Everyday treasures

There's more to a cup of coffee and a newspaper than meets the eye.

Oct 7, 1998 at 12:00 am

A cup of coffee and a newspaper, in most of the United States, can be had for a dollar or two. That price hardly seems, at least to author Leah Hager Cohen, to reflect the true value of these ordinary objects.

And in this consumer-driven society, where it's easy to walk into a café and drink coffee from a glass mug while reading the daily paper (as Cohen does at the beginning of the book), the origins of such everyday things, and the hands by which they are made, are all too easily hidden.

But the newspapers we read and discard, the coffee we savor as we read, and even the mugs holding the coffee are all end products of a series of human events.

In Glass, Paper, Beans, a poetically written, carefully researched series of short essays, Cohen goes to the roots of each of these objects, tracing their origins to factory, forest and field. In doing so, she creates a timely reminder of the hidden values behind these seemingly insignificant commodities.

Cohen traces the history of her coffee cup through a restaurant supplies distributor and back to the Anchor-Hocking plant in Lancaster, Ohio, where Ruth Lamp, the night supervisor in the select-and-pack department, spends her shifts checking glassware and dealing with the human rhythms of the factory floor.

The newspaper Cohen reads, an issue of the Boston Globe, can be traced back through Irving, a paper manufacturer, to Brent Boyd, an independent contractor who fells trees with the help of a Timberjack single-grip harvester in the forests of New Brunswick, Canada.

And the coffee itself comes from Aztec Harvests, a cooperative of indigenous farmers who grow organic coffee beans in Pluma Hidalgo, Mexico. There, Basilio Salinas and his family spend their days growing, harvesting, drying and shipping coffee beans to San Francisco and then Olympia, Wash., where they're roasted before being sent via UPS to trendy cafés in the United States and Europe. The rhythms of Salinas' life, in contrast, is slow, steady, punctuated by the ripening of red coffee cherries and the occasional visit to or from the Oaxaca coast, about 15 miles away.

Just as Cohen outlines the contemporary origins of these products, she also delves deeper, exploring their possible historical origins. Was glass first created by accident, when a forest fire melted sand? Was coffee first tasted when an Ethiopian goatherd tried the red berries that made his goats dance? And was paper first invented when a Chinese courtier watched paper wasps closely and imitated their method of drying wood pulp?

While it's difficult to pinpoint the exact origins of these items (there are many contradicting stories), the lore behind each item adds to its intrinsic value.

Cohen's carefully researched observations do more, however, than explain where we get everyday objects. By introducing us to the lives behind the objects -- the hands which have checked, cultivated and collected them -- she creates a sense of connection, both between the characters of the book and between reader and character.

It's hard, after following Ruth Lamp from her cozy farmhouse to her fluorescent-lit office with the wonky air-conditioner, and back to her farm and pet wolf in the pre-dawn darkness, to regard a piece of glassware with the same eye.

Every newspaper bears the invisible fingerprints of Brent Boyd, the overwhelming pine fragrance of his freshly cut forests, and the smell of the fish and chips he eats for lunch.

And the steam over each cup of coffee rises like the mist over Basilio Salinas' home in Pluma Hidalgo, where he lives with his extended family in an open-air hut and tends the coffee plants not because it's his job, but because it's simply what he does.

Suddenly, the invisible hands that bring us our breakfasts and sweaters, our shopping bags and our shoelaces, become eminently significant.

In a world where assembly-line restaurants and big-box outlet stores do everything to separate us from the origins of consumer goods, Cohen's explanations can only serve to bring us back in touch with the means of production.

When we get to know the people who make the objects, the objects themselves become less like commodities, exchangeable for cold cash, and more like the pure embodiment of human labor. And the people, as Cohen puts it, become "people with names and toes and sores and wages and fancies and parents and memories."

That, in itself, gives more value to the objects we use daily than any price tag could ever confer.