about the environment means thinking about what we are.

So what should we reconsider in this century of environmental demands? The first important thing is to be aware that the environment is not something that exists separately from human beings to be manipulated by them, but something that flows through us all. All chemical elements on earth—carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and all the rest—are present in more or less constant amounts and the various biosystems are nodes forming as a result of their constant movement. The flow continuously circulates and again returns. Therefore the second thing we must realize is that we have to minimize any modifications and rapid changes we cause to avoid disturbing this equilibrium and flow: in other words, we must take great care of how we as humans live.

This idea of nature as a circulating system has ancient origins. The massive 17th-century work The Four Medical Tantras (Gyu-shi) describes how Tibetan medicine sees life: the microcosm of the body and the environment ceaselessly dance together in unison. If things get out of step and there is a weakening of the driving force which keeps the movement going, then illness occurs.

At first sight, it might seem that this view does not agree with the western conception of life as a clockwork mechanism. But it is striking that the latest ideas in molecular biology consistently portray an image of life in which molecules dance without respitebetween living organisms and the environment in a sort of pas de deux.

Life is part of a flow, that flow is part of life. This is a conception that has always been familiar and popular. In Japan we have long shared the notion that our lives are nothing but an inseparable part of the great planetary flow, appearing occasionally like a background theme. For example, at the beginning of Reflections of a Hermit (Hojoki) by Kamo-no-Chomei (1153-1216) we read that, ‘The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration’. Many other examples could be cited.

The background context meant inevitably that the expressions slow food and slow life would gain rapid acceptance in Japan. More specifically, we were tired of linear acceleration and sensed it was necessary to recover cyclical balance. We were looking for a suitable way of expressing this. As far as I know, the first Japanese publication to correctly use and describe the term slow food was the May 2000 issue of the monthly Sotokoto. Oddly enough, there were no protests about the prominent upside-down McDonald’s logo on the cover—not even by the company itself. As I said at the beginning of this editorial, thinking about the circularity/continuity of the environment and thinking about our health, both at macro and micro level, are one and the same thing.

I would like to give a human focus to the term slow food. Where does our food come from, how has it been harvested, how has it been processed, what has been added or removed, how has it been transported, how long has it taken to get to us? There has been such acceleration and change affecting so many of the foods we eat, that these factors are invisible and beyond our reach. Wanting to slow down to a speed that allows the eye to see and the hand to touch and feel — a speed adjusted to human nature — is what the Slow Food Movement desires. It is also perfectly natural to think in terms of molecular particles passing through our bodies. If the number of people in tune with these ideas increases, BSE will become a very confined disease and the SARS virus will return to lying dormant in the very occasional carrier.

An anbridged version of an article which first published in the magazine Slow 47, in 2005

Kazumi Oguro, Japan, is editor in chief of the lifestyle magazine Sotokoto

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