I can go months, nay years, without a turnip crossing my mind or my lips. Yet in the last 24 hours, turnips have cropped up not once, but three times! Surely three of anything is a pattern, and therefore of significance? And so I talk, not of "cabbages and kings," but of turnips and banking titans.
Is there anything worth talking about at the moment other than the meltdown of our financial services and banking industry? Despite the fact that I go about my daily life . . . making soup for sick children, ordering bulbs for next spring, attending an Arthur Miller play . . . all I can really think about is the shaky state of our collective finances. I am reading, from afar, about the mighty battle in the U.S. Congress to determine how much, and to what extent, the Treasury (and thus all taxpayers) are going to bail out the banks -- as they list, and sink, under bad debt. A quote from Lloyd Doggett, Democratic congressman and fellow Texan, sums up the situation fairly pithily, I think: "The problem is that the people getting asked to clean up the broken furniture didn't get invited to the party." (The Guardian, 25.9.08)
Who IS to blame for this mess, frankly? Is it really just the Wall Street fat cats? Is it the people who borrowed money they couldn't afford to pay back . . . or the people who let them? Is the Bush regime responsible for the encouragement, by means tacit and overt, to create financial growth by any means possible? Or is the banking crisis just the opportunistic virus which has invaded a body already weakened by its decadent appetites and habits? Have we all just become really greedy?
Yesterday, I was invited to play tennis with three women of slight acquaintance -- they are what I like to think of as jolly good English sorts, "veddy middle class," very WI, and all probably 15 years or so older than me. The last bit -- age -- was particularly pertinent to our discussion because these woman all came of age in an England much different from the one we live in now. England in the 40s and 50s was a much more parsimonious place, by all accounts, and even the well-heeled of that era had more frugal habits than the majority of us do now -- particularly when it came to borrowing money. Being "greedy" was not only sinful, but even worse, it was a sign of bad manners. One of the women claimed to still feel "slightly sick" when she surveyed the vast choice at today's grocery stores. Another woman related that her young son, a fledgling titan, had been interviewing Lehman Brothers refugees all week. Only 30, he was hiring men many years his senior and experience level -- and all of them with crushing monthly direct debits for mortgages and school fees. Apparently, he was feeling grateful about being relatively unencumbered. As lifelong savers, these women's major concern seemed to be how exactly to disperse their savings -- because the UK banks are only going to guarantee a certain amount. They aren't quite to the point of mattress-stuffing, but it's getting close.
In the end, we only played one set of tennis -- because we had squandered all of our time huddling around the AGA. It wasn't like any of us had any real answers, not to mention any in-depth understanding of the situation, but we were all gripped by the need to talk about it. Although it was meant to be a humorous remark, our hostess finally threw out, "Well, I guess that we are going have to go back to growing turnips."
Later that morning, I was scanning the newspaper and I came across an article trumpeting root veg: Humble turnip makes comeback. Apparently Tesco "revealed yesterday that sales (of turnips) were up by 75%" (The Guardian, 25.9.08). The article went on to suggest that inexpensive root vegetables could "bulk" out the diet and stretch the shrinking food pound.
It was during the bedtime story hour that I came across my third reference to turnips for the day.
For several months now, my youngest daughter and I have been working our away through Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series. We are just nearing the end of the third book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. I was an avid reader of these books as a child, and it is interesting to square my memories with the stories as I read them afresh. On one hand, I had an enduring sense of the family's closeness: of Pa's twinkly eyes and fiddle-playing, of Ma's gentle and genteel ways, and of the three sisters -- one good, one naughty, and one just little and inconsequential. On the other hand, I had retained a deep horror of the farming life. Every time you think you've got a decent crop, some plague or weather freakishness is sure to come along and destroy it. Perhaps the most memorable of these natural disasters occurs in this book: the incident of the plague of grasshoppers. Even though the event occurred more than 130 years ago, it cannot be read without a sense of horror and grief as fresh as today's news.
Briefly, the Ingalls family has moved to the Minnesota prairie and invested their meager net-worth in a small farm and sod house. "Pa," who is optimistic to the point of derangement, has planted a field of wheat . . . and then he makes the mistake of borrowing money against what promises to be a splendid harvest. Wilder is a master at foreshadowing and suspense: with each mention of "glass windows" and "new stove" and "we'll start harvesting next week," you know that disaster is around the corner. It arrives in the form of a "glittering cloud" of grasshoppers. -- and like the Biblical plague of locusts, they eat every edible scrap on the land. Pa, who doesn't even have a decent pair of shoes, ends up walking hundreds of miles to find work on another farm. Ma and the girls have to struggle on their own for months -- almost starving in the process, although the book skims somewhat lightly over that fact. The next year, the family manages to salvage a crop of turnips -- and Laura, the story's protagonist, writes of their gratefulness for the plentiful supply of one of the least delectable vegetables. (authorial editorializing)
The "Little House" books are all about the resourcefulness, independence and grittiness of the pioneers who staked out a claim in the American wilderness. They play to every American myth -- including the one that says anyone who works hard will be able to earn their own homestead. I can't help but compare their situation to our current one. There was no such thing as "bail out" for Pa; he literally had to dig himself out of the financial hole he found himself in. A lot of people don't think there should be a bailing-out now -- survival of the fittest and all that -- but I do wonder if we are going to have to prop each other up, or all fall. As Ma says, "There is nothing in the world so good as good neighbors" (p. 178).
And just in case, we might all start planting turnips.