It Is Real Nonetheless

Sometimes a butterfly bandage just doesn't cut it. Heh. "Cut" it... get it?
Sometimes a butterfly bandage just doesn’t cut it. Heh. “Cut” it… get it?

It’s nice that it’s a little warmer now. I dally over chores, stopping at each species to stand watch for a minute or two. I like watching the ducks drink after I chop through the ice in their watering hole. I like watching over the evolving relationship between Web, our pet duck who chooses barn life over communion with her kind, and Rye’s goats, Flora and Monkey. We moved Flora and Monkey from their usual winter shelter because the deep snow had made their fence superfluous, and they’d become prone to wandering.

Their relationship with Web did not get off on a good foot (hoof?): There were head-to-head standoffs between the duck and Monkey, and I’d have been worried if I didn’t know how fast that bird can move when it suits her. But at some point in the week after being introduced, the three made their peace, and now Web is forever preening her former adversaries, perhaps having decided that antagonism was getting her nowhere, and she might just as well annihilate them with kindness. The goats lean into her while she works her way up and down their backs with her bill. The goats are shedding in the changing season; the preening must feel good.

We’ve lived with animals long enough now that it’s hard to imagine a time we didn’t live with animals. I understand why most people don’t want to live with animals (I’m not talking about house pets, which for the most part are so adapted to the human environment that they demand relatively little of us); the commitment is not inconsequential. There’s no question that our lives are defined by our relationships to our animals, both in regards to our day-to-day comings and going, but also in how we perceive the world around us, and even how we perceive ourselves.

I thought about this yesterday, after reading Charles’ recent account of his encounter with a toddler. The piece spoke to me, in no small part because I understand full well what he means about grappling with criticisms both external and, most affecting to me, internal. I suspect this is a common phenomenon among writers or anyone else whose work exists in the public realm. Or maybe it’s straight up common to humanity. I also agree with Charles that part of the value of my work – it’s value to me, at least – is that I sometimes question its value. It is important, that questioning, the same way it’s important to occasionally question just about everything we think we know or believe. I have learned that the people most deserving of my trust and respect are not those who claim to have the answers, or who claim to know what answers I should have, but rather those who leave room in their hearts and minds for the possibility that the stories they cling to might not be as important as they believe.

Our animals do for me what the baby in Charles’ essay did for him: They remind me, on a daily basis, that my written work is merely one aspect of who I am, it is merely one medium for expressing what I think is important to me. And on those days when it feels as if I accomplish nothing else, they provide me the opportunity to know that at least I accomplished this: I fed them. I watered them. I tended to their needs. I stood for a moment and watched a duck preening a goat, something that only a few weeks ago would have seemed an unfathomable kindness between two arch enemies. I watched one cow stretch her rough tongue to scratch the hard-to-reach itch of another, and I wondered how this need is communicated. I stood over the pigs sleeping in their hay, their soft bellies rising and falling with each porcine breath, and I challenged myself to fill their trough without waking them.

I think these interactions – both between myself and our animals, and between our animals themselves – are worth more than any casual observer might understand. Perhaps worth more than even I might understand. Maybe because, as Charles posits, they are in some manner redemptive, almost an atonement for the myriad ways in which I fall short.

Or maybe they are worth so much for an entirely different reason: They are something that no amount of criticism, either external or internal, can sully. There is no viewpoint expressed, no belief espoused, no argument made, no position defended, no status to be attained or denied, and therefore, no ego to be inflated or deflated. There is not even a verbal acknowledgement of appreciation.

There is merely one creature meeting the needs of another, and the minutia of the interactions necessary to the task, so fleeting and routine that it’s easy to lose sight of their value. This is particularly true in a culture that does not acknowledge or even understand this value. For what is gained? I cannot show you. I struggle to even tell you. But I know it is real nonetheless.



At The Exit

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Cold again this morning. I started chores early for no good reason than I’d risen early, and it was nice to be outside on the leading edge of daylight, the sky turning shades of pink and blue above me. Yesterday’s snowfall had obscured our bootways, and every third or fourth step I’d land wrong, slide off the packed path, and sink to the thigh. Set down the hay bale, the slop bucket, the water pail, heave out my leg, pick up my load, walk, repeat.

Rebecca Solnit has a nice essay in the new issue of Harper’s, called “Abolish High School.” Here is some of what she writes:

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, responsible for 4,600 deaths per year. Federal studies report that for every suicide there are at least a hundred attempts – nearly half a million a year. Eight percent of high school students have attempted to kill themselves, and 16 percent have considered trying. That’s a lot of people crying out for something to change.

We tend to think that adolescence is inherently ridden with angst, but much of the misery comes from the cruelty of one’s peers. Twenty-eight percent of public high school students and 21 percent of private school students report being bullied, and though inner-city kids are routinely portrayed in the press as menaces, the highest levels of bullying are reported among white kids and in nonurban areas. Victims of bullying are, according to a Yale study, somewhere between two and nine times more likely to attempt suicide. Why should children be confined to institutions in which these experiences are so common?

Solnit’s question is rhetorical, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer to it. Or many answers, probably, but for the sake of expedience, I’ll suggest only one: Because their parents can’t imagine something different. Part of the reason they can’t imagine something different is because they can’t afford to imagine something different. And partly, it’s because they’re afraid to imagine something different – in my experience, that fear is oriented primarily around their children’s social and economic prospects. In short, they worry that if they don’t send their kids to school, their kids will become outcasts with few prospects for gainful employment. Better to risk the bullying than the job prospects, and besides, at some point, kids have to learn that not everyone’s going to treat them nicely, don’t they?

But I also think many parents can’t imagine something different because they don’t know there’s something different to imagine. They are not aware there are other paths to walk. Because as Solnit also writes: High school is often considered a definitive American experience, in two senses: an experience that nearly everyone shares, and one that can define who you are, for better or worse, for the rest of your life. This is how the story of school has become so foundational; as adults, most of us have been defined by it, and we have come to depend on it to understand, at least in part, who we are.

Which begs the question: Who are we? Many things, of course. Far too many to list here. But among them, we are a culture that compels their children to be confined daily to a space where 28% of them are bullied. Furthermore, we are a society that comprises 4.6% of the world’s population, but consumes 80% of the world’s pain medication. Depending on age group and gender, nearly 25% of us take drugs to treat our depression.

When people read interviews with me and criticize what I have to say about education, I often wonder what they see in the institutionalized school system that is so worthy an alternative. Are they thinking of the 72% of children who aren’t bullied? I mean, hey, that’s a majority! Nice work. But what of the bullies themselves, if one can be so compassionate as to think of them? I’ve known a few bullies in my life; I even know one or two now. None of them seem very happy to me.

Or are they thinking of the economic opportunities they presume unschooled children won’t have? They are, or at least they say they are, and in a way, this makes me saddest of all, because it suggests that a child’s education should first and foremost be subservient to their economic interests.

Still, sometimes I wonder if the reasons stated for their opposition run even deeper. As Solnit writes, school has become a definitive part of the American experience. It is apple pie, it is Fourth of July, it is part and parcel of our faith that the story we’ve all grown up inside, the story we are all – to varying degrees and by varying levels of complicity -invested in is the right story.

As I went about chores this morning, stumbling and slipping along our well-worn boot packs, I was thinking about how our foot travel has mostly been limited to those prescribed paths for so long. And it occurred to me this morning how liberating it will feel to be able to walk where we please, as if, having been trapped in a labyrinth for all this time, we suddenly find ourselves at the exit.


Freed of That Burden


Yesterday afternoon Penny and I spent a couple hours in the kitchen. We did a bunch of things. First we sliced up a pair of chuck roasts real thin for beef jerky. The trick to slicing meat thin enough for good jerky is twofold: A sharp knife and a partially frozen roast. Then we chopped up a whole lot of garlic – we grow way more garlic than we can eat, but we sure do try – and mixed it into some tamari and a little honey. Penny might’ve put something else in there, too… I’m not sure. It’s her recipe; I don’t ask questions. We put the sliced meat in a bowl, poured the marinade over it, and stuck it in our passively vented icebox for the night.

When we finished slicing the meat, I went to the basement and dug a few carrots out of one of the burlap bags in the basement. This winter, we experimented with storing our carrots in dead leaves, and it’s worked out pretty good. We raked the leaves off the paths in our neighbor’s sugarwoods. I remember the boys jumped and wrestled in the raked up piles and I thought I should join them but I didn’t. Still, it was fun just watching them. I took the carrots upstairs. Washed them. Peeled them. Cut them small for stew.

I had some chunks of venison browning in lard on the wood cookstove. It smelled good. Earthy. The lard was from the pigs we slaughtered in January; the meat was from a fat little roadkill doe Fin and I came upon last fall, ironically just after we’d gotten home from rifle hunting. I would tell you how many roadkill deer we’ve harvested in the past six years or so, but it’s such an outrageously high number you’d never believe me and I’d only look like an idiot for having tried to pull the wool over your eyes (even though I didn’t). So let’s just say we haven’t gone without venison in a real long time, none of which were killed by our own hand or (thankfully) even our own vehicle. Sometimes I think it’d be cool to spend a year just living off roadkill and wild greens. But… nah.

While we worked, Penny and I got to talking about some things we’d heard on the radio. We generally listen only when we’re driving solo, and we’ve each been driving too much lately, so we had lots to talk about. She told me about some fellow who’d done a segment on his new coffee maker, which apparently communicated with his smartphone. I guess the way it worked is that the coffee machine would actually call him when it needed tending. Sort of like an aging parent or a teenage child, I said, and she laughed, and I was pleased, because in my experience there’s not much better than making someone you care about laugh, especially if she generally finds your jokes lacking. Anyhow, I digress.

I told her about something I’d heard that very morning, about how the cereal makers are in big trouble. No one’s buying Cocoa Frosted Death Flakes anymore, and I thought for sure they were gonna say it’s because people are finally getting wise to that shit, but lo-and-behold it was for a much more pedestrian reason: People want something more convenient than cold cereal these days. In other words, it’s too much work to pull the box and a bowl out of the cupboard, the milk out of the fridge, and a spoon out of the drawer. It’s too much work to “prepare” a bowl of cold cereal – the pouring of the flakes and the milk is simply too great a drain on the precious commodities of time and convenience. And then all those dishes to wash! So what’s the next big thing? Breakfast bars, apparently, because you can eat them in the car on your way to work. Tear open the package with your teeth, stuff your gullet whilst navigating traffic (it’s a pain in the ass, I know, but don’t fret: Driverless cars are coming soon!) and then stick the empty wrapper under the seat with the cast off detritus of previous breakfasts. Or maybe just throw it out the window. Yeah. That’d be even easier.

A story to ground all this: About a decade ago, we ripped the propane cookstove out of our kitchen and replaced it with a wood burner. I recall being a little anxious about the amount of work I perceived to be involved with cooking on wood. No more would I be able to twist a dial and have blue flames leap at my command. Now it was fell the tree, buck the log, split the wood, stack the wood, haul the wood inside, crumple the paper, lay the kindling, strike the match, feed the fire. Then coffee. Then breakfast. It all seemed like a bit much at the time, though clearly there was something about it that called to me.

Another story: A few years back, we turned off our gas-fired hot water heater. Let me be perfectly honest: This was no great hardship – we have solar collectors and a rather ineffectual loop through the wood cookstove – but it still means there are large swathes of time when we do not have hot water at the tap. Want to do dishes? Do ‘em in cold water, or heat some on the stovetop. Want a bath? Heat in on the stovetop (but mind the step!). And so on. As with the installation of the wood cookstove, I remember being a little nervous about extinguishing the pilot light in the water heater. As with the wood cookstove, I hardly remember that we ever had it differently, and now we burn only a couple dozen gallons of propane each year to fire the gas range we ripped out of the kitchen and stuck on the porch for use in the summer months. Honestly, I can’t say I’m more happy now that we don’t use our propane water heater, but I do experience a smallish delight in knowing how well we can live without it.

What’s my point? Actually, I think I have something like a half dozen points, though I may not get to them all. The first is that convenience (or the lack thereof) is almost 100% relative and almost 100% unrelated to happiness. When we lived without any plumbing at all, which we did for years while saving for this land, we thought running cold water would be the pinnacle of convenience (we didn’t even dare dream of hot water at the tap, lest we anger the gods with our greed). Funny thing is, we weren’t any less happy then than we are now.

Point number two: In far too many cases, without us even knowing it is happening to us, convenience sucks the simple pleasures out of our lives. I’m thinking of my boys wrestling in those piles of leaves I inconveniently raked in order to inconveniently store the carrots we inconveniently grew. I’m thinking of this morning, as I sat by the cookstove fire, writing the first half of this post and waiting for my coffee to perc. I’m thinking of splitting wood, the way my body feels after a day with the maul. I’m thinking of how that beef jerky is going to taste, I can smell it now from my office; Penny must have spread it across the drying racks. It’ll be ready by tomorrow morning, I bet. I’m thinking that Erik’s going to be here for lunch and we’ll eat venison stew from a deer my son and I hoisted into the back of our Subaru and butchered on our kitchen counter. Even at the time, I remember feeling a little put out by the inconvenience of it all: I’d had other plans for the day. But now I don’t remember what they were.

Point number three: I’m thinking that appeals to our desire for convenience are actually nothing more than sleights-of-hand intended to further ensnare us in the sticky web of consumption. And in doing so, furthermore erode our ability to care for our communities and ourselves. For what skills do these conveniences require? Only the skills necessary to maintain the jobs necessary to pay for them. To plug them in, to rip open the packaging with our bare teeth, one hand still on the wheel, weaving in and out of traffic, perhaps recalling that once upon a time we actually had to eat from a bowl, and oh! How wonderful it is to have been freed of that burden.