Shannon Rankin: Where the Dragons Lie
Maps are flat; the earth is round. This essential conundrum has bedeviled mapmakers since Ptolemy. How to wrestle the complexities of the three-dimensional world to the two-dimensional mat of the map? Mercator gave a valiant try and his cylindrical projection has withstood the test of time despite vast distortions of landmasses at the poles because a line drawn on his map is a true direction. Charting a course, plotting a line, voyaging from point A to B, sailors traverse the world. Goods move, people travel, knowledge expands; the world grows larger, then contracts, at once vast and infinitesimal.
Where are we? How do we get there? Is there another way?
Shannon Rankin (b.1971) is an artist who uses the language of maps to explore the complexities and interconnections between the inner and outer worlds, between that which is known and that which remains beyond the field of knowledge, that mythical place on medieval maps where the dragons lie and cherubs blow the wind. The duality of our human capacity for imagination and reason, for creation and destruction, for being of nature and apart from it, is a rhumb line that courses through her work.
Using maps as both material and metaphor, Rankin creates installations, collages and sculptures that play on the parallels and connections found among geological and biological processes, patterns in nature, geometry and anatomy. For instance, Synapse | Diptych, a relatively large two-part piece from 2011, presents a flat circle composed of a web of delicately cut-out red roadways connecting variously shaped bright yellow population centers, the whole sliced down the center to create symmetrically sized halves, the same yet different. The right half has a wide blue river snaking through it, the left has a pronounced branching highway. The title and the divided composition make apparent the analogy to the human nervous system and the cerebral hemispheres—the right and left-brain. Another more macro reading suggests a satellite image of the Earth at night, with the bright lights of city centers illuminated and connected by the electrical grid.
“Maps,” says Rankin, “are everyday metaphors that speak to the fragile and transitory state of our lives and our surroundings. Rivers shift their course, glaciers melt, volcanoes erupt; boundaries change both physically and politically. The only constant is change.”
Course, another work from 2011, takes the form of a meandering soft blue line created from cut and folded polar maps. Presented vertically on the wall, it flows circuitously downward, its accordion pleats compressing glacial time, slowing but not halting the implied melting.
A recent series of collages, Compression 1, 2 and 3, 2016, picks up a similar theme. All are made from reassembled nautical charts of the arctic, sharply cut, sometimes overdrawn in graphite, the multi-layered triangular forms shift under and over each other, referencing the process of the warming and cooling of the polar ice sheets. That they are somberly toned in shades of grey, white and black reinforces their elegiac quality.
Plate 1 and Plate 2, are two other recent works by Rankin that continue the theme of environmental harm. Plate 1 is made from ink and graphite on collaged ocean maps and is one of her most abstract and solemn works. A mere 7 x 7 inches, its impact is larger than its scale. The heavily wrinkled and abraded surface is entirely covered in graphite and black ink, producing a sheen and density akin to an oil slick, a mourning veil for a dying planet. Plate 2 is larger at 16 ¼ x 16 ¼ inches and the underlying geometric grid of the collaged map squares is visible beneath a deep sea-blue. The surface of work is a web of lines and texture, suggesting a net afloat in a turgid sea. Taken together, Plate 1 and Plate 2 are a powerful testament to the Earth’s fragility and its endurance. Can we rescue it from ourselves?
Time as a metaphor and a component of making is embedded in Rankin’s art. Her processes of creation and methods of installation are slow and meditative, involving careful painstaking cutting, the accumulation of many small repeated forms, and the meticulous pinning, stitching or pasting of pieces to form a whole. Sometimes an idea or method is revisited or is carried further in a series, but every work is unique and individual, every installation new to its time and place.
A comparison of Artifacts 1 and Artifacts 2, for example, is instructive for the changes that appear in the four-year interval between their makings. Artifacts, 2011, is made from water-soaked map fragments, torn and adhered to paper measuring 44 x 30 inches. Artifacts 2, 2015, is the same dimensions but presented horizontally. In this later work, the scattered shards of paper are undercoated by hot red orange acrylic, visible along their curled edges. The implications are clear, the world has turned a corner, the Earth is heating up, we are scattering our ashes.
Originally from California’s San Joaquin Valley, Rankin moved to Maine to attend the Maine College of Art in Portland, where she received a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in 1997. A stint working in graphic design in San Francisco, where the work was almost entirely computer based, led her back to Maine to take a job as a pattern cutter for a fashion designer so she could again work with her hands. It was this experience that gave rise to the cutting and sewing techniques that she uses in her art.
Rankin now lives in Rangley, in western Maine’s lake district, surrounded by mountains. When asked recently by an interviewer, “Who is your role model or mentor (alive or dead)? She responded, “Does nature count?”
Lately Rankin has been consciously pushing herself to work outside her comfort zone, challenging herself to making art that is “nebulous, amorphous, ambiguous.” Since April 2016, she has been in Roswell, New Mexico, participating in the yearlong Roswell Artist-In-Residence Program. This “gift of time” has allowed her to take risks and experiment with new materials and methods of working, as well as to respond to a landscape vastly different than Maine.
“For a while now,” she says, “I have worked in a way that has been very controlled and precise. Often the compositions are based on underlying patterns or grids. That hasn’t changed for every series, but I am attempting to shake things up a bit more. Let go of some control. Explore chaos, the unplanned and mysterious.”
Earth Embroideries is a series she began before she left for New Mexico and has continued there, the work is becoming more abstract and more macro in viewpoint with each iteration.
They are an obvious departure from her earlier work in that they are not created from the physical material of maps, instead she is distilling satellite views of the artic into minimal line drawings created in thread on paper. She says, “I’m transcribing a vast amount of physical space into something I can hold and stitch by hand. In some of these I am also incorporating digital glitches which are visible when zooming in on Google Earth.” In a very real sense, the Earth Embroideries are about mending the world.
Unearthed, is another new series Rankin is exploring in Roswell. Inspired by the soil, sediment, light and texture of the New Mexican landscape, these richly patterned works are composed of cut and collaged maps hand-colored in jewel tones, mossy greens, and earthy browns. The compositions are loosely rectangular shapes with open irregular edges; they are her most painterly works to date. “I’ve always had this fantasy of being a painter,” she says, “but I’ve never really loved using paint. Instead, I’m using topographic maps, ink and pigmented graphite.” Haunting in their abstract beauty, the Unearthed collages collectively sound a Greek chorus to our frayed yet lovely planet.
In her most recent work, Rankin moves beyond the known into uncharted territory. She has been experimenting with creating landscapes out of soil, casting them in plaster, then using them to create press molds for ceramic forms that resemble fossils, moonscapes, or the surface of other planetary bodies. “I’m trying to squeeze, combine, merge and overlap the macro and micro,” she says. “I’m always looking in and looking out.”
A map is not the size of the earth its describes. Scale must be determined, as well as which features to include and which to leave out. You can’t include every tree in the forest; generalizations have to be made. Artists are familiar with these considerations and choices. A work of art is not the thing it describes, but something other.
“To put a city in a book, to put the world on one sheet of paper—maps are the most condensed humanized spaces of all,” writes Robert Harbison in his book Eccentric Spaces. “…they make the landscape fit indoors, make us masters of sights we can’t see and spaces we can’t cover.” Likewise with art.
Suzette McAvoy has served as director and chief curator of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art since September 2010. She previously served as chief curator of the Farnsworth Art Museum and has lectured and written extensively on the art and artists of Maine. McAvoy received a B.A. in Art History from Hobart & William Smith Colleges and an M.A. in Museum Studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. She lives in Belfast.
You can view more of Shannon Rankin’s work via her website.
Kristin Keane / Harris Fogel
I am not sure who made the Grand Canyon so wild—it is hot, petrified, ready to bake you alive. In summer, the air strangulates, suffocates, smothers. The way it takes you by the neck, you must dip your entire face—your whole body, even—into the Colorado River for relief, the residue evaporating from your skin as quickly as air releases from a punctured balloon. Dehydration comes regularly and the canyon takes lives that way. Sixty-five to be exact, lifeless and seized on the switchbacks off the rim. Some come for the beauty, but usually it is for the risk.
Once a man waited out the heat by resting, foregoing the hike down towards the river because of fatigue. When his friends returned, they found him dead. I would like to ask that man: Were his last moments with the canyon as intimate as two hands pressing together? Did he see inside himself? Was there a choice?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the Grand Canyon because deep in the gorge I fell into a rapid and the river and I had a moment with one another. I traveled with an outfitter one hundred twenty-six miles in, two billion years of geological history and layer upon layer of eroded rock, a deep gash inside the Earth’s crust. A silty river, colored like chocolate milk rests below the rim, one hundred twelve rapids dotting the surface, shifting and changing every moment; it does not die. The crests of them are entirely whitewater, turbulent and frothy. Formed by holes, formed by heavy, collapsed things; formed by blockages; formed by waves themselves—breaking white-capped haystacks. They are not all the same of course, and a guideline indicates their power by numbers one through ten. We went there to ride across them, hang on for dear life and fly through them, the river guides cowboys armed with wooden-oared reins. The danger was the draw: it made us feel more alive.
The water, remarkably, is not the only peril inside the canyon. Dust storms take you by the throat and during monsoon season, the way the river sweeps into the craggy channels between the rocks, you can get pinned against a boulder and drown. That’s not to mention others: sunburns so intense the layers of your flesh become as powdered as a cigarette sleeve’s ash. The winter temperatures drop so far below zero, the frigid water can freeze your extremities so they snap off the way you break a candy bar in half. Sheer cliff edge’s hairpin turns and rattlesnake bites, the thorny ends of catclaw acacia brushing against your bare legs, poisonous scorpions, the bulls’-eye shaped targets of mayfly bites, left for other animals to sink their stingers inside. It goes on.
When we arrived at Lava Falls, one of the most technically difficult American rapids, the guide turned and said right before the drop, “You really don’t want to go over, so grasp the raft tightly,” after I asked what we should do in case of emergencies, in case the whole plan fell apart down there. In fact I asked this just moments before we got slammed, before the raft lifted up and licked the sky one last time and we hit the wave train in a way that we might as well have been striking the stony surface of the canyon wall. She had also said, “Just make sure you have thirty seconds of air in your lungs,” and something else about not getting caught on anything.
But thirty seconds is a big stretch, after all. It is enough time to forget why you’re there, to make a terrible choice, yield to something. When I saw the guide fumble the oar as the rapid approached, bending down towards us high and glossy in the arch of a snakes’ tongue, I thought: that’s really beautiful; and then: it’s over.
The rapid. Days of getting beaten down by swells of water, pummeled at the edges of the rafts’ frames, made it hard to tell we had flipped, but then I felt my feet looking for a place to anchor themselves where the foot straps should have been. I opened my eyes under water and saw the detritus the canyon spit out floating around inside, brown as a nut. It was quiet under there. I was quiet under there, twisting around the places where the water’s velocity shifted me. I realized I couldn’t really hear the rapid because it is thing you feel, even after breath has been knocked clean out of you, even when your ears are wide open. My heart met the rapid’s heart, they fastened, and we slid down a drain together.
It was a bludgeoning like a baton to the right cheekbone with the rush and force of two magnets’ poles: a tethering that could not be undone. Days could have passed under there, who knows? We compared notes. Bodies: my extremities to its jagged, pencil-thin twigs; the mosaic of its bedrock to the freckled constellations of my shoulders. We have both dreamt of butterflies. In mine their crab-shaped bodies fluttered inside my grandmother’s antique jewelry box; in the rapid’s, their wings were made from weighty arrowweed, sinking them in the river just as soon as they pitched themselves into the sky. The rapid lined my regrets and secrets up like smooth river rocks and held my face up to each buried one: I’ve toiled too long in places I should have left sooner, spent too much time in worry. I hide from myself. It is hard to weep in water, but right then I found a way. You might not believe me, but the rapid shifted shape and showed me myself.
I paused trying to recall what Betsy had said right before the drop. (Be careful not to get caught up, or be careful not to get caught on, anything?) The rapid and I agreed this was a moment when time appeared to fold in on itself.
I don’t know how I came up, or where. I remember immediately trying to commit to memory the things felt inside: arousal, pulling my heart from inside of its heart. I turned back from the rescue raft and suddenly it was gone. The waves barked up from the other side, and considering the mess of the current, there was no going back. You might tell me that a wave never dies, but it also never doesn’t.
The last night on the river, a guide is struck by lightening. Chasing pineapple upside-down cake with thimbles of bourbon, we sang “Happy Birthday” while fingers of electrostatic zipped across the canyon’s edge.
“Lightening rarely comes off the rim, so we’re fine,” someone actually said right before a bolt hit the umbrella we stood under to keep dry. The passenger we were singing to still held a plate of cake in his hand, seven candles stuck into the slice, one for each decade. At first I thought the struck guide was gazing at the lightening from his back like he was watching clouds form—unicorn, bear, ice-cream-cone-riding-turtle. I was reminded of the rapid, how it could reshape itself into anything. But then someone said, Is Jim dead?, just like that. A few of us stepped towards him. He was blue as a starling egg, but breathing.
I went there to bake under the sun, contort myself up rope ladders, travel into something famously perilous. I went there not to be remembered of death but to push against it, to ride the river’s wild edge and feel more alive. The awakening was supposed to be in the risk of the rapid, not in falling for it: it lives unapologetically, moves the way the stars and shifts of the moon’s gravity go, careens and turns and bends for itself because what makes it up is everything else—it is the rapid, but it is the river, the dirt, the rocks—living by its own accord, unafraid and unapologetic of what’s next. We see danger in the way that light flashes against a rapid’s foamy ridges, and the rapid just sees the light.
I could have done things differently down there. I could have reached harder for a handhold, pinched the tips of my fingers between a slot in the rock bed’s surface, wedged my feet inside a gap, bowed my head to exhale. I could have punished myself, ended things. I could have caught razorback suckers with my bare hands, ripped their heads clean off with my teeth. Under is where fear finally stops. Under is an uncomplicated surrender. Under is a good place to hide. The guide got struck by lightening that night, and he went back the very next summer. I wanted to ask him what he experienced inside that streak of electricity, how he felt underneath the pulse. I didn’t get the chance to, but I’m guessing I probably already know. If the opposite of cheating death is dying, then what do you call the place in between?
Somewhere along the way we learn fear, we worry for what’s coming next, relinquish ourselves to control, to loss of pure unrestraint. Then we hide from ourselves. I’m no good at learning from the past, but I know now there is a place under that rapid more powerful than the roar of the water ricocheting between the canyon walls, a place where you can go get caught. A rapid doesn’t drown anyone: it lives primal and intrepid, unafraid of broken bridges.
Here’s a trick I’ve found to feel more alive that is not in dodging rattlesnakes, their forked, smelling tongues: I imagine heading for the edge of the vertical drop, but do not ask what will happen next. I see the rapid ahead, prettily misshapen and speeding towards me. I do not sink my feet into the footholds of the raft; I do not grip the straps so tightly my knuckles go white. Instead I let go, press my hands together. I think about time, butterflies, drain holes. I pull my fingers apart and set the palm of my hand against the place on my chest where my heart is under. I listen. I wait for time to fold.
Kristin Keane lives in the Bay Area where she teaches at the University of San Francisco. A Vermont Studio Center writing resident and LitCamp juror, her fiction has been shortlisted for a Glimmer Train prize in fiction and has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly and Fjords Review.
Harris Fogel. These photographs were made using an 8×10-inch Deardorff view camera; for most of the images the camera was fitted with a Fuji 250mm F6.8 lens. The original book maquette of a Few American Cultures was created in 1993 at the request of the late Reinhold Misselbeck, then curator of the Museum Ludwig in Köln. Housed in a black plastic negative binder, it was filled with one-of-a-kind Cibachrome 8×10-inch contact prints printed on the glossy print material when I lived in Palm Springs, California. The advent of digital imaging allowed me to revisit the work and reconsider it in a larger framework.
The project began in the 1980s, with several themes; water politics in the West centered in California, the western landscape, portraiture, the South, etc., all cultures unique to themselves, but overlapping at the same time. I have continued to work on the project, creating new images, evolving and expanding. The shift to the 8×10-inch view camera not only slowed me down, but it allowed an exploration and description of texture instead the rough jottings of texture that smaller formats provided.
I throw open the creaky front door of my light yellow Victorian house. My bare feet leap down from my porch, covered with cracked white paint and sandy shoes. I look across the street to the dry field as my eyes follow the lime green frisbee that some middle-aged locals are tossing. I catch myself giggling as one of the men runs towards the wooden gazebo, yelling at the other player because she threw it too hard. My eyes glance passed the mixture of aged houses and newly built mansions, while I feel a sense of adrenaline every time I place my foot over a small pebble. The early autumn sky beats down on the small winding tree at the end of the road that I once thought of as a jungle gym. Then I stop, trying to work up enough energy to run across the steaming black road between the two beachside inns to get to my destination.
It’s off season here in Beach Haven, New Jersey. I hear no voices of humans, but faint screeches of seagulls and crashes of shoreline waves. I step through the fields of white sand and broken shells, as if I were sneaking past a sleeping lion, until I reach the end of the dry border of the ocean-kissed floor. While I watch the white ocean foam inflate and deflate from the rough wind, my feet descend into the soft, muddy ground as if I were trapped in this place of pastel blues and misty skies. I can smell nothing but salty seaweed and a slight touch of grilled chicken from the beachside houses. The warm feeling of the sunrays grabbing my bare arms is astonishingly comforting. The beach has always been my go-to.
For holidays, mostly Christmas, everyone on my father’s side, including distant relatives, would join together and celebrate on this beach. After the Christmas feast everyone would hurry to the frigid shore in our sweater dresses and ironed suits. Some would run into the ocean searching for sea glass, while others conversed about the poor horseshoe crab they found washed up on the sand, or maybe about what unimaginable desserts awaited us in the kitchen. With each gust of wind pushing past our ears, it was as if the beach were trying to spark up a conversation too. Maybe about how rough the summer was, or about how happy it is that we were all back again.
On the rare occasion that we would get a snow storm, I would be at the beach all day. I remember my father pulling my bright pink winter hat over my eyes because we were in such a rush to get started. As we ran out of the front door with our multicolored disk sleds wearing snow suits that resembled giant marshmallows, we would try our hardest not to slip to our deaths. The winter wind on the shoreline made me livid, but sliding down the frozen dunes face first was worth the frost-tipped nose on my face. Being so small at the time, I was drawn to the conclusion that I was sliding down mountains. As we descended for what felt like an hour, I would scream a scream that could shatter glass. Thankfully it never snowed too often, but when it did you would know where to find me.
As I sit here in the warm, dusty sand reminiscing about all the times I have had on this beach, a small sandpiper scurries across my view. As I start to stand again, the lightly colored, miniature bird soars across the ocean. I begin to wonder where it might be going or when it will land again. I continue to make my way to the mussel-covered jetties that my mother always warned me about, mostly because she thought I would slip on the mossy seaweed. As I stroll, I catch a strange movement out of the corner of my eye. I think it’s a wave, but as soon as I turn my head I see a silky grey fin arise from the rugged waters. I decide not to walk any further, but to imbibe the beauty of the local dolphins. Each one submerges in sync with the others. I watch the sun begin to set, as the vivid colors of pink and orange fill
Kaya Pulz is a 19 year old student from Beach Haven, NJ currently enrolled in Unity College as a Sustainable Agriculture major. She plans to run a small-scale organic farm and further her studies in soils sciences. Her ultimate goal is to encourage sustainable practices and healthy living, so that everyone has the chance to experience the beauties of the world.
It is so easy to get lost in our hurry to get there- time dissolves as we browse the internet; as we speed from place to place, ingesting soundbites and tweets, directed to the fastest route possible by Google’s algorithms, by the voices from our phones. But, what, ultimately, do we lose in our quest for efficiency?
Poems slow us down and open us up by creating space in which we can navigate and renegotiate the terrain of our lives, explore the intersections between self and other, and imagine new worlds. Dwelling in poetry changes our bearings. Maps do the same thing. They create layers of time and place; they allow us to imagine multiple paths, alternative destinations, new worlds. Illustrating geography, history, politics, and culture, maps, like poems, serve as portals, like the map songs Harriet Tubman and others used to connect stars in the sky and moss on trees and people on the path to freedom.
Michelle Menting’s poetry and Margot Carpenter’s maps invite consideration of the consequences of haste, and they illustrate alternatives. Their work reminds us that many paths lie ahead, twisting and turning and intersecting and diverging, appearing and disappearing, again and again. Slowing down, dwelling in their work, we may feel the connections between humans and other mammals, consider the shared spaces we inhabit, and learn where to find what nourishes us.
AFTER READING “A BLESSING” BY JAMES WRIGHT
I pay more attention to life
along the highway. Literal life. Literal
highway. So often I’m consumed
by the death, the road-kill-carrion
smeared muscle of rodents, raccoons,
even bears. Oh my.
Before A Blessing, I noticed not
the Guernsey cows, so golden, so sweet,
and the deer that make it, that do
their best Baryshnikov over the ditch.
I noticed instead the porcupine’s needles
follicle-ing from asphalt pores, the fox’s tail
bobbing and stuck in a seam of tar,
and the feral cats who didn’t do their best
Martha Graham to avoid a Honda’s tire.
After A Blessing and learning about breaking
into flower, and the joy experienced
from observing two ponies nuzzling,
I pay attention. I see turtles living on the edge,
scooping the gravel to lay their eggs.
And my left arm greens to a stem.
I see frogs being improper in the road, right
in the middle of the road during a rain storm,
and I brush pollen from my shirt.
Those cows, those gentle Guernseys?
I see them, and the fingers on my right hand
become petals. I can’t step out of
my body completely and break
into flower, but parts do blossom.
After reading A Blessing I’m still no fool.
I can’t ignore the sadness of the road,
the literal road, the metaphorical one too.
One morning while running in Madison,
Wisconsin, I saw further up the street
the shape of a squirrel hovering over
some thing, some still but soft thing.
I caught up and the squirrel, that visible
squirrel, didn’t flee. It didn’t leave
its partner, the soft lump in the center
of the road, clearly hit, clearly dead.
This squirrel, this living rodent, this pest
to attics and garages, prodded its dead love.
Nudged her. Wouldn’t leave when I ran by,
and only fled to the grove of oaks
when another truck approached.
I kept running. I looked back,
and that squirrel had returned
to its partner’s side. That’s when I thought
I’d break. That my whole body and heart
would break, but not into blossom.
Instead, I would crumble like a leaf
in November. I would crisp into pieces—
some parts dirt, while others
would sparrow into the wind.
The odor was septic and made us speechless,
though we’d already lost our voices
when the sun napped dusk, when night’s sheet
hushed the traffic, the birds, our thoughts.
It was a peahen hit to the ditch
and decaying. Her left wing shielded
her breast–a draped cape, her final
comfort. The smell of turkey is not
always the same. If we cooked her carcass,
would the scent remind us of arugula,
of berries brined? Of autumn and wood fires,
or late summer’s chilled wine? This find,
this bird, we encountered on an evening
that made us question beauty, was she messaging
her last will and flight? Her lofted feathers,
those still sticking to live twigs weighted
with winter berries, lead us further still
into the meadow policed by the farmer’s
one black horse and one banded cow.
Land we did not own but that owned
our souls in its soil like all life its surface
sends meandering. Not listless in loss
but lustful for fresh discovery in beauty
found in failed crossings, we crossed
as wayfarers. We foraged through paths
in pastures of sorghum futures or would-be whey.
Our earlobes and nostrils, every follicle
of skin, set as seismographs collecting
fall rot and cyclic decay–any fresh
disturbance–in measurements of awe.
HOW, NOW FROM OUR FRONT DOORWAY YOU CAN SEE A FAIRWAY
Maybe the moon rises like this everywhere?
Wide, reflecting the pond in the middle
of a golf course? We laughed: how
coarse, a course of golf. How now
we went from a home in the woods
to puddle and turf. Now,
we look from a gate with wire
that wraps the remaining pines: how, now
they fence the land. Still, that moon,
once buck now harvest, is slow
but full over the tree line. Low
and looming. Too orange to be safe.
This time in my house, I’ll bring in the furniture, inside
this time, from the garage.
Years ago, our house–the one we lived in together, thought
how cool to be new in our twenties with a deed and a driveway,
that house, a brick bungalow with charm–stayed empty
for a year with bags as dressers, futon for our bed.
That house–hollow without tables or chairs, sofa or stools–
we didn’t know how to fill, except with our voices: inside
the air between rafters and thresholds, all that space, we’d loft
phrases, pastoral and poetic. You’d say lines
like, you shed our morning blankets like a dragonfly
molting, and I’d say, you’re wading along the lakeshore,
wielding a net. And back and forth, the words we tossed
echoed and faded, bounced in that space we shared
against emptiness. Maybe if we had created an alcove,
spackled a wall, constructed a partition, or just brought in
our furniture, we could have secured our words, trapped them
inside, filled our house like an aquarium of language.
Instead, after coffee that final August morning–our last
together in that house or anywhere, with windows
open, breeze traveling through–we sat in silence.
The only words were stuck on the refrigerator door.
In block letters we formed phrases, final and magnetic.
You linked: SHADOWS WE FELL THROUGH
TRUTHS WE LOST. And I linked: I KNOW
AND MISS A HOUSE A HOME.
And all around us, inside and quiet, the wind blew
our phantom voices from rafters to thresholds.
Remember when you could draw Ursa Major
from memory? How you knew to dip from line
to endpoint to line to endpoint? Ursa Minor was the same
across the sky, and Orion was a three-prong belt. Maybe
this was in third grade when string cheese was in lunch boxes
and string theory on TV. When space shuttles taught you
the word tragedy and you hoped your teachers would never
fly away. Something about outlining the stars—
forming constellations by connecting the dots, something
about endpoints— seemed necessary, like a new language
you could use in a future where everyone soared in cars.
Something about mapping those lines, and memorizing
the Latin, and that joy you got from asking, “how is that a bear
or an archer with a bow, and what is a big dipper anyway?”
Some things are so easy to forget once you learn tragedy by heart.
Stephanie Wade teaches writing and environmental humanities at Unity College. Her interest in maps and poems is part of a project to define narrative ecology, which posits narratives as living systems that include the stories conveyed by physical environments and material items; that shape our experiences and also respond to our actions; and that persist in layered, multiple, dynamic forms.
Michelle Menting is the author Myth of Solitude (Imaginary Friend Press, 2013) and Residence Time (Dancing Girl Press, 2016). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, The Offing, The Southeast Review, The Hopper, and the Deep Water and American Life in Poetry columns, among other places. She lives in mid-coast Maine.
Margot Carpenter creates digital and print maps for a diverse market. She has made maps for the Maine Department of Transportation; recreation, tourism and environmental groups; and for books published by Downeast Books, Dutton, Simon & Schuster, and Falcon Press. Her business Hartdale Maps is in Belfast, Maine.
Osprey of the Blue Refuge
Early this morning, I went to the visitor’s center to ask after ospreys. I shook hands with the ranger, whose name I could not recall. He knew mine. He stood up behind his desk when I came through the door. “If it isn’t John Cossman,” he said. He waited for his name. The visitor’s center is not air-conditioned, so he sweat. I sweat. Since I could not ask his name, I asked for a map of the island.
He was wearing a park ranger’s Stetson. If he’d taken off the Stetson, I might have known him. I knew we’d gone to school together, to the only island school. I knew he was one
He asked what work I’d been doing, and I told him I was working as a pathologist in Charleston. I did not tell him fifteen months ago, I diagnosed a cyst from the left breast of a woman—we’ll call her Ms. Lydia Harris—as a radial scar, benign. It was malignant. One year later, they diagnosed tubular carcinoma, stage three, metastatic in five of seventeen lymph nodes. You can’t know what might have been, but her prognosis now is nine months of hell and then fifty-fifty. They printed an interview with her in the local paper, covering the malpractice suit. She said, “I just want him to admit he made a mistake.” But a man doesn’t make a mistake like that. I have diagnosed tubular carcinoma more times than I can count and never gotten it wrong before.
He said, “Good for you.” He said he’d seen my father a few weeks ago at the food mart. My father lives waterfront on the island’s eastern shore. “Said he was thinking of selling the house, heading north.”
I shook my head. My father built that house fifty years ago. My wife Sandra has been trying to get him to sell and move up to Charleston, closer to us. She thinks he’s lonely. I tell her he likes his space, same as I do. I said, “We’ll have to pry him out of that house.”
“Lots of people are selling,” he said. “Going inland for work. I’ve had every fisherman on the island come through this office in the past three months. They stand just like you’re standing, asking have I got work for them.”
“I’m not looking for work,” I said.
He said, “I tell them like I’m telling you now. I tell them if I had work don’t you think I’d give it to you? In a minute, I’d give it to you.”
“I’m not looking for work.”
He rolled his chair back from the desk, tipped his hat up on his head.
I nearly had his name when Charleston called. I let my phone ring itself out against my hip. It was the lawyer, wanting to confirm tomorrow’s meeting. In the message, she said, “Eight in the morning, doctor.” She said, “See you then.” We are to meet before the deposition. The deposition is tomorrow. The deposition is at noon. I could have left
I walk east, skirting the loose sand of the dunes, because Russell pointed me east. He said there is a nest this way. “Keep to the shore. You can’t miss it.” I keep to the shore.
Sandra calls. I feel her humming against my hip. I take the phone and hold it in my palm. She will want to know what time she should expect me home, to know if I hit traffic in Mobile, construction outside of Atlanta. “Where are you?”she asks in the message. She asks twice. If I called her back, I would tell her, “I’m leaving now,” and she would say, “I’ll wait up for you,” and she would wait and wait.
Last time I talked to Sandra, she told me they could take our savings if malpractice didn’t cover the suit. They could take the Roth where we’ve been putting money every month for retirement. They could take the house. She said, “I’d hate to lose the house.”
Ospreys orient home by the sun on their biannual migrations. They come to this island from Cuba, following a trail of floating rigs, whose derricks offer places to perch, to rest their wings or lock talons and sleep. At night, when there is no sun, they fly by the stars—not single stars, star patterns, constellations. If clouds obscure the stars, they follow the grid of ultraviolet light. If they are blinded in the name of science, they use magnetic cues to find their way.
I haven’t slept in the house in Charleston in weeks. I wouldn’t mind if they took it. I could stay here, sell prints of my photographs, maybe work as a docent in the visitor’s center, make enough to keep myself in boots and canned peas. I’d enjoy that sort of work, put-your-feet-up work, work that doesn’t help anything, doesn’t hurt anything. When I get back to Charleston, I’ll tell them take the house. I’ll tell them take it all.
On the fishing pier, a man works a cast net, his cooler open and empty at his feet. His hands spider across the webbing—limber hands, young hands. My hands are stiff. About a year ago, I started having trouble grasping the fine-focus knob on my microscope. I took to working just with the coarse focus, playing it out and back until the tissue came clear. And I have thought about that. I’ve thought if the image was sharper maybe I would have caught it, would have seen the slight pinching of adipose tissue stained orange, a rusted carcinoma.
Behind the net fisherman, a blue heron skulks, hoping for a handout. Last summer, the pier would have been packed shoulder to shoulder, families sleeping at night in lawn chairs to keep their spot, farming their narrow patch of ocean. That was before the spill, before word came from the trawlers of eyeless shrimp, crabs without claws, two-headed fish, fish covered in boils, in black lesions, fish that bled black at the hook and were black inside, gills and muscle and bone, like they’d been charred.
Santa Rosa Island was spared the worst of the slick. Off the Louisiana coast, it is said the oil sludge was so thick you could walk between barrier islands without sinking into the water. They burned what oil they could off the surface.
On the shore beside the pier, a man wearing headphones plays a free line in shallow water, catch and release. He hasn’t bothered bringing a cooler.
My osprey has ceased his arcs and settled on a branch overlooking the waves.
“What are you after?” I ask the man with the free line. He pulls his headphones down from his ears, and I repeat my question.
He says, “Anything that’ll bite.”
“Retired,” I say.
“These things happen, John,” Gary said after the summons. Gary and I shared an office. We shared cases, the head-scratchers, passing them back and forth until we came to a consensus. The day I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris he wasn’t in the office. His son was pitching a little league game, and he had gone to watch.
“You’re a good doctor, John,” he said. I stood looking at my microscope in its heavy dust cover, at the slide trays stacked ten-high on the desk beside it. “You think you could take them for me, Gary?” I asked him. “Just for today?”
He had a stack of his own, but he took them. They asked me to resign the next day.
I tell the fisherman, “I’m living like I should have been all my life.”
He tells me he’s retired as well. He was a conductor, he says. “The Cincinnati Orchestra.”
The osprey leaves his perch, and I raise my camera. I watch him fly. “You miss it?” I ask him.
He shakes his head. “It’s the nerves,” he says. “You get so a body just can’t take it anymore.”
The osprey shades the water with his wings, searching the shadows for the flash of a darting fish. At that shine, he will hover, positioning, then plummet feet first, extending his head at the last moment so beak and talons enter the water together. He will miss just one catch in fifty.
The net fisherman has brought up three small herring and lowers them carefully into his ice chest. I lift my camera. I take one photo—the ice chest, man, and heron all in a single frame. The light is heavy, iron light.
I tell the conductor I’ve been photographing ospreys. “Keeps me occupied,” I say. He can understand that. He’s fishing just to toss the fish back. “Only found two nests so far,” I say. I tell him there’s some who blame the oil for that, say it’s made for bad fishing, say the ospreys are staying away. “Somebody cut corners,” I say.
He shrugs. He says, “Somebody wasn’t paying attention. That’s my guess.”
I shake my head. I’ve thought about it, of course, thought I might have been distracted. I’ve thought maybe the Saturday Gary’s son pitched his first game was the Saturday Sandra told me she was going to visit her sister for a few weeks, maybe a month, said she needed some time away. “I’ll come with you,” I said. She said, “You’ve got work.” I told her I’m ready, anyway, to be retired. “Work three more years for me, John,” she said. “Just until we pay off the house.” I told her she knows, doesn’t she, that I need her here. She said she knew. But it can’t have been that Saturday. That Saturday I didn’t go into the office. I stayed at home with her.
“Grossly negligent,” I say. That is the phrase the courts will use. I say, “They knew what they were doing.”
The conductor has caught a fish. He wades out into the water to take it by the tail, gets it unhooked and tosses it up to the heron on the pier. It is a fifteen-inch sea trout, one-headed. The heron does not, of course, want it. Too hard to get down and keep down.
The net fisherman comes away from his net to stand over the fish. “That’s a catch,” he says to the conductor.
The conductor shrugs. “Been at it a few hours. About time.”
The fisherman nudges the sea trout with one toe. “You see the herring out there?” he asks us, pointing over the water. “I bet this one was after the herring.”
He says, “Man tried yesterday to charge me three bucks a pound for skipjack. Three bucks a pound, and the fish so thick out there you could shovel them up.”
The conductor says, “I’ve never heard herring to leap like that.”
“Any fish’ll jump if he’s got cause.”
My osprey hovers above the school. I lift my camera. I catch him with kinked wings.
I shake my head.
“I’m in the market,” he says. “They took my seiner to Luling to help with the clean up. Might as well take my legs, I told them, but they just needed the seiner.”
“I don’t have a boat,” I say.
I’d lease her from you if you didn’t want to sell,” he says. “Schools like that I’d turn a profit quick.” He tugs at the brim of his ball cap. He is looking down at the trout, which has more meat on it than six herring. “You just going to leave it?”
“I was meaning the bird to eat him,” the conductor says.
“Bird doesn’t look interested to me.”
The conductor shrugs and pulls at the cord of his headphones, which dangles, cut, at his navel.
The net fisherman stoops and takes the trout by the jaw. “You don’t want him.”
The conductor says, “I wouldn’t eat anything out of the Gulf.”
The net fisherman lowers the trout into his ice chest and starts packing away his net. He says, “What else is there to eat?” He lifts his cooler onto his shoulder and makes his slow way down the beach. He stops once to rest, and I point my camera at his back, but the sun is out in front of him, shining directly into the lens. He is just a shadow, the world brightened to rainbow around him like oil sheen on water.
I turn back at a splash. The osprey is coming up out of the Gulf, shaking the water free of his feathers and gaining altitude. He is not carrying a fish, not carrying anything at all.
I tighten the belt of my jeans and wade into that marsh. The water is black and warm, folding around me. I come up onto dry land soaked and blooded and feeling altogether good, because a female osprey is perched on a branch just two yards ahead of me, and my eye is level with her lizard eye. She sees past me, past all the heavy-browed hominids right back to Homo erectus egg-snatcher. She knows better than to trust me.
I wander the sand pines, searching for her nest. Last week, I watched a nest fall from a sand pine in a grove like this. It was an old nest, a decade old or older—four feet in diameter, two hundred pounds at least, enough seaweed and grass to start a slow process of decomposition, generating heat for the nestlings. There were two nestlings. When the nest fell, I was squinting through my viewfinder at their snaking heads.
The fall was quiet, marked only by the whistled two-note alarm call of the female osprey hovering above the newly barren tree. I left my camera and crawled into the thicket of sweet acacia surrounding the trunk of the nest tree. I spent forty minutes working on hands and knees, searching for the fallen nest. I found it on its side—sticks and seaweed, down feathers, a scrap of denim.
zoomed in tight with the aperture wide open. I caught with my camera the vein of each pinfeather, the bristled legs of the bluebottle flies that swarmed the nest. In the pictures, the background is blurred. In the pictures those nestlings might be twenty yards up in the air.
I wander until I lose the light. I do not find a nest, but I know it is close, because twice the female osprey flies a tight circle over my head. I lift my lens to shoot her agitated.
I walk back to the campground along the narrow seawall surrounding the old naval fort. As a boy, I rode my motorbike along this seawall, picking up speed and lifting the bike onto its rear wheel. In those days, colonies of plovers nested on the island, thousands of them, stretched for a half-mile
One night I took my motorbike down onto the beach and through the center of the nesting colony, plovers blowing up before the front tire like scraps of shredded paper. I came away from the colony scratched and splattered with urea. My father, when he heard, was furious. In part, because the bike’s sprocket and chain had to be replaced, but mostly because I had proven myself capable of malice he had not expected.
After that night, I could not get within fifty yards of the colony without being mobbed by a dozen birds, sprayed with excrement. Every year it was the same. Even when I returned after eight years away, the birds remembered me. The plovers are protected now, the shells of their eggs so thin they shatter at a touch. They don’t nest on this island anymore.
Sandra calls. I answer. I don’t want her thinking something happened to me on the road. I don’t want her worrying.
She says, “John.”
I ask her if she thinks I made the misdiagnosis on purpose.
She says, “No.” She says, “Where are you?”
I say, “What other explanation is there?”
She says, “Have you left yet?” She says, “It was a mistake, John. They know it was a mistake.”
“You can’t miss the deposition. It’s against the law to miss the deposition.”
I say to her, “I know.”
“No one thinks you’re a criminal, John.”
I say, “I knew what I was doing,” thinking not about the Saturday I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris, but about all the other Saturdays, the Saturdays I remember. The Saturday Lacy broke her wrist playing softball, and I signed out two frozen sections before meeting Sandra at the emergency room. The Saturday Sandra’s mother passed, and we stopped at the office on our way to the airport, so I could sign out a lymph node biopsy—sarcoidosis, benign. The Saturdays I bickered with Sandra over cold cereal and came to the office head-pounding. I imagine the day I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris was a Saturday like any other Saturday. I woke in the morning and left Sandra sleeping. I made a pot of coffee, put Sandra’s mug in the microwave, so it would be ready to heat when she woke. I drove twenty minutes to the office and parked in the lot reserved for doctors. The office was quiet, as it always is on Saturdays. It’s one of the reasons I like working Saturdays, you get the place to yourself. I took my time over the frozen, just the single frozen, and finished the handful of cases left from the week before. I returned home for dinner, and when Sandra asked how was it, I told her, “A good day.” I told her, “One frozen, benign.” I told her, “She got lucky.”
I call my father, because it is Sunday, because we eat dinner together on Sundays when I am on the island. He is free,
he says, and so I pick him up from his house and take him toJoe’s, the only diner on the island that doesn’t serve seafood. After dinner, I ask him if there is any place he needs to go, but he says Mrs. Parker took him into town that morning. She takes him once a week for groceries and to refill his prescriptions. On Saturday mornings, she takes him to the brunches Gulf Power puts on for their employees, past and present. He wears his denim work-suit and the gold star he was given at retirement for putting in forty years. He retired at seventy-two, though I suspect they kept him on, those last few years, just out of obligation. He’s the only one at the brunches with a star. The other attendees are all kids in their thirties. Pole boys, he calls them.
it. There are three chicks in the turnip nest. I steady my camera on its tripod, the viewfinder centered on them, just in case.
I didn’t move. It’s not something you expect to see, the man who striped your thighs with a Sam Browne belt panicked like a beetle on his back, swallowing water. Lacy was the one who pulled him to his feet, and after she stayed close right beside him. She put one arm around his waist, taking his weight, struggling with him up out of the water and into the dune fields. I came behind them, watching her, thinking she was going to be all right, Lacy, thinking kids mostly raise themselves, wondering at how easily she loved him.
I asked him this evening if he wanted to go out into the surf, but he said he’d rather not, so we are watching birds. The female is on the nest. If we watch long enough, I say, we’ll see the male fly in with a fish. He’ll have eaten what he can of the head and torn the rest away to lessen the weight.
He says, “I talked to Sandra this morning. She seemed to think you were heading home.”
I say, “She doesn’t need to worry about me.”
“When are you heading home?”
I tell him I don’t know.
I bend again to my camera, focus it on the silhouette of an osprey on the near shore. It might be the female from the nest that fell. I can’t be sure. She is perched high over the waves, scanning for fish. I wonder if she has abandoned the nestlings, and if some part of her is relieved to have finally failed, glad to have the evening to fish just for herself.
We wait another thirty minutes, though there’s no point. The nest is quiet, and the light is low, western light, rusted light. He is impatient, and so I drive him home in my car, which he does not like, crowded as it is with dirty clothes and an unrolled sleeping bag, canned food, camera equipment.
“Is there a restroom,” he asks me, “at the campground?”
We’re past the campground. “I can go back,” I say, but I do not turn around.
He says, “I’ll be fine.”
He wets himself three minutes from his house. I look over when I smell the ammonia, but he is backlit by the window, and I can’t see his face. When I pull up into the drive, he says, “You go on in.”
He comes in a few minutes after me, says, “I’ve got sheets put on your bed.” Says, “You sleep here tonight, and in the morning we’ll take your car to the wash to get the sand off of her. You’ll ruin her with that sand.”
I say, “This house?” He built this house after we moved down from Virginia. He was happy in those early years, living on a 34-foot sloop, trucking lumber over from the mainland. I was happy.
“You don’t want the house,” he says, “and I’m getting too old to live like this.”
I say no to the first, no to the second. I say, “You’re doing fine.”
He works his scissors around an advertisement for turkey sausage. His hand shakes.
“If you want a smaller place,” I say, “I can find you a smaller place.”
“I thought I’d go with you to Charleston. When you go.”
“I don’t know when I’m going.”
He nods. “When you do.”
“We don’t have the space,” I say, “in Charleston.”
“All I need’s a place to sleep,” he says, but his house is full of things, and our house is full of things, and we might not have the house.
I say, “You built this place.”
He says, “I had a son to raise and no place to raise him.” He says, “No one would build it for me.”
I drink my coffee.
He says, “I watched them bury Lutt Parker in sand so shallow next storm he’ll be above ground again. You hit an age you start thinking practically about these things.”
“There’s time and time,” I say, “to figure all that out.”
“You came to this island. You left Virginia.”
“I came to this island to raise a boy up. And I did that.” He raps his finger down on coupons offering fifty cents off Selma’s Blueberry Spread or two stone-baked pizzas for the price of one. “Island like this, you want to be just passing through.”
The visitor’s center at the refuge is closed. I walk past it, east into the pine forest, toward the place where the nest fell. I pass a park ranger headed the other way. “You can’t sleep out here,” she says. “You have to stay in the designated camping grounds.”
I tell her I’m just walking.
She wants to know if I have a camping permit, and when I tell her it’s in my car, she wants to walk with me back to my car. We walk together. She stays behind me, as though given half a chance I would turn and bolt. She says, “There’s no camping in the park without a permit.”
It takes me ten minutes to find the permit. While I’m looking, she bends the brim of her hat in her hands. It is the traditional park service hat, the Smokey Bear hat, the lemon squeezer.
I hand her the permit. She looks it over.
“I haven’t broken any rules,” I tell her.
She hands it back. She says, “Have a good night, Mr. Cossman,” and I do not correct her.
“At the campground, the conductor has built a fire using two-by-fours as fuel. When he lifts a hand to me, I go to sit beside his fire, though the sun has just set, and it is still eighty degrees at least. We sit in silence. I pinch the sand flies that
case and starts to strum, he puts on his headphones. He leans over and tells me to have a good sleep. He stands, offers his seat to a woman standing behind it, and ducks into his tent.
There is nothing at his campsite but an army-issue tent and the chair he is sitting in now. “Where are your things?” I ask him. “Your car?”
“Sold the car,” he says. “Ten years ago, it was.”
“How’d you get down here?”
“I had a buddy coming as far as Atlanta. I got down all right.” He kneads his hip with one hand.
“It’s the wet,” I say, because my knees have been aching and slow to bend.
He shakes his head. He tells me he shattered the joint years ago. He fell off the podium halfway through Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. “Ten feet. Down into the orchestra pit.” He tells me they don’t list his name with the other conductors for the Cincinnati Orchestra. Every other name, but not his. “Nine months I waved a baton for them, and they can’t be bothered to remember my name.”
“I ask him what is his name. Daniel Hartzog, he tells me, and I say it back to him to be sure I’ve got it right.
“What about you,” he says. “Think they’ll remember you?”
“I say, “Yes. I do.”
“Well then,” he says. “That’s something.”
The other campers come from their air-conditioned fifth wheels and Winnebagos to join us. They would stay in the cool if they could, but the conductor has built a good fire, and so they come with folding chairs and children and easy
case and starts to strum, he puts on his headphones. He leans over and tells me to have a good sleep. He stands, offers his seat to a woman standing behind it, and ducks into his tent.
Award winning artist and storyteller, Jessica Hines, uses the camera’s inherent quality as a recording device to explore illusion and to suggest truths that underlie the visible world. At the core of Hines’ work lies an inquisitive nature inspired by personal memory, experience and the unconscious mind.
Morgan Thomas graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Oregon. She is currently a Fulbright student, teaching English and creative writing in Darkhan, Mongolia.
nest of yarn on Zia Rose’s lap
beaks of knitting needles
pecking mittens into being
* ice and wool
in murky chunks
inedible on mittens
mittens on the radiator
sun a hank of fire
on the horizon
the swifts are gone
but the blackbirds
murmur by the thousands
a succession or series of similar or interrelated things such as an incoherent skein of words
by the long stand of years
the theology of the sun
eruptions of wind
flowers bowing in the storm
listening to flesh
you draw closer
glisten with urgency
past the moon
swift with borrowed light
a flock of geese, ducks, or the like, in flight
low over Mansfield
coming together from three directions
three skeins of geese
the Chinese poets
might say they conduct a message
of love from afar
their boundless sound
the white flecks of their bellies
thrusting air up and down
your swift breathing
is the air
that reels me in
for Cathy O’Reilly
On a clear, warm summer day
Cathy handed me a prize
she’d received from the surf.
It was a vertebra,
from a fish I imagine,
about the size of the top of my thumb,
and so smooth,
so rounded by the sea,
it felt soft.
I was holding it this morning,
rubbing the tips of my fingers
all over its unlikely velvetiness,
when I noticed that if I held it
so that I could look through
the hole in its middle
it looked like a resplendent ear,
this one small piece
of something from the sea,
and now on dry land,
a separate entity,
a curio given by the ocean to Cathy
and by Cathy to me,
so that now when I’m alone in this room
I no longer worry
that when I speak into the nothingness of frustration
my words will go unheard
I was on my way into the gym and
heard the geese blaring before I saw them,
a skein from the west, the V visible
but ragtag. I was looking up now, and
from the east a second skein was coming,
their raucous clamor growing as they rammed
the first V, though “rammed” may not be the best
way to describe what I saw; it was more
like the calibration of clockworks, each
bird part of a pinion meshing with the
larger wheel, a gear-train powering south.
As one bird pulled in behind the other,
their heart rates slowed but their speed increased as
they slipstreamed across the January
sky; and then a third skein came barreling
in from the north, the third wheel in this huge
going-train, urging and gliding, every
goose baying a one note song millions of
years old; and below their riotous noise
the V appeared with the kind of wonder
that becomes visible only after
it has happened. And I was left standing,
my senses staggered, my spirit increased,
as in the distance their yawping became
quiet, their instinct, their impulse for south
moving them along, me waiting for spring,
the geese gone, their perfect escapement done.
John L. Stanizzi— author of Ecstasy Among Ghosts, Sleepwalking, Dance Against the Wall, After the Bell, and Hallelujah Time! His poems have appeared in American Life In Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Tar River Poetry, The New York Quarterly, Rattle, and others. He teaches literature at Manchester Community College.
Anne Marble is a painter and monotype printmaker who lives in the Philadelphia area. Her background in biology and environmental planning often serves as a reference for her work in both media. She is also the founder of a non-profit organization supporting several rural schools in Cambodia. On her visits to Cambodia, she teaches printmaking to middle school students. She maintains an active studio in Norristown,
Birds modified from copyright http://fictionchick.deviantart.com/
Three Perspectives on the Good Life: Carl Rodgers, Yi-Fu Tuan, and Scott & Helen Nearing
What is the good life? How does well-being differ from happiness alone? Does it necessitate monk-like austerity? How can citizens in a society that rewards conspicuous consumption best engage in ways of good living? My own interest in answering these and other questions deepened while collaborating with Joe Quick, an anthropologist colleague doing field research in the highlands of Ecuador. His interests, though varied, include understanding how Kichwa people look to the ancestral past for inspiration in their efforts to build a better future. This occurs, paradoxically, as the national government appropriates the Kichwa concept of sumak kawsay in order to brand a model of development based on resource extraction involving the destruction of indigenous territories.
Influenced by this perspective, and in a spirit of “start where you are” and “use what you have,” I scanned my own bookshelf for signs of the good life. There, I rediscovered the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, the humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, and the husband-wife homesteading dyad of Scott and Helen Nearing – all of whom considered “the good life” in (mostly) North American contexts in the latter half of the 20th century. Exploring the good life through the lenses of Rogers, Tuan, and the Nearings – the focus of this essay – should not imply that these are the most important or even most interesting expressions of good living. These are simply where I began.
Investigating various discourses of the good life led me to discover other work such as philosopher William Irving’s A Guide to The Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy; Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A life of Montaigne; and anthropologist Edward F. Fischer’s The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Well-Being. Books I found that approach good living more obliquely include Jeffrey Jacob’s New Pioneers; Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth; Dona Brown’s Back to the Land; and Dan Buettner’s work on Blue Zones, where human longevity flourishes among tight-knit communities around the world. Strivings for the good life also align with the field of positive psychology (e.g. A Life Worth Living, edited by M. & I.S. Csikszentmihalyi) and the ideals of Buddhism, particularly what scholar and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls ways of interbeing or living in harmony with the world and its elements, seen and unseen. Interested readers might also explore articles by Will Storr in The New Yorker; Robert Wright in The Atlantic; and Sebastian Purcell in Aeon, linking ancient Aztec philosophies to pursuits of good living. This is not an exhaustive list of resources but does provide a starting point for further exploration.
attempts to offer a counter-balance to notions of the good life that include socially damaging means to self-indulgent ends (i.e. unenlightened hedonism) rather than a more
balanced unfolding of modern life, in harmony with other social, economic, and natural systems. Perhaps seeking an answer to the question of “What is the good life?” is futile. Many answers are culture-bound and therefore difficult to translate or apply for other people in other places. To be sure, my own perceptions of what is interesting or useful about living the good life are culturally limited. I know only
my perspective. What I hope to do, however, is investigate a few questions, provide some helpful clues, and offer measures of hope in a time of increasing uncertainty.
As a pioneer of humanistic psychology, also called client-centered therapy, Carl Rogers published perhaps his most
influential book On Becoming a Person in 1961 as a personal reflection on 30+ years of professional practice. In one chapter – A Therapist’s View of the Good Life: The Fully Functioning Person – Rogers details certain characteristics he witnessed in people living more fully in their own unique lives. Twenty-five years later, Yi-Fu Tuan published The Good Life, a broader perspective on good living. Tuan examines humanity’s relations to space, place, and community across various cultural contexts. “Everyone wants the good life,” he writes. “How it is conceived varies greatly from culture to culture, and in a complex modern society even from individual to individual.” Like Helen and Scott Nearing, Tuan provides a focus on the agrarian perspective but, unlike the Nearings’ antagonism toward the city, Tuan also embraces the city as a hub of culture and vitality. Whereas Rogers takes a psychological view of the good life, and Tuan approaches the concept from a more cross-cultural perspective, the Nearings’ work can be seen as a case study in can-do Yankee perseverance laced with a practical socialism. Scott Nearing, an economist, first published Man’s Search for the Good Life in 1954. When re-printed in 1974, the book gained a wider audience among a new generation of homesteaders in New England and beyond. These writings and many later “good life” works by and with Helen offered significant inspiration for the adherents of a renewed back-to-the-land ethic. Scott Nearing’s social scientific observations, deeply intertwined with his economic philosophy, viewed the hard work and deep reward of homesteading as one providing the most direct path to good living.
It could be said that what these writers share, each in their own way, are views on sustainable living. Whether through the individual sustainability and resilience of Rogers, the cross-cultural diversity and place-based community analyzed by Tuan, or the calloused hands and clean spirited “bread labor” practiced by the Nearings; all are versions of practical sustainability. A buzzword du jour for
environmentalists, sustainability can be taken here to mean systems of living that provide social and economic security – nested within environmental limits – without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to provide for themselves in similar ways. My hope is that understanding discourses of the good life in tandem with discourses of sustainability will help individuals and communities flourish in their pursuits of Eudaimonia, variously conceived. Such pursuits can, in turn, provide base levels of material and psychological security without denying other entities – present and future systems, human and non – the ability to do the same.
ROGERS: Launching Fully into the Stream of Life
“The good life is a process, not a state of being,” writes Carl Rogers. “It is a direction, not a destination.” Along this path people develop their own conclusions about what “good” might come from a given route. It is “selected by the total organism, when there is psychological freedom to move in any direction” (emphasis in original). The general characteristics of such a direction “appear to have a certain universality,” says Rogers. This life-long path is one of regular renewal in light of new experience. Rogers calls it Becoming – integrating one’s “total organism” into a cohesive yet resilient and adaptive existential whole. The good life as such tends to share three general characteristics: An increasing openness to experience; an increasing tendency to live in the moment; and an increasing trust in one’s self “as a means of arriving at the most satisfying behavior in each existential situation.”
An increasing openness to the variety of life experiences is not just about physical experience but the full breadth of psychological experience. This includes a willingness to engage in positive emotions (e.g. courage, empathy, tenderness, awe) as well as negative emotions or mental
The good life is “not a life for the faint-hearted,” says Rogers. This underscores the distinction between a meaningful, reflected-upon good life and the pleasure-motivated, short-term goals associated with what philosopher William Irving refers to as unenlightened hedonism – seeking pleasure while avoiding the negative, messy (and often essential) parts of robust life experience.
A growing trust in one’s self acts as “a means of arriving at the most satisfying behavior in each existential situation,” says Rogers. Rather than relying on guiding principles “laid down by some group or institution,” living well affords individuals the ability to develop and enact self-trust in response to new situations “because they discover to an ever-increasing degree that if they are open to their experience, doing what ‘feels right’ proves to be a competent and trustworthy guide” to truly satisfying behavior. The “complex weighing and balancing” of one’s lived experience comes to bear on any immediate moment as a complex computation,
A person engaged in this process of living well, one who is able to view the present moment from a perspective of psychological freedom, “moves in the direction of
becoming a more fully functioning person,” says Rogers. She or he is “completely engaged in the process of being and becoming.” This is not to say that external stimuli don’t factor into one’s judgment but does suggest an inverse relationship between freedom of choice and behaviors influenced by fear, defensiveness, or dogmatic norms. A more fully functioning person “would almost certainly not be a conformist,” says Rogers. The good life is also imbued with creativity and resilience. In the face of adversity, such a person is “most likely to adapt and survive under changing environmental conditions.” He or she would be creative in making “sound adjustments to new as well as old conditions,” says Rogers, and “a fit vanguard of human evolution.”
Living the good life, for Rogers and others, is a process of cultivating richness. This includes a robust diversity of life experience and, for Rogers, adjectives such as happy, contented, blissful, and enjoyable “do not seem quite appropriate to any general description of this process.” Happiness, contentment, bliss, and joy may emerge in due course but more appropriate adjectives, suggests Rogers, include enriching, exciting, rewarding, challenging, and meaningful. Living well involves the courage to launch oneself “fully into the stream of life.” When a person is inwardly free, says Rogers, he or she “chooses as the good life this process of becoming.”
TUAN: The Arc of Choice
“The good life haunts us,” writes the humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. Everything we do “is directed consciously or subconsciously, toward attaining it.” In the Western world, Tuan says, the good life “is envisaged, historically, in a limited number of ways. One of them is environmentalism, which sees the good life as a consequence of a special type of physical setting.” Connection to nature, via the raw beauty of wilderness or the constructed nature of urban greenspace,
Even though most urban people remain disconnected from the true toil of husbandry, the growing popularity of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programs suggests a renewed appreciation for small-scale farming. For many, this includes a growing concern for provenance – knowing how and where food is produced – as much as it can be a rejection of corporate agriculture and its stark environmental burdens. The good life, in this way, is not simply one of leisure and convenience but one of values on display as sustainable practice. It requires hard work. While various practices may or may not be as “green” as one might hope, over the arc of one’s life, the compass of good living points toward a true north of sustainability and resilience. What counts – the virtuous choice – is visible in the direction of a series of choices rather than any particular steps or missteps along the way. This includes a kind of openness, says Tuan, to “certain kinds of hard truth.” Such a direction points us away from naïve comfort and splendor – one enjoyed in “easy conscience” at the expense of others, as Tuan suggests – to a pathway of awareness and accounting for the costs of our actions “in the spoliation of nature and in the burden laid on people less fortunate than we.”
Connection to other people – relationship – is a crucial component for living well. Contrary to Jean-Paul Sartre’s oft-misinterpreted assertion that “Hell is other people,” Tuan posits the opposite. “Heaven is other people,” he says. The full experience of living well “is necessarily filled with
constructed and natural amenities of a home base has allowed individuals and cultures to flourish since the transition of humans as a largely hunter-gatherer species to one of
agriculture and centers of urban commerce. Few livelihoods are as directly connected to place than that of life on the farm.
“It is easy to be sentimental about the farmer’s life,” says Tuan, because the vagaries of country life have been written “almost entirely by members of the leisured class.” These are people “who know little, if anything, about the hardships of manual labor.” Yet the mystique persists. Land has virtue – spirit – and provides food, says Tuan; “Nothing can be more basic.” Acknowledging the culture of consumerism in full force by the mid-1980s, Tuan contrasts the noble (though often inaccurate) portrayal of farm life to that of corporate manufacturers’ “catering to appetites that may have to be invented by advertising.” The small-scale agriculturalist, compared to the mono-cropping industrial version who grows relatively little in the way of their own food supply, can more easily connect their daily chores with the food set upon the dinner table, suggests Tuan. The farmer “enjoys a degree of psychological security unknown to people of other occupations (such as salesmen or scholar) in which the linkages between exertion and the staff of survival are far more tenuous.” Echoing contemporary work by fiery farmer populists like Wendell Berry, Tuan suggests that
…a life in which what one does is so clearly tied, by a succession of discernible steps, to what one eats also appears more serious and in closer touch with reality than one in which the connections are remote and unperceived. The farmer does not live in a world of make-believe; his life is not a game. By contrast, the world of (say) an insurance agent, like that of a child, is rich in make-believe and miracles.
The good life of the city offers new and unique experiences, strangers from strange places to engage with, a constant churn of sound, light, and bustle. Such unnatural existence is antithetical to rural living where stability and continuity are strongly favored. What works for some in their pursuit of good living does not work for others. A reminder of what Helen and Scott Nearing often said of their own pastoral pursuits – theirs was a good life, not the good life. One’s conception of what makes a good life often stems from foundational experience. Though the good life is fulfilled by an openness of experience from one moment to the next, as Rogers suggests, our perceptions are often deeply tied to past experience and sense of cultural belonging or cultural cognition. “The good life is a serious life,” says Tuan, “imbued with feelings of reverence that come out of an awareness of momentous events in the past – of a heritage that gives prestige but also imposes obligation.” Given the variety of human experience, the historical awareness and
“The good life need not be heroic or saintly, but if ‘good’ is to retain its moral meaning,” says Tuan, “it cannot be a life devoted merely to the pleasures of the senses. Such a life, in any case, would pall without periodic essays at austerity.”
Moderate limits on pleasure-seeking, as Stoic philosophy suggests, can actually increase pleasure in other ways. This includes the hard truth of ecological limits. Creations of modern life, including societies and their economies, have limits imposed by the laws of thermodynamics – the laws of nature. Though such limits are generally unwelcome in a
The ultimate austerity, old age, is one that even the best of us cannot avoid. Mature people, rather than the young, says Tuan, are “better equipped to raise the question” of “What is the good life?” and to explore it thoroughly because “thinking about the good life must be based on what we know and have already experienced.” In trying to envision the good life in any detail, “the future… has to draw heavily on the past.” Planning ahead, says Tuan, entails taking stock and reflecting on “those things that seem to us least ambiguously good, of knowing the historical conditions that have made them possible, and then trying to see how these conditions can be expanded or changed so that the good things might flourish.” But how to create the necessary conditions for good living? Tuan considers three broad categories – body, personal relations, and world – “corresponding roughly to the sensual, the moral, and the aesthetic.”
Tuan’s book is reflective and draws on an array of cultural touchstones, including the inherent brutality of civilized society. Civilization, he says, “tends to destroy plurality: it eradicates, for example, local cultures and peoples.” The sheer scale of destruction that civilization has leveled on many of Earth’s ecological systems is “without parallel.” Yet, civilized society also produces geniuses, saints and “the severest and most clear-eyed critics of civilization.” Even those who denounce the inherent destruction of so-called civilized life, “Particularly as they are manifest in the Western world,” says Tuan, are also products of civilization. It is this relative sturm-und-drang of city life – with its commercialism, commotion, and occasional dependence on drink and drug – that Helen and Scott Nearing chose to leave behind. Though they, like Tuan, enjoyed extensive travel and intellectual engagement with a lofty crowd of urbane comrades, the Nearings’ home base – first in Vermont and later on the coast of Maine – provided an explicit rejection of city life and, as such, connection with the daily toils and rewards of self-sufficiency and a rewarding rural livelihood.
NEARINGS: Living at Five Levels
The essence of Scott Nearing’s vision of the good life is summarized in the introduction to the second edition of his book Man’s Search for the Good Life. Living well comes in many varieties, Nearing stresses, and “the good life is an ideal toward which people look and for which they strive.” Such a pursuit involves “a pattern of conduct which, if followed, will provide advantages for its devotees.”
In laying out this broad vision – one that stems from his own vigorous opposition to “discrimination, poverty, exploitation, and colonialism” – Nearing asserts several underlying assumptions. Pursuing the good life is, for its individual or collective adherents, more rewarding than other ways of being. People are able to distinguish good from less-good options for living. There is a freedom of choice in distinguishing good from not so good. In knowing the difference between bad and good, people will tend to choose the good (“this from Socrates,” says Nearing), and one who chooses the good will seek to shape the life of oneself and one’s community according to the requirements of choices that have been made. With a measure of hope, Nearing also asserts that if one fails to achieve the good life today, one can try again tomorrow; and, finally, “through effort, experiment and experience men [sic] will grow to a stature which makes the good life more attractive as well as more attainable.” These are the aspirations of an idealist, Nearing says, one striving “for the unity of theory and practice.”
If people today know the work of Scott Nearing, it is likely in the context of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The books he and his wife Helen published throughout the 1970s were, for many, as essential as Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and other publications propagating the ideals of rural self-sufficiency. Such a marriage of theory and practice emerged across North
America, Europe, and other industrialized regions of the global north and west, often acting as a counterbalance to rampant consumerism (i.e. the neoliberal economic ideals of free market capitalism). Few places saw this trend take hold like northern New England, from Vermont to mid-coast Maine. Such deep roots continue to bear fruit.
Scott and Helen Nearing’s homesteading narratives bookended the 1970s with a reissue of 1954’s Living the Good Life in 1974 and Continuing the Good Life in 1979. The Nearings moved from Vermont to the Penobscot Bay region of Maine to continue living in, working with, and fostering a community of like-minded compatriots around the virtues of living well. The Good Life Center, located at the Nearing’s former home at Forest Farm in Harborside, Maine, continues as a living testament to the Nearings’ ethics and ideals. The reputation of the Nearing’s idealism – though certainly not a naïve idealism – often obscured the realities of their challenging lifestyle. A life of chopping wood, hand working the soil, strict vegetarianism, and abstinence from intoxicants such as alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco (or anything else) was not the life for everyone, especially in the freewheeling 1970s. It is the inheritance of this legacy – one of hard work and self-mastery – that many modern homesteaders advocate for (and disagree about) in the ongoing practice of Nearing-like homesteading traditions.
The Nearings made “serious and various attempts to live at five levels” in both Vermont and Maine. These included living with nature; daily stints of bread labor; carrying on professional activities such as writing and correspondence; being neighborly and engaging with their “fellow citizens;” and “unremitting efforts to cultivate the life of the mind and spirit.” Such a good life then entails attention to environmental, economic, intellectual, social, and spiritual activities. A concern for not just human well-being but the
goodness of the larger biota was also evident in their conception of living well. Scott Nearing writes:
We also did our utmost to develop what we called the spirit of man. It is not enough to have a good earth supporting and improving a good society. It is also necessary that the various life forms (including the human) which inhabit the earth, should have a maximum opportunity to live a good life. Life in any community becomes “good” in so far as it utilizes and conserves nature, improves society and expresses itself in the good health of the inhabitants, their heightened sense of social responsibility and their success in developing successive generations of human beings willing and eager to live and help others live at the most productive and creative level that can be established and maintained by the present-day human family.
The good life includes ongoing reflection and engagement with personal, societal, and planetary systems in ways that promotes the benefits of those systems and perpetuates the flourishing of other current and future generations. Through an authentic questioning of the true impacts of one’s daily activity, creativity in how we modify such actions as a way to promote future well-being, and engagement with others who are also pursuing ways of good living, we can truly create a better world. In doing so, those who enact the virtues of living well promote the goodness inherent in the world as it is and take part in sustaining the benefits and overcoming the collective challenges many face. The good life is an idealistic pursuit, open to everyone, but most successful for those willing to foster resilience through hard work and honest reflection on the virtues and vices of mainstream
In a consumer culture, many people get caught up in pursuing a version of happiness based more on the accumulation of material goods, power over others, ego, and domination of natural systems than the more altruistic pursuits of good living. Equating such hedonic tendencies to “the good life”
makes a clear definition of the phrase challenging. A good life certainly includes a measure of financial security but it also contains a wealth of wisdom, empathy, spirit, community, and freedom of choice, up to and including a healthy sense of agency or self-efficacy. As global indicators such as the Gross National Happiness Scale, Happy Planet Index, and the Social Progress Index suggest, once the basic provisions of food, shelter, and clothing are in ready abundance, the accumulation of excess material wealth does not generally add to a greater sense of subjective well-being. Living well includes consideration for wider systems, an alternative to conspicuous consumption and ephemeral pursuits of self-satisfying pleasure. A working definition of the good life then remains as the freedom to experience one’s best vision of living so long as it does not impede on others’ ability (present or future) to pursue those same or similar goals.
As Barry Lopez suggests in The Rediscovery of North America, perverse versions of good living – i.e. modern pursuits of leisure and convenience – are rooted in a legacy of “lawless exploitation” of finite natural resources via the tradition of European colonialism. In contrast, pursuits of good living described here can be seen as inherently sustainable and supportive of natural systems – cohabitative rather than domineering, adult rather than adolescent. Closer to this spirit of a good life are ways of being that balance out greed and selfishness with the benefits of community resilience and individual character. This is the direction in which the good life moves, hand-in-hand with hard truths, hard work, and humility in the face of much deeper and older natural systems. Always present, always becoming.
James T. Spartz is a teacher, writer, researcher, and Driftless Area native now in coastal Maine. Prior to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, he was a worker-owner at an organic whole-grains bakery, hardware store sales associate, social worker, and performing songwriter – but not all at once. Spartz is currently an Assistant Professor of Environmental Communication at Unity College.
Gideon Bok is an artist. He graduated from Hampshire College (BA) and the Yale School of Art (MFA.) He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. He paints, manages an organic farm, and teaches art.
Robin Chapman / Clint Fulkerson
Dear Ones—dinner of sweet potato fries
and Black Angus burgers with bloodied boxers
on TV, the puppeteer journaling her family
under the flickering fight. Circus instructors
plan their work on silks and ropes and hoops
and the 30 foot swing of the giant trapeze.
The far-flung world whispers to faces buried
in their screens. The new Creativity Center rises
sheathed in steel and glass. In my studio,
the dark outside retreats before the sluice
of podcast radio, science news, gigabytes
of music I transfer from my memory stick.
Attention is our scarcest resource—mine,
to find the mountains rising all round us,
the stars flickering beyond the drizzle of snow,
the earth in its journey turning us again
toward light, the text of good will arriving,
the red silk fluttering with its human freight.
Dreams of the Science Writers’ Workshop
I go naked to the Senior Center
to pick up our speaker, much
to the disapproval of the matron
and the surprise of the reporters
gathered to hear yet another
political candidate. We barely escape.
What do I want to shout?
Look at the plans of our scientists
half a century ago to bomb
in hundred-Hiroshima units
anyone we were afraid of!
Look at our powers to make
the poisons that could kill
all life, the viruses that the birds
could spread, the gene editing
and drives that could change
the lives of species in ways we know
nothing about! Look at our inventions
pouring into soil, and water,
and lives; it is not enough
to be a scientist, handmaid
or handyman to the state,
not enough to blow things up
or knock them out.
The headlines now fear robots
with machine intelligence.
Leonardo da Vinci: it was not enough
to make plans to improve the machines
on the rock shelf of civilization
to hurl stones and pour oil;
not enough to paint Mona Lisa
and walk beautifully about.
How be a peacemaker,
a baker, an obstetrician,
a dancer, a weaver, a musician,
a gardener, a lover of life?
ordered the burning
of Montezuma’s aviaries.
The US rained down
Agent Orange for years
on the forests
of Vietnam. And now
our peaceful driving about
and heating our houses
and burning our trash
threatens to strip
the aviaries of all the world.
Mummified, we stand around the table
each in our open coffin shouting out
our own particular version of truth
for our allotted hour or number of words.
Amplified, true; but hard, in my dream,
to walk-about, and the reporters
have closed their notebooks.
Dear Ones—the avalanche cannons
are going off on chinook-slicked slopes.
Listening to their distant booms I try
to imagine the sounds close up, loud
enough to trigger the tree-felling rush
of snow and ice down mountain sides—
the way those New Year’s cannon fireworks
must have sounded to the blackbirds
in their roost—I wonder who set them off,
and whether they meant for five thousand
birds, in blind panic, to collide and die,
falling dead from the sky—no one
in that small Arkansas town is telling who
or why, though all must know by now
whether it was a kid’s tragic prank
or some hired exterminator’s culling.
Robin Chapman is author of nine books of poetry, most recently One Hundred White Pelicans (Tebot Bach, 2013). She is recipient of Appalachia‘s 2010 Helen Howe Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared recently in Alaska Quarterly Review, Flyway, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.
Clint Fulkerson lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and daughter. He has exhibited his work in Maine at venues such as at Corey Daniels Gallery, Space Gallery, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, the University of Maine at Farmington, and the Portland Museum of Art. He is represented in NYC by the Curator Gallery. His recent commissions include a mural at the Facebook Inc. NYC office, two murals at Maine Maritime Academy and a sculpture at USM Gorham under Maine’s Percent for Art program.
Clint’s work will be exhibited at the Unity College Center for Performing Arts in November/December 2016.
The girls are restless. They’ve been, well, cooped up all night against the skunks, foxes, and hawks that would decimate their ranks if given a chance. Now they’re ready to burst out into the sun and grass, to peck for insects, to bathe in the dust, and—a few bold ones—to hop the low, moveable fence that surrounds their pasture and run loose on the farm.
I open the hatch on one side of the coop and with a swift motion pull the ramp into place onto the floor of the coop. The hens stream out, some flying, some running down the ramp. One flaps into my face, another bounces off my chest, and a third is already pecking at my shoelaces, mistaking them for worms. With most of the hens out picking at the grass, I climb the rickety ramp and enter the coop to top off the hopper with organic feed and refill the trough that holds the grit they need for proper digestion. The inside is dark and cool. Though there is manure everywhere it smells surprisingly clean.
The same process is happening at the other Egg Mobiles lined up across the large front pasture. Maggie, John, Rich, and Christie are all releasing hens, topping off feeders, and gathering eggs. Already Chris is hooking up the first of the coops to the trailer hitch on one of the Kubotas, the all-purpose vehicles that we use on the farm, to move the coops 100 feet or so to fresh pasture. The grass in the pasture we’re in now is matted and thick with manure that will fertilize the grass, which will be lush pasture in just a few days’ time. We’ll put other animals, probably the sheep, on it then, in a process meant to mimic the process of a healthy natural ecosystem. In the meantime, our baskets now brimming with fresh, brown eggs, we head back to the Western Barn, which serves as a kind of headquarters. It’s 8:45, and there’s a lot to do: pigs to be watered and fed, sheep to be moved, and the brooder barn, with our growing chicks, to be attended to.
I’m not actually a farmer. I’m a college professor living in Westchester County, New York—America’s oldest suburb. I commute to work, teach classes, grade papers, and go to meetings; I drive my kids to soccer practice and music lessons; I go out to dinner with friends and watch a little
But once a week this summer, I have been volunteering at Stone Barns, an experimental farm a scant ten minutes from my suburban town. Built on land donated from the Rockefeller estate and named for the magnificent stone barns built on the property 100 years ago, the farm is working “to change the way America eats and farms.” With an emphasis on local, organic produce and pastured, humanely-raised livestock, Stone Barns serves local farmers’ markets and restaurants—including the gourmet Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Mid-mornings find us in the brooder barn, where the Stone Barns meat chickens begin their lives. The chickens are a pasture-raised breed called Freedom Rangers, and they’ll spend their short adult lives out on one of the farm’s pastures. But they’ll spend their early weeks as growing chicks in the large, spacious, and well-ventilated barn until they are ready to move outside. There are several hundred birds in here, grouped by age in open enclosures, and it’s a daily chore to keep them fed, watered, clean, and comfortable. A layer of fresh wood shavings goes on each enclosure to absorb odors and keep the barn as hygienic as possible. Each
On a Monday, four new boxes of day-old chicks have arrived at the farm, courtesy of the US Postal Service. The Postal Service has been delivering chicks this way for decades, taking advantage of the fact that day-old chicks who have just ingested their yolk can live without food and water, warming each other with their combined body heat. Only the USPS will deliver live birds—not UPS or FedEx—and I like the fact that there’s at least one item not available on Amazon.com. While others finish the barn chores, Maggie shows me how to take the baby chicks from the box and place them in the enclosure. With a deft motion and a firm but gentle touch, she lifts a chick from the box, dips its beak in water with a dilute solution of sugar, and watches as its tiny throat pulsates in swallowing. Once the chicks show they can swallow, they’re placed on a litter of fresh wood shavings. They’re surprisingly quick and lively as they run around the pen.
Maggie is far more knowledgeable and experienced than I, but she too is somewhat of an unlikely farmer. A former English teacher and a gifted poet, Maggie Schwed commutes to Stone Barns from Manhattan three days a week to work as a farm hand, a reverse commute that also runs counter to the ways factory farming has distanced us from the sources of our food. The author of a moving book of poems, Driving to the Bees, based on her experiences at Stone Barns, she is uniquely positioned to observe the intricacies of life on the farm. I expect her to speak of the pastoral beauty of the
One noon finds me feeding and watering pigs with John, a farm apprentice who embodies the new locavore movement. Born and raised in Queens, John Aghostino is refining his skills and knowledge of animal husbandry with the hope of starting a farm of his own, within a few hours of his native New York City. Apart from his interest in animals
“No, this is where I’m from—where my family is. Also, I want to help bring this kind of food, this way of growing food, back. It wouldn’t have the same meaning if I couldn’t do it here.”
He laughs. “I wouldn’t understand the seasons there. What I know are the seasons of the northeast—the rhythms of the weather and when things need to get done.”
John (who has gone on since I first began writing to start his own, Fatstock Farm, in Stuyvesant, NY) will be my mentor in my early days on the farm, showing me how to hitch up the trailer with the water tank, how to feed pigs without getting gored or trampled, how to stretch the long bundles of electrified fence we use to move sheep from one pasture to another. This last task goes to the heart of this kind of grass-based agriculture. With the goal of reproducing a healthy natural ecosystem, the sheep and cattle that we raise are moved from pasture to pasture on a rotating basis, just as herbivores in the wild would move on before munching the grass down to its roots. Meanwhile, their manure is a natural fertilizer that encourages grass to grow. The meat chickens or laying hens who come onto the pasture later peck at worms and insects in imitation of wild birds that would follow in the wake of animals such as bison. And so it goes with everything on the farm. The Berkshire pigs are kept in shady, wooded areas outdoors, where they can wallow in mud and forage for acorns that supplement their feed. The piglets live with their mothers and are kept separate from the large boors, like Don Juan, who has a prime spot all to himself. Heritage breed turkeys are moved in small flocks from pasture to pasture and brought in at night to keep them safe from predators. The key to this kind of farming is the use of portable electric fences that roll up in bundles and can be moved easily from place to place. In a matter of minutes a new fenced pasture can be created, and sheep or chickens can be moved to fresh grass. It’s a labor-intensive process and in many ways an inefficient one that sacrifices cost-cutting efficiency for sustainable use of resources and humane care of animals.
One Tuesday, I help Dan slaughter the chickens. This is a task that I have been approaching with anticipation and a small amount of dread. On a practical level it’s a skill I would like to have, although I don’t believe the day will come when I’m forced to feed my family from animals we raise in the backyard. But on a deeper level, I’ve come to believe that those of us who eat meat should be willing to do the work of slaughtering and processing the animals we eat, to face the fact of animal death, to bear some of the karmic burden that killing animals for food surely entails. This is hard work, both emotionally and physically, and it’s no coincidence that in the industrial model of farming we have pawned off most of this kind of work on an underpaid and exploited immigrant labor force.
Dan Carr, who still looks like the college football player that he recently was, is a gentle soul who speaks softly, keeps bees, and will soon be going to Africa to teach bee-keeping techniques. Raised in Montana, he seems born to this kind of work. We begin by putting the chickens in crates, and
As we bring the crates into the slaughter room, I note how he keeps the chickens out of the sun and positions them so that they can’t see what is happening in the slaughter area. This consists of seven or eight metal cones lined up along a wall over a metal trough. Beside this is a machine, a scalder, that moves freshly-killed birds through a tub of hot water to loosen their feathers, and another that whirls the birds through rubber “fingers” that strip their feathers in seconds and deposit them into the next room, where they are quickly processed into what look like the product you would find in the supermarket—only far more delicious.
for what is probably ten seconds—but seems a lot longer. And then they are motionless, limp, and obviously dead. There’s no getting around it—it’s messy and bloody. And though Dan has taken every care to minimize it, the birds obviously have at least a moment of stress.
I take the freshly killed birds and put them into the scalder, then into the plucker, which whisks them through a small door into the adjoining room, where they are quickly processed by other farmers. Everyone in the livestock operation at Stone Barns participates in this process, breaking down the layers of specialization that would occur in industrial farming. Christie cuts off the head and feet (the feet go into a clean container for a special customer who “likes chicken feet”—I don’t ask what for); Craig and Adrian quickly and expertly eviscerate them. They are cooled immediately and taken into an immaculately clean, refrigerated room where others vacuum seal them in plastic bags as whole chickens or chicken parts and then immediately refrigerate or freeze the bags. The birds go from chickens to “chicken” in less than an hour. Their lives in the pasture, their high-quality organic feed, their humane manner of death, and their careful handling make these chickens both sustainable and delicious. At the farm stand, I have heard customers rhapsodize these chickens, in hushed tones, as the best they have ever eaten.
“Good job,” Dan tells me. “That was just right. Now keep going, because we have a long way to go.”
He’s right. Once the process begins, it’s crucial to keep going. Soon, I’m into a rhythm, and the two of us efficiently take turns slaughtering birds and moving them into the scalder and plucker. It feels efficient but never mechanized, and I can honestly say that the birds experience very minimal distress. Sooner than I would have thought, the crates are empty and the last plucked chicken has gone through the door into the processing room. As we clean up—a big job, and again, one that is scrupulously done—I have time to reflect. Do I feel a sense of remorse? I do—but only a little. I think that there should be some psychic cost to meat eating. But more than that, I feel that I have really participated for the first time in this process that has sustained me for over 40 years.
And indeed there is a cost to eating anything, from wildlife habitat lost to fields of soy and grain, to energy used to transport produce from grower to consumer. Like any other animal, we cannot subsist without taking other plant and animal life. We can only try to do so in a way that it is as humane and sustainable as possible—while also respecting and valuing human cultural customs around sharing food and allowing farmers to make a decent and honorable living.
By the end of the summer, I catalogue the various experiences that I’ve taken part in, none of which I had ever
imagined myself doing—or even, as a consumer of food, given much thought to. Beside the continuous feeding, watering, and moving of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese, I’ve run across a dewy pasture with a bucket of alfalfa and 40 sheep and lambs running behind;
repaired electric fences; line-trimmed and staked out new pastures with electric fencing; caught and sorted a barnful of heritage Bourbon turkeys; scraped sheep hides all afternoon to prepare for tanning; ran an egg washing and packaging line; processed chickens from whole chicken to shrink-wrapped parts; and helped inoculate sheep, jar fresh honey,
Craig Haney, Stone Barns’s thoughtful—even cerebral—livestock manager, told me, when I asked about working on the farm, that volunteers “have to understand that it’s less about taking care of the animals than about tending to their environment.” He told me this mainly because his experience with past volunteers was that some don’t understand how
much physical labor is involved. It’s more about moving fences, filling watering troughs, and collecting eggs than direct contact with the farm animals, who are mostly not that interested in contact with human beings—with the exception of Stanley and Stella, the two sweet Italian Meremma sheepdogs who watch over the sheep. But his phrase “tending to their environment” stuck with me. Because this of course is what farmers do—they tend to an environment, shaping it in conscious ways for the health of the animals, human and otherwise, who depend on it.
More and more this is what we are called upon to do as a species in the time of climate change—just at the historical moment when most of us are doing it less and less. When my grandfather farmed in the 1940s, nearly twenty percent of American workers worked on farms; now, fewer than two per cent do. Where farming does exist on a large scale in the US, giant combines make the it possible for a few farmers to manage thousands of acres of land planted fencerow to fencerow—or, in the case of factory-farmed livestock, for a few farmers to raise thousands of chickens or pigs in confined spaces. And where large-scale farming does still involve copious labor—in the harvesting of produce—the work is done almost entirely by migrant workers, whose value to the society in doing this often brutal work is severely underestimated and whose plight is largely ignored, sadly even by those who are looking for more sustainable food. In places like Westchester County, which was still largely agricultural almost until the 20th century, farmlands have reverted to forest, which many people think of as a more “natural” or “environmental” form of landscape, forgetting that even the Algonquin peoples who lived here before the colonial farmers “tended to their environment”—by clearing land for their crops of squash and corn and improving the habitat for deer.
Feeding Maine: Growing Access To Good Food
When you see the phrase “food insecurity,” you might picture scenes from distant places hit by the global food crisis: barren fields marked by drought, families fleeing wars, or people waiting in long ration lines.
You might not picture Maine.
Yet more than 200,000 Mainers are food insecure. The term encompasses hunger and scarcity, as well as lack of access to food that’s fresh and healthy. Meeting this need for good food is where Maine’s farmers, workers, and volunteers come in. We are fortunate to have at hand everything required to feed our state: abundant farmland, skilled farmers, and people invested in forging ties between farms and low-income Mainers.
In making fresh ingredients accessible to those who need them most, the projects featured here are also forging new opportunities for Maine farms by opening up markets, diverting waste through farm donations and gleaning, and creating new customers who seek fresh, local food.
This series is a collaboration between Maine Farmland Trust and Good Shepherd Food Bank. It seeks to document some of the many people working for change in our communities across the state, with the hope that these efforts will continue to grow into a resilient food system that serves all Mainers. Images by Brendan Bullock, text by Annie Murphy.
Jeffrey Myers is Professor of English at Manhattan College and the author of Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature, as well as essays in African American Review, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and several anthologies. As both a scholar and creative writer, he focuses on race and the environment in literature and culture, with particular attention to the implications for environmental justice.
Brendan Bullock is a freelance photographer and photographic educator based in Bowdoinham ME. His work has been published in a number of publications including the New York Times and Virginia Quarterly Review, and exhibited in numerous exhibitions nationwide.