RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The Dominant Paradigm Strikes Back

When my husband said he was meeting a friend for a sandwich one day and mentioned the name of the restaurant -- a chain out of St. Louis -- I reminded him that the independent bakery was just a block away and that they serve local food, sustainably raised, minimally processed and packaged, harvested and shipped to the restaurant using a minimum of fossil fuels.

"Look," he said, "You gotta understand. Me and Joe just want to eat a sandwich without feeling like we're nuking whales."

OK. I get it. Not everyone is thinking about sustainability all the time.

But those of us who are, sometimes we feel like the lone stranger.

Like the woman from Maine who emailed me that she is trying to convince her husband to turn his landscaping business into an organic, native plant landscaping business. Or the woman from Wisconsin who said her father is farming away the future, dumping chemicals on land that becomes more depleted each season and thinking the chemicals will last forever.

That's why we're sad about the downfall of Martha Stewart. Pundits may offer "recipes for reform" or argue about her crime: Was it the stock trade or the lie that brought her down? Either way, she exhibited bad manners or, at the least, deer-in-the-headlights bad judgment.

But to lone strangers that want the world to last into the next generation, we like Martha. Compared to other billionaires, she's practically a populist. She shuns fast-foods and the mass-produced glop that industry sells. Martha is the Queen Mother of reduce, re-use and recycle.

Like a 4-H leader for grown-ups, Martha helped us turn old piano benches into children's art tables and yard-sale trays into vintage art. We didn't care if her real home was staffed with cooks and gardeners any more than readers of Sports Illustrated care that the athletes are professionally trained and nourished. Just by showing up for the photo shoot and holding the platter of scratch-made cookies, Martha kept the dream of self-sufficiency alive.

More than any government program, Martha has helped small family farms. Market farmers know that if Martha features wilted greens, consumers will want greens to wilt and if she features sweet potatoes the demand will go through the roof. She taught us that home-grown eggs always taste better than store-bought and fresh in-season cantalopes are always preferable to imported. Conspiracy theorists take note: Maybe Industry doesn't want us to know how to make stuffing without a mix. Maybe Industry doesn't want us to shop at farmers' markets and ask the farmers how they raised their apples.

Martha Stewart could paste a "Subvert the Dominant Paradigm" bumper sticker on her station wagon. She is preservationist, conservationist, folk artist and promoter of the shabby genteel. So what if the recipes had too many ingredients? We simplified and we forgave her because she was the one who saved the promise for us, the promise that we could do it ourselves and even look stylish with our hair in our eyes and wearing our husband's cast-off shirts.

We've known all along that Martha's calendar was pure fancy, her TV appearances and celebrity birthdays interspersed with "Mulch rose bushes" and "Clean palais de poulets," but that didn't matter. Her vision made it all seem possible, and we got off work at the dentist's office or the school and went home wondering if we'd have time to bring in the potted plants before the frost, or before we collapsed in bed.

Three or four years ago, a close neighbor quit farming and became a stock broker. There's a whole column to be written from that sentence, if only we'd work it out. Anyway, to help him get started, another neighbor organized an investment club. Thirty of us, mostly rural women looking for a cheap education, got together with this fellow, each kicking in $25 a month and investing the whole pot according to his advice.

We've known his family, operators of a successful dairy farm, for generations. His mom belongs to our extension club and he was best known for raising hay that won at the state fair year after year. Smart guy.

It turned out, though, that his advice came from the main office and they recommended the conventional: A chain of donut shops. An internet auction service. An auto repair company. We kept suggesting Martha Stewart, but the main office never agreed with that vision, so our guru resisted. Our group has won a few, lost a few, and after the big decline we were just getting back on top when Bush invaded Iraq. Suddenly, the office advised in G.E., and then Halliburton. I dropped out in protest.

Will the investment group make money on Halliburton and G.E.? Certainly. Would we have lost on Martha Stewart? Probably. But which business promised a brighter future? I will leave the answer to you.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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