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Fork in the Road: Small is beautiful in more ways than one

One great little art show, one great little grain, and one great book that ties it all together
At Arts Whistler’s Teeny Tiny Art Show, “small is beautiful” is more than just a saying.

It's tiny, and beautiful, and it packs a powerful punch. Of course I mean any one of the miniature masterpieces at Arts Whistler's annual Teeny Tiny Art Show—on until Sept. 30 at the Maury Young Arts Centre in the village, and one of the best ways you could imagine to enjoy, and even purchase, original local art. (It's also a great fundraiser for Arts Whistler and a boost for every participating artist.)

But given this food column lies at the intersection of culture and science, let me also direct your attention to two other very small but beautiful things.

The first is barley—an amazing but common grain throughout the world, one that seldom gets its due. The second is the classic book that inspired the headline above and embodies a concept well ahead of its time—one we need more than ever today. E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful describes an economic system not driven by greed. One that treats both the environment and people as if they really matter. Funnily enough, barley does the same.

One of the wonders of the ancient and contemporary world, barley is as close as you could get to a small but beautiful food, and I'm one of its biggest fans. I love barley's taste. I love its texture. I love those little pearly-white grains with a wee brown stripe (I'm talking about pearl barley here). I especially love the way I feel after eating it: Satisfied, balanced and happy.

Barley has the highest fibre levels of whole grains, including beta-glucan fibre, which lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease. (Oats, too, are high in beta-glucan.) Barley is also high in nutrients, plus it's excellent for keeping those microbes in your gut healthy, and regulating your blood sugar after meals, ergo the "happy" feeling it gives.

Given all these beautiful qualities, barley forms an important part of many cuisines, from Korea to Syria. Cooked barley is delicious simply tossed into salads, porridge or wherever you want a nutty taste and texture. You can even make tea from it. Just hit the internet for barley-based recipes from around the world.

In fact, barley was part of the amazing collection of 150,000 "different populations" of seeds from 128 countries created by the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, with branches in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. ICARDA maintained a gene bank near Aleppo, Syria, where its headquarters were located, until rebel fighters seized it in 2012. Then the entire collection was redistributed to Morocco, Turkey and beyond.

No surprise that barley was part of the "dry area" collection. Evidence from archeological digs shows that for thousands of years, until about 5000 BCE, people who were largely hunters in northern Iraq, Iran and Turkey ate, amongst other things, large amounts of wild barley, which was well adapted to the climate. Eventually it became one of the first cultivated grains. But in our largely wheat- and oat-driven world, barley has ended up kind of like the third kid in the family: Often overlooked or taken for granted.

Currently, barley is Canada's third most important crop. But this mighty little grain might soon rise to No. 1 what with all the droughts and heatwaves brought on by the climate we've changed with our faulty economics and priorities. (Remember, it was the 1950s when the oil industry's own scientists first warned, amazingly accurately, how burning fossil fuels releases CO2 that causes global heating, before they were silenced by their bosses.)

A study published in ScienceDaily by a biologist at the University of the Basque Country—also a very dry area now suffering evermore heat and drought—concluded that lovely little barley has a self-defense mechanism to tackle lack of water. In fact, CO2 provides this amazing plant with certain characteristics that enable it to offset the effects of drought.

If all this hasn't gotten you excited enough about all things small and beautiful, try Schumacher's bestseller, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. Note that subhead: Economics as if people mattered. Ahem. Something we could use in triplicate today.

This collection of essays by the forward-thinking economist, who was named a Companion of the British Empire for his outstanding work, was hailed as an eco-bible by Time Magazine. It was also required reading at Langara College's progressive and effective journalism program, where I graduated and the inimitable Paul Burrows—co-founder of Whistler's first newspaper and so much more—was an advisor.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Small is Beautiful. To acknowledge same, the innovative Schumacher College and Dartington Trust in South Devon, England, (young people note: it's devoted to progressive learning programs in the arts, ecology and social justice) have been bringing together thinkers and institutions to further the ideas behind Schumacher’s enlightened concept known as regenerative economics. I hope they serve some barley tea.

As for getting your very own "small is beautiful" masterpiece from the Teeny Tiny Art Show, be sure to attend the Art Party, Thursday, September 21, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Maury Young Arts Centre. It's your first chance to buy one of these meticulously crafted miniatures by a local artist. Bonus—you can take your piece of art home that night.

Given every artwork is only 3 x 3 inches, it's sure to fit in any teeny, tiny slice of accommodation you may be forced into in our increasingly unaffordable world.

You may well place it beside your bed so you can glance over at it as you read Small is Beautiful with your jaw dropping. It's hard not to do so given reviews like this: "The basic message in this tremendously thought-provoking book is that man is pulling the earth and himself out of equilibrium by applying only one test to everything he does: money, profits, and therefore giant operations. We have got to ask instead, what about the cost in human terms, in happiness, health, beauty and conserving the planet?"

As always, hope is with us—just an idea, and some action, away.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who still has her yellowing, well-thumbed copy of Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful from Langara.