Friday, April 1, 2011

We've moved!

As of Friday, April 1, Free Range: Food, Nature, Place, and More has relocated to the brand-new Madroño Ranch website. We hope you’ll make the trip over and explore the new site, and we apologize for any inconvenience. Thanks for reading!
—Heather and Martin

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tragic waste: some thoughts on the s-word

Watching the bats from the kitchen stoop at Madroño Ranch the other morning was a little like watching my own thoughts. They swooped in and out of my line of vision, limited by the dawn darkness, more audible than visible.

Actually, my comparison is disrespectful of the bats; their flight is only apparently erratic, driven by the ever-changing location of the insects they were chasing. My thoughts are actually erratic. As the promise of light bloomed into dawn, the bats settled into the bat house, a feat of precision flying and landing almost like none I’ve seen, and I noticed the pile of guano under the house and thought that soon it would be time to collect it and put it into the compost pile.

And so began my musings on shit and the difference between good shit and bad shit. My apologies to the bats become ever more profound.

One of our current projects at the ranch is figuring out how to use the abundant quantities of manure the residents of the Chicken Palace produce. Currently, it’s just collected and dumped onto the compost pile, but we’re working on a plan to get the chickens more fresh greenery to eat, in part self-fertilized (by the chickens, that is). We’re planning to cordon their pasture off into sections and seed the sections with cover crops, alfalfa, rye—whatever the season will grow. We’ll soon have a rainwater collection system in place and will be able to irrigate with it (assuming it ever rains again). Using a portable fence, we’ll be able to rotate the chickens from section to section. We have no idea if this will work, but it seems like a good idea and a fine, closed-loop use of all that poop. We’re also looking to collect buffalo leavings (summer “interns”: consider yourselves warned!) and use them as well.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I used all sorts of synonyms for shit in the previous paragraph; one of the few I didn’t use is “waste,” because in natural systems, or systems that mimic natural systems, shit isn’t waste, it’s integral and beneficial. Paraphrasing Our Hero Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan notes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Mealsthat industrial agriculture has taken an elegant solution—crops feed animals, whose manure in turn fertilizes crops—and “divide[d] it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm... and a pollution problem on the feedlot.” Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the current source of most of America’s meat, produce mountains of manure that becomes toxic to the animals and to the communities around them, and the monoculture farming that produces most of America’s grains and vegetables doesn’t use animals to fertilize the soil, requiring farmers to use chemicals instead. That’s the difference between good and bad shit: when something that could be beneficial becomes useless, even toxic, waste.

In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if a community’s or even a culture’s capacity to endure might not be assessed by how effectively it mimics nature in dealing with its own discharge. I’ve just been rereading T. C. Boyle’s darkly comic Drop City, which begins at a northern California commune of the same name in 1970. The commune’s stated raison d’etre is to provide its residents with a place to escape the confines of bourgeois America and get back to the land and basic values by expanding their consciousness with meditation and drugs.

Of course the place is utter chaos, overflowing with the metaphoric excrescences of abusive sexual practices, racism, child neglect, and rampant narcissism, along with literal shit. The septic system is overloaded and the two characters who concern themselves with the problem get no help at all from the community. Eventually, the county government threaten to raze the buildings because the commune constitutes a health hazard. Because they can’t deal with their own shit on any level, the residents of Drop City abandon what was once beautiful land and move their chaos to the bush country of Alaska just as summer is waning. When they get there, most of them realize that they need to leave or get their shit together so they don’t die.

The problem is that getting your shit together necessitates acknowledging that you are, in fact, going to die. (It’s still Lent, after all. You knew we’d get to this.) Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death, identifies the human dilemma in scatological terms: we are the “god[s] who shit.”
Look at man [sic], the impossible creature! Here nature... [has] created an animal who has no defense against full perception of the external world, an animal completely open to experience.... He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, not even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. It is appalling, the burden man bears, the experiential burden.... Each thing is a problem and man can shut out nothing. As Maslow has well said, “It is precisely the god-like in ourselves that we are ambivalent about, fascinated by and fearful of, motivated to and defensive against. This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods.” There it is again: gods with anuses.
Human civilization, says Becker, is built on this unease, which encourages us to throw our energies into an “immortality project” by which we deny our smelly mortality; those who confront it with none of the filters an immortality project provides wither into mental illness. Becker doesn’t attempt to solve this conundrum but rather to set some boundaries within which we can wrestle with it with “the courage to be.” He writes in his conclusion: “We need the boldest creative myths, not only to urge men on but also and perhaps especially to help men see the reality of their condition. We have to be as hard-headed as possible about reality and possibility.”

So it was with interest that I watched the video produced by a Japanese media artist to explain to Japanese children why everyone was so worried about the Fukushima nuclear reactor after it was damaged by the tsunami and earthquake on March 3. The video compares the damaged nuclear reactor to a boy with an upset stomach who needs to poop. So far the boy has just farted—smelly enough for everyone around him—but the video assures us that a team of selfless doctors are doing all they can to prevent Nuclear Boy from pushing out his stinky poop.

The video says that the Fukushima reactor is more like Three Mile Island Boy—who just farted—than like Chernobyl Boy, who not only pooped but had diarrhea that went everywhere, likening nuclear waste to a dirty diaper. My first thought after watching it was that Japanese doctors would be overwhelmed by waves of constipated children, convinced that evacuating their bowels might bring their struggling nation to even deeper depths. My next thought moved me to images in last Sunday’s New York Times of the city of Chernobyl in its abandoned state and the interview with one of the guardians of “the sarcophagus,” the concrete structure built to contain Reactor No. 4, and that can’t come in contact with water without risking the escape of highly radioactive fumes. Scientists estimate that an area around the reactor the size of Switzerland will remain affected for up to 300 years. The aftermath of a nuclear meltdown “is a problem that does not exist on a human time frame.” The guardian figures that the work he does will be available to his children and grandchildren.

Using my heavily truncated recapitulation of Becker’s thought, it seems that proponents of nuclear power (which I have sometimes been) are refusing to be “as hard headed as possible about reality and possibility,” are as unwilling to get our shit together as the drug-addled utopians of Drop City. We are as schizophrenic as the video artist who proposes that we just not poop. A few pages away from the article about Chernobyl was a piece by a Japanese astrophysicist who wrote in reference to the Fukushima reactor crisis:
Until a few years ago, power usage in Japan was such that during the summer Obon holidays, when people typically return to their ancestral homes, it would have been possible to meet demand even if all nuclear power plants were turned off. Now, nuclear energy has come to be indispensable for both industry and for our daily lives. Our excessive consumption of energy has somehow become part of our very character; it is something we no longer think twice about.
Now that I’m trying to tie together all these thematic threads, I have to swoop back to my bat-intensive stoop, to the manure-heavy compost pile in the pasture outside the Chicken Palace. May we humans be as useful as Madroño’s bats and chickens as we consider our energy future; may we refuse to resort to the narcissistic chaos of Drop City’s residents, who left their spiritual and literal bad shit for someone else to deal with.

What we’re reading
Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Martin: Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist

Friday, March 18, 2011

March Madness: mountain laurels, plastic ducks, and 'roid rage

I apologize in advance if this post seems unusually grumpy; I’ve been in a lousy mood all week. The arrival of spring in Central Texas always has this effect on me. As the weather turns warm and moist and the redbuds and pear trees burst forth in clouds of colored blossoms, as the mountain laurels fill the air with the scent of grape Kool-Aid, as Heather and the rest of humanity get all goo-goo-eyed over the season of hope and rebirth, of pastel colors and eggs and baby chicks and bunnies, I grow ever gloomier, because I know what the sights and smells of spring really augur: the onset of another brutally hot summer. And in Texas, summer can last well into what would be considered fall, or even winter, in other places. To me, spring is the annual reminder that I’m about to spend six or seven months covered in a thin film of sweat. And did I mention the mosquitoes?

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a cool, even chilly climate, but after almost three decades in Texas I have yet to acclimate fully to the summers here. Heather, on the other hand, loves hot weather; our personal comfort zones have only about a ten-degree overlap, as once the mercury climbs above 90° I begin to melt, and once it drops below 80° she begins to freeze. Under the circumstances, I think it’s pretty remarkable that we’ve been together for thirty years and married for twenty-five.

Of course hanging over everything else this week is the dreadful news of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, and the grim aftermath, with threats of nuclear disaster. We can’t yet know the final outcome of these events, but I worry that they may be a harbinger of even more catastrophes to come. A story on suggested that climate change might cause more seismic and volcanic activity, as melting ice masses change pressures on the earth’s crust.

That’s scary all right. Equally scary are fears of massive radiation leaks from damaged nuclear reactors. We know that coal and oil and natural gas are all finite sources of energy, and that solar and wind power have limitations; nuclear power was supposed to be a sort of panacea, although we can wonder about the wisdom of building reactors in any place prone to major seismic activity. And then there’s that pesky problem of what to do with all that radioactive waste....

These gloomy reflections fit right in with the book I’ve been reading, Donovan Hohn’s Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. The light-hearted title and subtitle are deceptive; the book is actually a thoughtful, and frequently depressing, contemplation of the problems of industrialization and pollution, and, most germane to the grim news from Japan, of the unintended consequences of technological advances. Reading it has not improved my mood.

It does, however, tell a fascinating tale. On January 10, 1992, south of the Aleutians and just west of the international date line, a freighter sailing across the northern Pacific from Hong Kong to Tacoma encountered rough weather. Somehow, as the ship rolled and plunged, two columns of containers stacked on the ship’s deck broke free and fell overboard, and at least one of them burst open as it fell, setting 7,200 packages of plastic bath toys – each containing a red beaver, green frog, and blue turtle, in addition to the yellow duck pictured on the book’s cover, but who’d buy a book titled, say, Moby-Turtle? – loose upon the waters. As the toys began washing up in unlikely places, they attracted attention from various news media – who could resist such a story? – and Hohn became obsessed with them.

The book ranges widely, both geographically and thematically: Hohn’s obsession takes him from his home in New York to (among other places) Alaska, Hawaii, South Korea, Greenland, and China’s Pearl River Delta, the industrial zone where the bath toys were manufactured, and he manages to work in reflections on the plastics industry (with a nice shout-out to my old UT Austin American studies honcho Jeff Meikle), the changing definition of childhood, the history of American environmentalism, and more. He writes well and often amusingly, but the overall message of his book is dire: we are almost literally drowning in waste, and we don’t really know what to do about it. Apparent solutions turn out merely to mask, or perhaps exacerbate, the problem; sincerely well-intentioned people disagree violently about what to do. And more and more garbage ends up in the oceans.

There was a time when all of this might have been ameliorated somewhat by the fact that spring signals the return of baseball. “Spring training”! I used to consider those the two most joyful words in the English language, other than “peach cobbler” and “tax rebate.” But that was before the steroid-fueled nightmare of the last fifteen years, in which unnaturally swollen sluggers rewrote the record book and permanently distorted the shape and balance of the National Pastime.

Now baseball is all but dead to me, and spring is when Tito and I fill out our NCAA tournament brackets, an annual exercise which makes manifest the depths of my almost complete ignorance of college basketball. (I usually pick the University of North Carolina Tar Heels to win it all, because I’ve always been a sucker for their baby-blue uniforms, but this year, in case you’re wondering, I boldly picked Duke to beat Kansas in the championship game.)

I don’t know what it will take to pull me out of my annual springtime slough of despond. Maybe the Blue Devils will actually go all the way (or, if not, maybe UNC will pull off an upset). Maybe the endorphins and tryptophan in a megadose of Easter chocolate will jolt me into a more agreeable frame of mind. Or maybe I just need to find more cheerful reading material.

What we’re reading
Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
Martin: Donovan Hohn, Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them

Friday, March 11, 2011

Lenten reflections: dead trees, bafflement, and submission

Fittingly, this Ash Wednesday began with a vigorous north wind, the kind that knocks dead branches out of trees and can make you a little leery about walking outdoors. It blew me back to the moment that I first got a glimpse into the meaning of Lent.

I had vaguely thought of “giving something up for Lent” as an opportunity to practice self-discipline and to display a sense of commitment to a “good” life, a sort of spiritual calisthenics that made you feel better, especially when you stopped. The events I recalled weren’t, on the surface, particularly interesting or dramatic, but they allowed me to see myself from a previously undiscovered vantage point; for the first time, I could see I was like a tree filled with dead branches that needed some serious pruning in order to keep growing. Observing Lent wasn’t a way to prove how strong I was; it was a space offered in which I might look at all my dead branches and wonder how I, with the north wind’s help, might clear some of them out, while trusting that I wouldn’t get knocked out by falling timber.

A time for submission—no wonder Lent gets a bad rap. Who wants to submit, especially after a look at the roots of the word: “sub-” is from the Latin for “under,” and “-mit” is from “mittere,” to send or throw or hurl. To submit to something is to hurl yourself under it—“it” presumably being a force much greater than your itty-bitty self, a force like, say, a speeding F350 pick-up. In fact, it might even take some courage to submit to the scouring blast of Lent.

In last week’s post, Martin considered some of the complexities of being from a particular place, ending with a beautifully expressed desire to be here, rooted in this rocky Hill Country soil. Imagine his exasperation when I said last night that I felt like I needed a vacation. My desire to run away (presumably temporary) probably has several sources, but one of them may be an awareness that the idea of Madroño Ranch is taking on heft and weight, leaving behind the dreamy elasticity of fantasy.

I’m reminded of my reaction to our daughter Elizabeth’s first vision test. It had been suggested by her third grade teacher, who had never had a student make so many arithmetic mistakes, especially in copying problems from the chalkboard onto paper. The test results were normal; Elizabeth wasn’t nearsighted, just math-impaired. First I mourned that she would never be an astronaut or an engineer or a mathematician, but then I realized that we now knew more about who she really was; she was beginning to take on her own form, independent of my fantasies for her.

In a lovely essay entitled “Poetry and Marriage: The Use of Old Forms,” Wendell Berry (of course) unearths the kinship between marriage and formal poetry: both begin in “the giving of words,” and live out their time standing by those words:
In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and living within the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.
Choosing a form implies the setting of limits, limits that appear arbitrary from the outside or at the outset, but that can open into generosity and possibility as they are practiced. Even as they limit, these old forms point their practitioners to a way through self-delusion toward truth, through loneliness toward community. Individual failures are certainly possible, but they aren’t necessarily arguments against the forms themselves. In fact,
“[i]t may be... that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
This past weekend we hosted “Hog School” at the ranch, the second in an ongoing series of sustainable hunting/butchering/cooking/eating extravaganzas put on by Jesse Griffith of Austin’s Dai Due supper club. I spent much of the weekend baffled (and not in a good way) by rifle-toting guests scattered across the property hunting feral hogs, by the seemingly effortless magic with which chef Morgan Angelone produced gorgeous and delicious treats from the kitchen (my kitchen, mind you, my philandering kitchen purring in someone else’s hands), by my own mental contortions.

I finally decided to go for a walk where I was unlikely to be mistaken for a hog. Marching through the field by the lake and muttering imprecations against the wind (no birds to watch), the lack of rain (no grass coming up), and the hunters (no long walks available), I decided to climb to the base of the cliffs above me and head back to the house by a new route.

Though they can be steep, the Hill Country hills aren’t exactly the Alps; climbing to the base of the cliffs only takes a few minutes and a lot of grabs at branches to keep from sliding back down in the loose mulch and rocks that just barely hold the hills up. Once I got into the still-leafless trees, I began lurching across the perpetually shifting terrain and found that it was impossible to walk and look at the same time; if I wanted to walk, I had to watch my feet carefully, and if I wanted to look, I had to stop and make sure I was balanced before I shifted my gaze. It made for slow going because, unexpectedly, there was a lot to see that I hadn’t noticed from below.

I found a fine moss-covered boulder that allowed me a new vantage point from which to look down and into the trees and brush I normally looked up at, a posture that causes the painful condition among birders known as “warbler neck.” I quickly misidentified several sparrows, and with an un-aching neck, was able to track down some raucous spotted towhees making rude observations from a clump of yaupons and to lecture them briefly. Staring at my feet as I staggered across the hillside, I found that grasses, indeed, were beginning to sprout, despite the drought. Skidding onto my derriere—it always happens off-roading on these hills—I was able to observe the first blush of blooming redbud tree, closely guarded by the great daggered yucca beside it. And then, as the wind picked up again, the rich thick smell of honey clogged the air. The source? Tiny yellow blossoms nestled under agarita spines—tiny and extravagantly generous and impossible to pick without getting pricked. The wind blew my hat off, and, setting off multiple rockslides, I chased it gracelessly down the hill.

Limits: from dust you were made and to dust you shall return. Bafflement: unexpected forms arising, unforeseen paths opening. Submission: throwing the deadwood of the ego into the flames of the Unnamable One. That’s a lot to wrestle with for the mere forty days of Lent.

What we’re reading
Adam Gopnick, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
Martin: Donovan Hohn, Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them

Friday, March 4, 2011

Maps and mobility: living in, not on, the land

I was surprised, while reading Rebecca Solnit’s fascinating Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, to realize that I probably know substantially more about the history of Texas than I do about the history of my native San Francisco.

Of course, this realization should hardly have come as a surprise. After all, I’ve lived in Texas for more than half my life, whereas I left California at age seventeen, for college, and never moved back. Moreover, I spent more than half of my time in Texas working for the Texas State Historical Association, mostly researching and writing local history.

Still, it was a little bit of a shock. Despite my recent purchase of a spiffy pair of Lucchese boots, I still frequently think of myself as a Californian, not a Texan. Texas is where I live, but California is where I’m from, and that can be a significant difference. Especially in the South (and Texas is in many ways as much a part of the South as of the West), where you’re from—your “people,” your frame of reference—is still as important as who you are. But while I retain vivid, detailed mental and sensory images of San Francisco and the Bay Area—the sights, the sounds, the smells, and, yes, the tastes—I don’t really know how and why they came to be. In Texas, on the other hand, I learned a lot of the stories before learning the places they explain.

Solnit’s book presents both foreground imagery and background narrative. It is a series of maps and essays which manifest unexpected symmetries or contradictions: “Monarchs and Queens,” which simultaneously maps butterfly populations and sites significant in the history of the city’s queer population; “Poison/Palate” (above), which juxtaposes some of the Bay Area’s leading “foodie” establishments (Chez Panisse, Niman Ranch, etc.) with nearby mercury mines, oil refineries, chemical plants, and other sources of toxic pollution; and so on.

In reading and looking at this beautiful book—and it really is beautiful—I have learned a lot of local history, and also experienced that rush of nostalgia that accompanies any return, be it literal or literary, to your homeland. Just seeing the names on the maps, the extant and (especially) the long gone—Playland at the Beach! the Surf Theater! Winterland! Zim’s!—brought on a shiver of memory worthy of a Proustian madeleine. As Solnit writes, “the longer you live here, the more you live with a map that no longer matches the actual terrain.” She notes that the residents of Managua, Nicaragua, long after an earthquake that destroyed much of the city, “gave directions by saying things like, ‘Turn left where the tree used to be.’”

Similarly, my San Francisco is a palimpsest, an accretion of layers and memories, things and people living and dead, real and fictional—Emperor Norton and Sam Spade, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Harry Callahan, and countless others. All of them were and are integral parts of where I’m from.

But that very notion of being from someplace is somewhat vexed. Locals say “I’m from here” all the time, but to me saying you’re from someplace usually implies motion, absence, a sense that you’re no longer there—that you’ve left it behind. In the United States, we have traditionally defined ourselves as an entire nation of people who are from somewhere else. My mother was born in Italy and my father in Brazil (though his parents were born in Scotland and Austria), which makes me about as American as you can get. After all, even the so-called Native Americans who were here before European contact originally came from somewhere else, presumably across the Beringian land bridge in pursuit of mammoth and bison.

In a fundamental sense, then, ours is a culture built on the sense of limitless opportunity awaiting us just beyond the horizon, just over that next rise. We have never stayed put, geographically or socioeconomically: the Louisiana Purchase, Manifest Destiny, the Mexican War, the California Gold Rush, the Civil War, and the Dust Bowl all pushed or pulled the new nation westward, across the continent, and we still seem to believe that, if we really make a hash of things where we are now, we can always pick up and move on to some uninhabited place (traditionally further west) where we can start fresh.

And some astonishing transformations did indeed take place out on that peripatetic frontier: a poor boy from Kentucky by way of Indiana and Illinois turned into Abraham Lincoln, an itinerant river pilot and printer’s apprentice from Missouri headed west and turned into Mark Twain, and so on. Even after Frederick Jackson Turner famously proclaimed the end of the frontier in 1893, our restlessness did not cease. In the twentieth century, the promise of economic opportunity and escape from Jim Crow drove the great migration of African Americans from the South to the north and west. Our current president, a son of Kansas and Kenya who was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, is merely the most recent testament to the persistent power of the American notion of mobility, whether upward or westward.

Back to the Left Coast. In Infinite City, Solnit writes, “A city is a particular kind of place, perhaps best described as many worlds in one place; it compounds many versions without quite reconciling them, though some cross over to live in multiple worlds—in Chinatown or queer space, in a drug underworld or a university community, in a church’s sphere or a hospital’s intersections.” This is inarguably true of San Francisco, or for that matter any city; I would only add that it is no less true of a farm, a rural village, or any place that has borne the prints of generations of human existence. Like, say, Madroño Ranch.

All maps, even ones as imaginative and beautiful as the ones in Infinite City, are by definition reductive. They represent reality in two dimensions; we experience it in (at least) three. Maps, in other words, lack depth, and depth is what makes us and our world real. We don’t inhabit places flatly (though we certainly inhabit plenty of flat places!), but in depth, both geographical and temporal.

That depth is what we hope to gain personally at Madroño Ranch and also encourage in others, but we know we cannot simply will it into being. It grows and accumulates over time, and with care and effort; it is, in fact, a kind of rote learning, going over the same ground again and again, literally and metaphorically, until you have worn a track into the surface. John Muir noted that “Most people are on the world, not in it”; one of our hopes, now that our Austin nest is empty and we’re at the ranch more often, is that we can gradually learn to live and move in, not just on, this small part of the planet.

This is why Heather has grown increasingly ambivalent about travel; the world is full of fascinating places, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of our own. We hope it’s not (or not just) provincialism, but we want to be here.

What we’re reading
Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life
Martin: Steven Rinella, American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon

Friday, February 25, 2011

"If you got a field that don't yield": writer's block and the language of community

One of the many notable gatherings Martin and I participated in this past weekend was the opening of my sister Isa Catto Shaw’s show at the Harvey/Meadows Gallery in Aspen, Colorado. In a series of watercolors and collages, she took the dark, mute burden of grief over the death of our mother and worked it into beautifully articulate packages, in some ways (perhaps) making that grief more easily borne because it is shared with a community of unknown mourners who see the paintings, with the community of artists from whom she has drawn inspiration, and from the community in which she and her family live. As far as I could tell, the opening was a wonderful success, the gallery full to overflowing as Isa and the ceramicist Doug Casebeer, with whom she shared the show, each spoke movingly about the impetus behind their individual efforts.

Knowing that she had been working like a madman for several months, I was glad (and deeply moved) to see the results of her labors. And aggravated. We’ve been talking since our mother died about a collaboration of my poetry and Isa’s art to be entitled “Blessings of a Mother.” Isa’s done her part, and it’s intimidatingly beautiful.

I, on the other hand, have done squat. This doesn’t mean I haven’t thought obsessively about the project or that I haven’t written multiple lists of topics and scraps of lines and stillborn poems. It does mean that I’ve been willing to be endlessly distracted and grumpy about it. I’ve developed all sorts of hypotheses about why I’m not writing and what I might do about it, most of them ultimately involving running away from home. My favorite defense against the terrorism of the blank page is to read, figuring that in doing so I’m in the company of someone else who has faced, at least temporarily, the tyranny of That Which Demands Expression And Remains Unexpressed. Plus, if I’m reading, I can’t write.

So here’s what I’m currently reading to fend off—and perhaps eventually to outsmart—the intimidation tactics of the blank page: Standing by Words, a collection of essays by Wendell Berry, in particular the title essay and its assertion that the primary obligation of language is to connect the idiom of the internal self with the multivalent tongues the self encounters in community, both human and otherwise. When language loses that capacity—a loss currently encouraged by the forces of industrial technology—both the self and its community languish in their isolation, succumbing eventually to a fatal disconnection from the web of love and life.

As always, Berry is defiantly unfashionable, insisting on the possibility of “fidelity between words and speakers or words and things or words and acts.” He believes that genuine communication is possible, even if its processes are ultimately mysterious and unavailable for dissection by specialists. The life of language is rooted in community and by the precision that life in community necessitates: “It sounds like this: ‘How about letting me borrow your tall jack?’ Or: ‘The old hollow beech blew down last night.’ Or, beginning a story, ‘Do you remember that time...?’ I would call this community speech. Its words have the power of pointing to things visible either to eyesight or to memory.” Community speech doesn’t imagine abstract futures; rather, it deals with what IS. It creates a walkway between internal, personal systems and external, public systems. Community speech registers the need to include both objective and subjective experience; it deflects the argot of specialists; it recognizes spheres of being beyond its domain. Says Berry:
If one wishes to promote the life of language, one must promote the life of the community—a discipline many times more trying, difficult, and long than that of linguistics, but having at least the virtue of hopefulness. It escapes the despair always implicit in specializations: the cultivation of discrete parts without respect or responsibility for the whole.... [Community speech] is limited by responsibility on the on the one hand and by humility on the other, or in Milton’s terms, by magnanimity and devotion.
Although I would argue with Berry’s assertion that all specialists are without awareness of their place in the “whole household in which life is lived” and thereby exclude themselves from the liveliness of community speech, I hearken to the limits he sets on speech, limits that protect the tender shoots of hopefulness, a crop that can be distressingly rare in an often grief-stricken world.

Forgive me. For an essay that aims, in part, to wrestle with ways to express the specificity and universality of grief, my language is so far distressingly abstract, a symptom, I suspect, of my current stuckness. I just received a note from an acquaintance who recently lost her husband to pancreatic cancer; she wrote that although she and her daughter have prepared for his death for a year, “it is like the bad dream where you show up for an exam without having read the book, in your PJs, totally unprepared.” I was struck by the generosity of the image, by her assumption that, though I have not experienced her particular and devastating sorrow, I could somehow imaginatively engage with it, and that we both belonged to the same community, despite the fact that we’ve only met twice before.

Writing is usually perceived to be a solitary pursuit, and in a very literal way it is. I’m trying to remember, however, that when I stare at the blank page or screen I’m seldom alone. (I’m not referring to the cats who often take naps behind me on my chair.) Trying to remember: trying to listen for the cloud of witnesses, the dead and the unborn, that root us in the past and impel us toward the future. I found Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies compelling after my mother’s death, in part because their language is so rich and their meaning so elusive, like a whispered conversation from another plane of being. In the translation by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, they begin with this lament:

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty’s nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
And so I repress myself, and swallow the call-note
Of depth-dark sobbing.

Although Rilke refuses to call on the angels, they soar in and out of the poems, weaving them together, helping create a complex whole from parts threatening to hurtle toward meaninglessness and isolation.

I’m usually suspicious of angel-talk, but Wendell Berry and my widowed acquaintance and my sister all remind me that I am—we are all— surrounded by angels, by community, even when we don’t sense its presence. When we are deaf to its song, we are deaf to our own.

Now if they’d only settle down and write those poems for me. Or at least recommend some nice writer’s residency where I could get them started.

What we’re reading
Wendell Berry, Standing by Words: Essays
Martin: Rebecca Solnit, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas

Friday, February 18, 2011

These boots were made for blogging

Cowboy boots are on my mind today. And (heh) on my feet.

Of course cowboy boots come with so much symbolic weight it’s a wonder I can even walk in them. The cowboy is the most iconic, romantic, heroic figure in American history. Lean, laconic, and independent, he represents the way we like to imagine ourselves: tough as nails, self-reliant, unafraid of violence but guided always by a rigid code of honor. Owen Wister and Zane Grey helped establish the archetype, and Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Audie Murphy, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood, among many others, elaborated it for generations of children (and adults) on screens both large and small. In an increasingly urbanized society the image of the cowboy may seem quaint and anachronistic, but it can still exert a powerful pull.

All of which only partially explains why I just bought myself a pair of Luccheses—NV1503s in waxed and burnished olive leather, if you must know, as in the photo above—and why that’s such an unlikely thing for me to have done. Allow me to explain:

I have traditionally had a sort of ambivalent attitude toward cowboy boots. I have tended to associate them more with a certain kind of urban Texan—plump, loud, razor-cut hair, wearing pressed jeans and a white shirt, driving a too-big pickup—than with the rugged individualist of the bygone frontier. And then of course there’s that whole unfortunate association with a certain professional football team based in Dallas.

Moreover, my feet are famous throughout the tri-county area for their extraordinary width and flatness. They are the Great Plains of footdom. My footprints resemble the round tracks of a hippo rather than the delicately scalloped tracks of most humans.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I have a long and often painful history with cowboy boots. I bought my first pair in London, of all places, at a very trendy boutique on Chelsea’s Kings Road, during our honeymoon many years ago. (I know, I know: what kind of idiot travels from Texas to England to buy cowboy boots? All I can say in my defense is that Heather had just bought a pair, and I didn’t want to be left out. Also, I was young and foolish.) They were a sort of honey-colored suede, with white stitching, lethally pointed toes, and rakishly undercut heels. They were also one size too small, and way too narrow. The shopkeeper—a pox upon his cynical soul—assured me that they would stretch, which was of course utter nonsense. I probably wore them no more than twice, each time suffering horribly while they were on and requiring a great deal of assistance to peel them off my swollen feet, before finally coming to my senses and giving them away.

A few years later Heather’s parents gave me a pair of boots for Christmas. They were made of thick reddish-brown leather, completely devoid of decorative stitching, with squarish toes instead of the classic pointy ones—in other words, they weren’t really cowboy boots at all. They were, however, the correct size. I wore them a few times, usually at Christmas parties and the like, before deciding that they were just too heavy to wear much in Texas.

But these new Luccheses fit my astoundingly wide, flat feet right out of the box, and they are lightweight enough to make me think I might be able to wear them comfortably even when the temperature is above freezing. Moreover, they are quite dazzlingly beautiful: fairly restrained, as cowboy boots go, with decorative contrast stitching on the shaft and more subtle stitching on the insteps, though the toes are sharply pointed.

How often will I actually wear them? I have no idea; I may ultimately conclude that they make me look more like this guy than this guy. Also, we seem to be moving into spring, and my usual warm-weather wardrobe involves shorts, a T-shirt, and Birkenstocks, with a Hawaiian shirt and sneakers for more formal occasions. Still, I like looking at them in my closet, and it’s nice knowing they’re there if and when I need them.

The bottom line is that these boots are a symbol of my willingness to take on the trappings of my time and place. We live in Texas, and we own a ranch; we are Westerners, in other words, and we yearn to partake of the best of that heritage. I’ve made no secret of my loathing for many aspects of contemporary Texas (just ask Heather). Wearing cowboy boots is a step—a small step, perhaps, but a significant one—in my long journey toward acceptance and acknowledgment of who and where I am. This is my life, and these, believe it or not, are my boots.

Next on my shopping list: a Nudie’s suit!

What we’re reading
William H. Eddy, The Other Side of the World: Essays on Mind and Nature
Martin: Philipp Meyer, American Rust