Your words can change the world.
You know you’ve arrived at the rural Petaluma ranch Douglas Gayeton shares with his wife, Laura Howard-Gayeton, because you can literally see the writing on the walls. The ranch walls. Gayeton, 53, is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker whose unique “information art” includes a heavy dose of his own handwriting. He’s adorned the farm’s outbuildings with quotes from agricultural innovators, glorious swoops of white paint on red buildings that succinctly illuminate.
“Respect Mother Earth,” reads one wall. “Respect the land. Learn from the animals. When foraging, always leave something behind for whoever comes next. In this way, you’re sure to find something when you come back.”
Taken from an interview with Washington state Cherokee forager Running Squirrel, the quote resonates with Gayeton as a swift explanation of sustainability.
Look at enough of Gayeton’s photographs and his looping, legible script not only becomes as familiar as that of a loved one, you soon can’t image enjoying the images without his words.
Words mean a lot to Gayeton. And they should mean a lot to all of us, particularly the ones we bandy about all the time, perhaps not truly understanding their meaning.
This language confusion became a delicious challenge to the Gayetons, who launched their “Lexicon of Sustainability” video and art project in 2009 to provide some answers. With KQED as the local affiliate, look for Lexicon videos to provide interstitial programming content to PBS this spring and well into the summer.
Ranging in length from two to six minutes, these shorts are humorous, smart, gorgeous to view, and most of all, educational. In a sneaky kind of way.
Produced by Laura and written and directed by Douglas, the videos use animation, music, and interviews to tell the true story behind our words. Planned to be in three parts—Food and Farming, Water, and Energy—the project aims to expose faulty nomenclature while reaching with truths about the most basic components of modern life.
One of the beauties of this first Food and Farming phase of the Lexicon effort is how it honestly shows how even farmers, let alone non-farmers, don’t always know what their language denotes. Truth be told, most non-producers haven’t the slightest clue what words like “organic,” “sustainable,” or even “local” really mean.
Take the term “cage free,” please. Driven by hearts as much as wallets, consumers immediately fell upon the term when it was introduced to describe a more expensive but perhaps more humane method of chicken and egg production. “Free range” is another term that prompts hearts as well as wallets. Sounds like a lovely life, doesn’t it? Not so fast.
Produced in 2012, the Gayeton’s “Story of an Egg” looks these terms and finds that there’s not much there there. Focused on Soul Food Farm’s Alexis Koefoed and David Evans of Marin Sun Farms, the film quietly explicates the linguistic evils of clever marketing.
Koefoed admits that she was initially fond of the idea of “free-range” chickens and their “cage-free” eggs. She imagined sunshine and grass and little pecking beaks taking fat worms from the ground.
“It only took a little research to learn that it didn’t mean much,” she tells the camera.
Evans adds, “Cage free just refers to an environment that they’re not in.” In fact, it doesn’t refer to the actual environment, in which a chicken might be with 5,000 other animals on a barn floor so mired in excrement their feet never touch the ground—but indeed, not in a cage.
“Marketing confuses these words,” Koefoed says. “We want to hold onto the authenticity of words and take them back from the big corporations.”
As the film comes to a close, the narrator reminds, “Your words can change the world.”
The phrase “change the world” is not too grand a flourish to attach to what the Gayetons are trying to do. In fact, Douglas hopes to prompt a new kind of Marshall Plan, a modern one in which the U.S. doesn’t rebuild Germany—it rebuilds its agricultural system. To that end, he has convened a who’s who of food movement leaders, including such as Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, to identify the key players in the agriculture space and learn from them to better construct what Gayeton calls “local food hubs” in each community.
They’re taking the same approach to the upcoming Water and Energy spokes of their project, using the freshest voices in those areas to glean knowledge and effect change.
A writer and documentary filmmaker by trade, Douglas’ 2009 book Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town showcased his original use of photo collage overlaid with handwritten text. Telling the story of the Slow Food Movement, which originated in Italy, Slow quickly found a rabid audience. A former advertising executive with a deep background in the film industry, wife Laura founded Laloo’s, the goat milk ice cream brand that has a retail outlet in downtown Petaluma. While launching Laloo’s put the couple in touch with area farmers, their needs and frustrations, and helped to birth the series, they decided to sell the business last year, allowing them to work full time on Lexicon. They also have a new book, Local, due out this summer.
One of the unique aspects of the “Lexicon of Sustainability” is that it’s crowd-sourced, with the Gayetons encouraging Americans across the nation to take part by hosting pop-up exhibits of Douglas’ photographs in their communities. Some 500-and-counting shows have been mounted with the Gayetons giving free access to the images, as well as funding to have them framed, to anyone who chooses to participate. The only restrictions are that individuals not actually be professional art curators and that they agree to host five pop-up exhibits in unusual and fully accessible spots in their community. This way, the Gayetons reason, regular folks might be startled into action.
Isn’t there a word for that?