The Great TP Debate

The Great TP Debate

The Great
TP Debate


When it comes to toilet paper, my husband has a strict square-counting policy. He uses exactly four squares, folds them over after each wipe, and usually that’s enough. I don’t know why or how he manages to

complete a thorough cleanup in this way, and I don’t really want to know badly enough to ask him for a demonstration or where I can find Square Counting 101: A How-to Guide.
The other day while my husband shaved his face in the sink, I sat upon the pot (we have an open door policy).
“When do you get off work today?” he asked.
“Probably two-ish, but I also teach ballet tonight. What do you want for dinner?”
“Whatever you want to cook for me. I’ll be at the gym until eight,” he said as he blotted his smooth neck with a washcloth, wiping away shaving cream remnants.
I reached for the toilet tissue, wound the roll around my hand a couple of times, and tore my section off. He noticed my “wadding” technique.
“Huh,” he said. “That’s a lot of toilet paper you’re using there.”
It was almost as if, at that moment, he thought I would stop, unwad my TP and return a few


squares to the roll.Peculiar, I thought, that anyone would be that concerned with toilet paper consumption, especially my husband, whose elephant trumpet nose blowing requires rolls of toilet paper present in the bathroom, bedroom, and office.
The conversation that followed surprised me— enough so, even, that the exact wording is lost in my mind. But I think that the main points of discussion went something like this:
“Okay,” I said. “Are we conserving TP? I didn’t know I needed to ration.”

“I just assumed you’d want to me to call you out when you’re being wasteful.”
“Hmm. I guess I never thought of it like that.” I retorted as I pulled up my pants and stared for a moment at the mountain of tissue that looked like I had wadded up a white pillow case and dropped it in the potty.
And then I began to think: maybe my husband is right. Maybe we should ration our TP. If everyone took toilet paper for granted, could a shortage ensue? And if a shortage arises, would we be forced to follow in our ancestors’ footsteps using leaves, animal pelts, or even stones to take care of our business?
Most cultures eat and shake hands with the right hand because they “clean up”—or in the past have cleaned up—with the left. The first form of toilet paper— paper created specifically for derrière wiping— only dates back to fourteenth-century China, when emperors ordered paper in rectangular two-feet by three-feet stacked sheets. Around the same time, the French invented the bidet to clean potty parts without the use of paper. But in many countries things like bidets and toilet paper are still only accessible to rich people; the rest use their hands.
America’s I germophobia would surely prevent this from happening—even in a modern world full of anti-bacterial soap and hand sanitizer. I’d even venture to say that some Americans would put TP before food or water in an emergency situation, based on a comparison between the size of a toilet tissue aisle and a bottled water aisle. In 1973, America even reached a peak TP crisis when Tonight Show host Johnny Carson jokingly made a comment about a toilet paper shortage: people panicked and hoarded TP, and thus caused a mini- TP deficiency.
Our ties to TP are long and deep. In the eighteenth century, Americans began using the first kind of toilet paper: newspapers and magazines. The most popular choices for posterior paper were the Sears catalog and the Farmer’s Almanac, which even came with a hole specifically designed to hang in an outhouse. In 1857 Scott Paper Products invented rolled toilet paper, and over the years several producers have perfected the toilet paper we now see in our local stores.
Today, our TP choices are endless: shelf upon shelf, row after row of white cylinders wrapped in plastic. We can get one roll or six rolls, twelve or twenty-four rolls, single-ply, two-ply, three-ply, four-ply. Quilted, cushioned, soft, ultra soft, aloe infused, regular, big, double, jumbo, ultra strong, scented 


and unscented rolls line shelves and compete through shiny blue, frosty pink, bright red, and summery yellow packaging to make their way into our carts. However, consumers rarely hang out in the TP aisle like they do in coffee or frozen pizza aisles, discussing the varieties like connoisseurs of fine wine. Can you imagine, though, if they did?
“Have you ever tried Bare Bum’s Ultra Absorbent?” one customer might say to another.
“No,” the other customer would respond,“but I


really appreciate the bold, richness of Nature’s Blanket’s Pine Fresh Flushers.”
Despite the hush-hush nature of toilet paper shopping, TP continues to play a fundamental role in the culture of the United States. Americans buy 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper each year, which equates to about 15 million trees that are pulped for our cleaning convince. And while toilet paper is certainly not the least expensive item we purchase at the grocery store, many of us don’t think much of its cost. We associate buying TP with buying gas: we have to have it, so we buy it and try not to get upset over the price. We are all aware of fuel tax. I was surprised, however, to learn toilet tissue is also taxed. In 1991, President Clinton taxed each roll of TP six cents. In more recent events, the “Water Protection and Reinvestment Act of 2009” has proposed a tax on “bottom wipe” at a manufacturer level, but as we know, what starts at the manufacture level will eventually trickle down to the consumer level.
After some Internet browsing, I began to feel guilty about my greedy and selfish toilet paper utilization. Everyday 270,000 trees—approximately 1,837 acres or the equivalent of 2.2 Central Parks—are flushed down the toilet or tossed into the trash in the form of bathroom tissue. According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), many US tissue suppliers, such as Charmin, rely on “virgin pulp,” or freshly cut trees, from North American forests. Kimberly-Clark, a leading supplier of tissue products, such as Kleenex, Viva, Scott, and Cottonelle, uses so few recycled resources for its grocery store brands that buying the “Naturals” line is like befriending a convicted felon because—although present at the crime scene and not willing to stop the crime—he wasn’t the trigger-man.
For me, offering recycled content in one line of products doesn’t make up for the mass amount of other products that don’t provide any earth-friendly promises: especially if that tissue company has a policy of clear-cutting forests and destroying half a million acres of Canada’s old growth boreal forest each year—that’s the equivalent of approximately a quarter of Yellowstone National Park. However, if I replaced one of my soft, fluffy rolls of virgin pulp toilet paper with a toilet paper (500 sheets) made from recycled paper products, I could potentially save 423,900 trees.
But toilet paper consumption isn’t just ruining trees, says Richard Kujawski, a columnist for Living Green Magazine. TP, writes Kujawski, “is the greatest industrial cause of deforestation in the world, which causes more global warming pollution than all the combined emissions of cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, and ships.” In fact, bathroom tissue companies are “the third greatest industrial




emitter of global warming pollution in industrialized countries (after the chemical and steel industries).” And to make matters worse, their CO2 emissions are projected to double by 2020.
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Once Something Happened Here




Once Something Happened Here



This afternoon I drove out to the old resort without telling your grandmother. She would not have wanted me to drive, but I did anyway. I parked where the lodge had stood and opened the truck doors, let the air settle onto my legs, let the light slip below the line of the spruce, and did not awake until the mosquitoes began bothering my neck. I knew I had stayed too long, but still I did not rush to turn the ignition. I moved slowly, thought slowly, tried to think of something to tell your grandmother.

I needn’t have worried. Now that I’ve returned, you are here.

You do not know it, but your grandmother is happy. She peels the apples, and as you roll the dough, her shoulders soften. I have not seen her like this for quite some time. Even in the mornings when she returns from her walks to tell me about the squirrels and birds, something hangs about her. She pours a glass of water and sits at the kitchen table, complaining about her feet. I tell her not to walk so far if it bothers her feet, but she doesn’t listen.

Your grandmother won’t tell you this, but we are thinking of moving. The Lutheran society has opened a new home near the lake—near the old mansions there. It’s brick with a rose garden that they bury in the winter. You should see them go on about it—two feet of dirt covering the tops of the plants, all wrapped in burlap. They have a gardener from the university come out and take care of it. sometimes students. The day we visited we saw them working in their yellow jackets. We watched for a while through the window facing the lake. You can hear the waves from the rooms and the food there isn’t bad. It’s not like the one your uncle went to. Here, the walls are painted nice colors. The staff is cheerful.

You lift the rolled dough from the counter and lay it in the dish. You cut the excess from the edges, pull the scraps into thin pieces and drop them into your mouth like the jellied worms you ate when you were younger. It was beautiful, you say, and even though I’ve just come in, I know you are talking about the trip you took with your boyfriend. How you went up to the old place, showed him the few cabins still up there, the trees growing close to the posts and the leaves rotting the roof from the outside inward. I can imagine you taking him through the old paths, thickened now with bunchberry and beaked hazel, the wind bothering the aspen, that flutter of leaves.

   It felt so haunted, Grandma, but we loved it. And the wind! The whole world swayed! It was like something passing through. Air masses. Or spirits. I just seemed to belong there, you know? I couldn’t help but wish you’d never moved.

You brush at your bangs with the back of your hand, leave flour on your forehead. your grandmother pours the sugar onto the apples. She slowly measures the cinnamon and puts the spoon on the counter. I can see you revising your history—pretending you grew up there, came to visit us perhaps on weekends or for months at a time over the summer. Your grandmother can see it too. She’s smiling at you, moving the bracelet around her wrist, holding her lips together in tight lines.

   We sat on a log and watched the water for the longest time. You should have seen all the water spiders flitting across the surface. It was perfect.

When you close your eyes your grandmother looks at me. she is thinking about your uncle, your father, and it’s as if you’ve given her a sharp rock—asked her to hold it. She has, because of you, but still it pricks her, leaves lines like scratches from thistle on the palms of her hands. I don’t know why your father showed you the place when he did last summer. After your uncle’s death. Or maybe I do know why. how quiet he was at the funeral, his mouth like your grandmother’s mouth now, his left foot shaking through the service. Your grandmother touched him on the knee but it did not stop. and then he left, taking you with him, to the old resort. The two of you spent three hours out there. Your grandmother was worried, though I think she knew where he went and why he went there. She kept making excuses, though: telling us how upset he had been when she told him. He was in Nebraska then, returning from California, the trailer full of grapes. your father who always sounds different on the roads—in control—began talking nonsense. something about the birds there hovering over the just-harvested corn fields. How they didn’t seem to move, but rather seemed suspended, a diorama of sorts or a mobile. How he knew something had happened and maybe that was it.

At the funeral, when, three hours later, you and your father finally returned, he looked drunk. For a moment I thought he was your uncle: your uncle after we moved from the resort to the city, after he left and then returned again to go to those meetings and collapse into bed. It scared me for a moment—the resemblance. I never thought the two looked alike: your father sharp boned and tan like your grandmother, your uncle more like me. But there he was, your father and also your uncle, closing the door of the truck and standing in the gravel as if he had completed something. And you, next to him, as if something had been found. Your face glowed and we could all see the way your heart was lifting. You, who’d always asked so many questions, about to ask so many more.

And you are. You are asking more. you showed your boyfriend the place and now you won’t stop talking. the two of you camped at one of those state forest sites with just the few pull-in slots and the wooden outhouse. You say the two of you lay on the top of your boyfriend’s car and watched the stars. You say the sky pressed down like a blanket or lifted you up and you were suspended there. And then the trees rustled. Shadows moved in the dark night, and you liked the shiftiness of it, the quiet.

You’ve always liked those sorts of movies—the ones where animals leave scat in yards and hunters slip after them. Your grandmother was angry when I let you watch the one with the bear. you were young then— wouldn’t go anywhere without your blanket and liked hiding behind the back of the couch. I don’t remember why it was you couldn’t sleep, but I had the television on. you came out of your father’s old bedroom, climbed on my lap, watched the movie where the bear killed the cows. Your grandmother tried to turn it off before the farmers found them—all the cows in the grass, on their sides, stomachs missing as if a crane had taken a scoop from their sides. and then you wouldn’t sleep—not at our house or your own. you kept vigil you said, and who knows how you learned the word. You sat cross- legged on the bed waiting for the bears, not because you were scared but because you had something to say.

   A bear, you tell us now these many years later. A bear came that night, out of the darkness. We were lying on the roof of the car, watching the stars, when it lumbered onto the paths by the campground. It stood for the longest time by the entrance to the park, right in the middle of the road. Its eyes were so bright in the alder. Like embers.

You laugh, recalling it, and tell us you laughed then, too. It just stood there, sniffing the air! And then Sean started pounding the roof of the car, as if that would scare it. But all the bear did was lie down in the road!

   It lay down in the road?

   Yes! Can you believe it?

You smile wide enough to reveal the small scar by your lip, but still I can’t envision the bear lying down. as if it were a sort of dog, or as if it were watching you. I don’t know why you like to think that—the world always watching you, the birds and the air passing through the aspen intentionally blowing on the back of your neck.

Your grandmother cuts in and asks if you had food at the campsite, out on the tables. Did you have bear canisters like they sell now, or did you bear-bag it?

Oh, it wasn’t after anything, you say, as if that were obvious. This mysticism you’ve developed since you came back with your father. This sense that something belongs to you—wants to tell you stories.

So you are asking, now, for stories. For stories your father won’t share, stories about bears. And it bothers your grandmother. The oven with the apple pies beeps and she opens the door, holding her face in the heat and her hand on her lower back. Syrup and apple bubble through the slits you’ve cut in the dough, and she almost drops the pie as she takes it out. She has put the wrong oven mitt on her hand, the one with the worn thumb, so that heat from the tin burns through the cotton.

Your grandmother, who doesn’t swear, does now. she tosses the pie onto the oven and drops the mitt onto the floor. you are surprised. you’ve stopped talking. you pick up the mitt and ask what’s wrong.

How silly of me, she says, her thumb under water. I should have remembered.

And now you are staring at me. Your eyes like your father’s when he was younger, when we first bought the resort. Open and expectant and maybe even scared. You hold the mitt, pull a loose thread near the cuff. Grandpa, you say, touching my arm.

I don’t know why but I flinch. What can I do?

There were always bears at the resort. Every spring they’d move south and east from the forests to the small cities, looking for food. They’d head near the landfill and paw through everyone’s garbage. They’d eat old bread, gnaw on used soup bones. They were shaggy then, hungry, it being spring. sometimes the snow would have melted by then, but often it stayed in the shadows until June, and we’d find their paw prints on the north slopes of hills. Those on the outskirts of Duluth and two harbors hated it. They kept guns on their porches. Listened for barking dogs in the night. Usually the bears wouldn’t bother us, but sometimes there’d be an aggressive one. one that would move through the streets on garbage days, find the canisters lining the curb. It still happens today—we hear about them in the news, sometimes making it all the way down to St. Paul. But it happened more often then. If you were bored, all you’d have to do is go to the dump. Your father did all the time then, he and your uncle. Weekdays when there wasn’t much to do and no one was staying in the cabins, the two of them would take the truck to the dump. They’d park near the back, away from the highway and the lights on the building. They’d sit there silent, the truck off, until their breath came out in fog and they heard the rustling outside. And then they’d flick the headlights, like you would rabbits or deer. And there’d be the bears, climbing the landfill, pawing through garbage. I don’t know…boys that age need something to do.

And? you say, the mitt still in your hands, your grandmother at the sink, her thumb under water. You are waiting for more. Where does it come from, this need for more? What makes you think there is more? I almost ask if your father took you there, to the landfill. Perhaps he drove there that day last year, after your uncle’s funeral. Perhaps he said something about bears, something that makes you curious now, like a mosquito bite you can’t help scratching. You are grown and think the bear in the park had something to say to you, some message to pass on. You think it’s important or mystical, and perhaps it’s natural. You want some tie to this place, to the soil up there and the trees and the old cabins with their rotting roofs. Some bit of proof like the picture you found last summer—my father on the docks with the other ore punchers. His thin mustache, hunched shoulders, and the steam rising from the rail yards. It fascinated you: a history of people who weren’t always moving like your father. Ordinary people who’d come here and stayed.

Your Grandmother refuses to put ice on her thumb. she’s turned on the hot water, pressed the cap to the bottom of the drain, squirted soap into the sink.

   I’ll take care of the dishes, you say, but she doesn’t let you.

She takes the rag and washes the sides of the knives. You grab a hand towel from the handle of the oven and rub the back of your calf with your left foot.

You mention wanting to move back up there. You will be through with school soon and want to settle in the woods, in a cabin. I don’t remember what your boyfriend does, what he’s studying—if he could find work up here, or would even want to. all those condos they’re building on the shore, the large windows facing the lake and the blue paint made to look like it’s peeling. When we lived there, there was only one grocery store. Your father and uncle would drive down to get the week’s supplies. Visitors from Chicago hated the drive—35 mph around the bends, two lanes from duluth to Grand Marais. Now it’s four lanes from St. Paul to two harbors. If you want, you get here in two hours, two more to the resort. Parking lots near the waterfalls fill with campers and RVs. Sometimes I think you’re your father, inside out. he, always moving around. you, wanting to stay put. But he loved that place once. He and your uncle. I know they did. Even towards the end, when your uncle started disappearing into the woods, leaving your father to skin the fish for the businessmen. Even then, when your father complained about the lack of windows, the scales cutting his fingers, the blade getting dull. He loved it. You could tell.

   Did you like the resort, Grandma? you ask. What did you do there? You wipe the last glass from dinner. The damp cloth squeaks as you stuff it inside and twist, so you twist it even harder. When you pull the towel out    it is wrinkled. You hold the glass up to the light and squint, peering through it. Which do you like more? The resort or this house here?

Oh, I don’t know. She is drying her hands with the embroidered towel. she is staring at the near-empty feeder hanging on the other side of the window. New neighbors moved in next door with their dog and small kids. It annoys her, the yard: all those toys, the dirt dug near the fence.

   If I were you, I’d have wanted to stay at the resort.

Your grandmother pulls out a new knife and cuts the pie. Steam rises from the slices. The knife moves smooth as a wake. Yes. I suppose.

There were more bears than usual that summer. Well, maybe not more bears. Just bigger bears. or, rather, one bigger bear. Two hundred pounds heavier than all the others, it grew restless at the dump, began bothering people in town. It killed someone’s dog and broke a car window, becoming a big enough nuisance to get itself killed. Well before hunting season, the sheriff said we could destroy it.

The bear was a pain. Your grandmother handled most of the visitors, but they all knew about it. So many evenings they asked where to find it—all those men coming up from the cities with their guns, rumbling down the dirt road and asking for cabins. Not the regulars—the men needing to get away—but a different sort. People who asked about sightings before asking about rent. Had we seen it around? Had it been through our dumpsters? Your uncle never wanted to tell them anything. He was seventeen then, your father twelve. Your grandmother had to cuff your uncle on the head when he lied: what bear?, he’d ask as the men stood there with their guns, the hunting jackets they bought in the Duluth on the way up.

We didn’t know it then, but he wanted to kill the bear himself. He’d even discussed it with your father. each day he took the fish carcasses from the fish house after your father had finished, slid them from the table into a bucket, called for the dog. He took the canoe deep into the lakes, portaging here and there, sliding into the muck and silence of it. We didn’t know until later, but he was leaving offerings in three downed trees, the insides of them eaten out by bacteria and fungi. He’d slop the fish carcasses into the empty caverns of the trunks, tell the dog to stay by the canoe. He’d watch the woods and the brush for signs of the bear, for paw prints and scratches on the bark. Two or three times a week he’d go to those three trees, filling the bowls for the bear. Waiting, I suppose, for it to get accustomed to the free fish. When he led the visitors through the lakes, he never took them to that side, the north side. Instead, he kept them south and west, where the mosquitoes were worse. They’d come back sweaty, red-faced, and scratching. Quite the wilderness out there, they’d say as they swallowed your grandmother’s stew, sopping the broth with bread.

I think they liked the chase of it. your uncle did too. He liked taking them out there, away from his traps. The men saw moose every once in a while, especially near Brule Bay. They’d come back glowing like you, glowing with the story, the sighting, and perhaps they forgot enough about the bear. Seeing a moose satisfied the expense of the guns and orange jackets.

Your grandmother doesn’t want to hear anymore. She has left the kitchen—has said she needs to shower before bed. You stare after her and it’s as if you want to apologize, but something stops you. you want to know more. You don’t understand why she’s silent— why we sometimes sit in the evenings on the porch, drinking hot toddies, watching the lights from barges on the lake.

I don’t know what else to give you. Your eyes are dark like your father’s, and in them I see the coat of that bear, glistening from the winter. Not dull like you would expect but that deep brown. You think we are moving somewhere, you and I, heading toward the end of some story. But again I tell you, I don’t know what to give you.

Out on the porch, the stars are small tonight, cold. You have followed me softly, holding the door behind you until it clicks closed. You and your stories.

Water whines through the pipes—your grand- mother in the shower. she is pulling the shower cap over her hair, wetting the hand cloth. she has folded her nightgown on the lid of the toilet. she has opened the canister of cream for her face. she holds a hand beneath the faucet, waits for water to warm. she knows, even from there, what I am saying.

And here you are—still young enough for oil to shine on your nose. You lean against the banister, hold your face to the wind. My eyes water from the sting of it, but you do not squint. you brush leaves off of the plastic chairs. You sit down.

Once I found your father and uncle arguing. Your uncle had the canoe in the lake, the dog already at the bow, staring forwards, tail flapping. Your father wanted to go with, but your uncle wouldn’t let him, and when your uncle kicked off, your father threw stones. They hit the aluminum of the canoe, making tin-like rings. your uncle didn’t even turn his head—just kept paddling— and when he had passed the bend, your father stopped throwing stones and instead began skipping them.

Your father was always quiet. Even more so after your uncle’s troubles, but before as well. He’d skip the stones and skin the fish, play fetch with the dog and stand in doorways. I’d always find him spying. your uncle would be off with the dog and the canoe, but your father would tramp through the woods and watch the businessmen fish on sawbill. He’d finger the license plates of their cars, clean the headlights with the bottoms of his t-shirts. Maybe it started then—him always wanting to be going. Maybe not. It’s hard to say with these things. But that summer your father was extra quiet—always following your uncle around until your uncle had enough of it, furrowing his eyebrows as he skinned the fish.

Your father would follow the guests, too. he’d watch them from behind trees as they fished, offer to take them to the best bays in the lakes. They put up with it—not like now. Now tourists want kayak tours on Lake superior. They want dry sweatsuits and twelve-pound walleye.

That summer your father befriended a boy from Des Moines. I can’t remember the boy’s name—he hadn’t been there before—but that year he came with his father. The boy was peculiar. Thick glasses. Always looking at the trees. He carried an old canvas backpack everywhere. We never knew what was in it. Your father tried to peek a lot—he’d poke a stick into the flap when the boy wasn’t looking. But the boy would spot him and move the backpack to his other hip.

One day I took the two of them fishing at Echo Lake. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was one of your uncle’s spots. Your father wanted to go there, I remember. If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone there, but I didn’t know. We took the canoe, the boy in the middle, your father up front. The boy spent the whole time looking at the leaves in the trees; your father at the shore, the fallen trunks.

Near the north shore your father began to sit straighter. He slowed the canoe with a sweep-stroke, making it turn, and I remember yelling at him—something about the rocks in the lake there and the way the canoe bottom scraped against a boulder.

We pulled to the bank near a point, one side shallow and the other deep and cool, and got out. We’d brought poles and a small tin of leeches. The boys were joking, pushing each other near the water. The kid from Des Moines took his backpack off, leaned it against a tree, and we settled into the fishing. But your father never really paid attention. I remember that well—he kept glancing at the brush and jumping at small noises. He’d always been that way. observant, your grandmother said. Flighty, I always thought.

We caught a smallmouth bass and a perch. The lake was calm, only small ripples. and then the boy shrieked—pointed to the bank, fifty yards west, where the bear stood. I remember how large it was, how ugly—its fur mottled looking, off-color, a raw patch on its side as if it had scratched itself too long on a tree. At first it rambled along the shore, slowly coming near us, but then it picked a scent and looked up. They don’t do that usually. I remember how odd it was—how slow— the look up, the shake, the lunge. It ran, though not fast like it could have. More drunk-looking than anything, slapping at the ground and clacking its teeth. A giant, shaggy thing, blustery in its lunging. But of course the boy screamed and ran toward the canoe. He shouldn’t have. You know that. But what did he know?

So we followed him—your father and I. We jumped into the canoe, pushed off, paddled to the middle, fifty yards from the shore, and watched the bear make its way to where we’d been fishing. It lumbered to the water, opening its mouth in a throaty moan. It scooped the bass from the net in the water, sniffed at the boy’s backpack.

The boy from the city was silent by then, shaking, his hands clamped to the gunwales of the canoe. Stop rocking, I told him, but he didn’t stop. And your father? Your father just watched, his head cocked to the side, as if he was smirking. And maybe he was. Because your uncle appeared then, out of the brush just behind the bear. Appeared with the gun he’d purchased the previous winter. His movements were smooth, soundless, and at first I didn’t recognize him—just saw a faint shadow, a seventeen-year-old in cut-offs, out of the corner of my eye.

But when your uncle lifted the gun and aimed at the bear, your father stood and hollered. Not like the boy had screamed—scared and unseemly—but angry. An odd yell—a yell like buckshot in the fall and ducks taking off in torrents.

Your uncle missed his shot. The bullet hit a stone, ricocheting into the brush. The bear stood on his haunches, moaned, and then ran to the west, back toward the forest. And this is what I remember most: the way your uncle glared at your father then, his face smooth as the sky with is shallow blues, his bangs slick against his forehead. It chilled me. The boy was still screaming, your father was still yelling, and the canoe rocked from side to side, letting in water. I tried to tell them all to calm down, to shut up, but they didn’t. The canoe rocked, the lake slipped in, and still your uncle and father glared at each other, their eyes like fishing line when you’ve just hooked a northern. Your uncle’s face turning pale and hard.

It could have been funny, but only the boy noticed the missing backpack—the strap somehow looped around the bear’s shoulder when it lumbered away. It’s inconceivable, really. And I wish I had seen it. But instead, your father and I watched your uncle. He pointed the gun at the lake, pulled the trigger, let the bullet create a line of ripples nine feet from our canoe. And then he held the gun like a baseball bat, reared back, and swung at a tree.

I won’t ask, but I would like to know what your father showed you there, after your uncle’s funeral. Did he take you out on the lakes or just point out the foundation of the old lodge, the few standing cabins? Did the two of you walk around the overgrown paths, pushing through the tamarack and bunchberry? What was your father like, back at the resort? Did he seem at home there? Did you watch him like you are watching me now? As if, any moment, I will open my hands, hand you a knife, a stone, a gun?

Your grandmother is hiding. she’s in the kitchen, scrubbing the stove. The television drones from the living room and she keeps peeking out through the blinds, frowning. She opens the door and asks if we’re coming in, if we’re getting cold, but you say no. You should have brought a heavier coat. Your knees knock together and even though you slide your hands beneath your thighs I can see how they tremble.

   The day after we saw the bear, you tell me, we hiked along the trail. I led and Sean followed. Halfway through the hike, a storm came from the west and the wind picked up. The poplars bent so far that the leaves nearly touched the ground. It was so loud. I thought the sky was moaning. And then the rain came. We could hardly keep going with all the mud. We were sinking into the path and the rain kept pouring down our noses and cheeks.

You pause and look toward the lake, toward the sky. I can imagine it—you standing there, hands spread, the rain dripping from the straps of your pack, your heart a part of the thunder.

   And when it stopped, Grandpa, and I saw that we were surrounded by snapped trees and broken twigs, it looked like there were bears everywhere—lurking inside old tree trunks, sleeping beneath the brush. Sean told me to slow down, but something drew me forward on that trail. Something was calling to me.  

And now you are lost in yourself. Bears, you whisper. Everywhere bears. And I remember how young you are.

This is what happened. The boy bragged to his father about the bear taking his backpack and said nothing more. For two hours that evening, I yelled at your uncle. I took away his gun. But still your uncle left for the woods, searching for the bear. And when someone else killed it—some guy from Missouri who had it flown to duluth to be stuffed—your uncle stayed in his room for a day.

The bear is supposedly in some museum now—one of those historical society buildings, probably some old church. Your father mentioned it, at your uncle’s funeral. I’m not sure he’d ever gone, though, and I can’t remember the city.

You are disappointed. You are sitting here with me looking out towards the lake. A barge moves to the north, its lights slow on the water. And I don’t know what to make of your disappointment—as if you expected this to be a tragedy. As if you wanted the bear you saw in the woods to be the same bear—to be your uncle, or your father, its black fur glinting in the moon. Maybe, then, it would walk up to your car and stare at you and your boyfriend—not eat your food but paw the fly of the tent, leave footprints on the gravel. Some sense that you are being watched.

But it’s not a tragedy. Nothing happened. The bear took the backpack, some other hunter shot the bear, and the boy left, followed six months later by your uncle. Not because of the bear, though. Not because of the bear.

Jennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in recent issues of Potomac Review, Water Stone Review, Third Coast, Poetry East, and South Dakota Review, among others. She grew up in Minnesota and is currently a PhD student at Binghamton University, where she specializes in creative writing and place studies.

Are You Really My Friends?



Are You Really My Friends?



On New Year’s Eve of 2010, I found myself sitting at my kitchen table, simultaneously writing a letter in pencil to a friend deployed in Afghanistan and instant messaging on Facebook with a friend making a film in Jakarta. I woke up in 2011 thinking a lot about friendship and relationships as well as how we communicate with one another in the 21st century. on one hand, the letter has a tangibility that makes it seem more genuine and real; on the other hand, social networks provide an immediate way to be part of people’s lives all over the world.

For the next couple of months, I started to analyze my use of Facebook and the “friends” I had accumulated in this online world. What I found were some people I hadn’t met in person, a few people I was no longer speaking to in “real life,” ex-lovers with new partners, ex-partners of friends, art dealers, curators and high school friends who I hadn’t seen in over 20 years.



I began to wonder: am I really friends with all these people?

In February of that same year, I set out to find the answer using the only tool I know: photography. I decided to visit every one of my Facebook “friends” in their homes and make their formal portrait. To find the time and money for the project, I quit one of my jobs, started writing grants, and crowd fundraising. Not long after, “Are you really my friend? The Facebook Portrait Project” was born.

In the last eight months, I have raised almost $20,000, completed over 100 portraits, photographed 163 Facebook “friends,” visited eleven states across the country and nearly fifty cities and towns. I have traveled by plane, train, subway, bus, car, bike, and on foot.

I continue to be surprised by the number of people—especially (the real life) total strangers—who have opened their homes to me: sharing their lives, their stories, their food, their gardens, and their families while allowing my camera to document it. What started out as a personal documentary on friendship and environmental portraiture has turned into an exploration of American culture, relationships, generosity & compassion, family structure, community building, story telling, meal sharing, technology & travel in the 21st century, social networking, memory, and the history of the portrait.

When embarking upon this project, I made a conscious decision to travel lightly and unobtrusively with only two cameras (a digital point & shoot and a film version) and a tripod. I also committed to shooting in each friend’s home with only available light. once I’ve taken a portrait, I then process the film, scan it, and put it online as quickly as I can. along the way, I have crawled on kitchen floors, played Legos and read books with children I just met, admired chickens and prize roosters, shared a bowl of gumbo in New orleans (with a friend I hadn’t met in real life), toured the West Wing, and listened to stories of family tragedy and strength. I have also learned how people live and create home.

One could argue that family portraits are cultural artifacts, telling a story about the lives of their subjects. I am taking that one step further by making the portraits in their homes, exploring the intimacy of an environment that also tells a story.

The art of portraiture has its roots in aristocracy. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, commissioning an artist to create a portrait was an expensive, time-consuming, and formal process. This luxury therefore became symbolic of power and wealth. However, by the mid-19th century, technological advances made cameras more widely affordable, and with that, family portraits became a part of everyday life for many people. As it did, the formality of the portrait decreased. With the ease of camera phones and the evolution of photography, the portrait has become more widespread and increasingly casual.




Tanja Hollander was born in St. Louis, MO in 1972 and returned to the state after receiving a B.A. in photography, film, and feminist studies in 1994 from Hampshire College. Her work has been exhibited nationally at galleries in New York City and Boston and has twice been selected for the Portland Museum of Art Biennial, winning a purchase prize in 2007. She has also exhibited at the Bernard Toale Gallery in Boston, Massachusetts; Whitney Art Works in Portland, Maine; and Jim Kempner Fine Art in NYC. In 1994 Hollander opened and directed Dead Space Gallery, Portland’s first art venue for local art, music, spoken word, and performance. Hollander founded and became the volunteer director of the Bakery Photographic Collective in 2001, a nonprofit member based darkroom facility in Westbrook, Maine. In 2009, she was nominated and chosen for a month long residency at the La Napoule art foundation in La Napoule, France. Hollander is represented by Carroll and Sons in Boston, Massachusetts and Jim Kempner in New York City. She is a resident of Auburn, Maine.

Naming the Trees

Stacked Chairs





Hannah Fries

Naming the Trees


We are naming the trees as we walk, or trying to
name them—it is early spring,
no help from leaves,
though their shapes are etched on our minds,
their branching veins, the space between,
like my hand against your chest.
Only the texture of bark: smooth or rough, riveted, peeling,
or drawn with arching brows
(skepticism, perhaps, at our naming),
and their crowns: spreading or drooping, branches growing in whorls or
alternately, needles in groups of three
or five, or soft fronds of hemlock.

Oak (white), maple (red), birch (silvery yellow) and the smell
of wintergreen scratched open,
thumbnail to damp wood. We name them
because they tower over us, wave their myriad arms,
largest living things we see and don’t
see, here on the hills where they were logged, burned,
where, we remember, they marched back anyway, across the ashen slopes, saplings
cracking the rain-pocked earth, they split
themselves in all directions, stretched against sky, breathing
our breath. We are naming the trees

that have grown the perimeters of the burnt-out factory where sky
shouts through the windows
on the wall left standing,
the rest all ghosted and black, letters rubbed out from caving sides—
a wood treatment plant, hidden behind the barbed wire’s
curtain of climbing vines,
its bittersweet, honeysuckle, nostalgic and invasive: what strangles
the forest undoes this too, us, fenced in
and overcome with sweet blossoms and berries
and doomed as the gasping tree in bittersweet’s coil.
We are naming,
we are naming the trees before they walk away

because we are unlearning our forgetfulness,
because this time we are trying the opposite and taking our time,
and right now time loves us
because we just made love, late
this morning, slowly
waking each other up, without speaking,
yellow ribbons of light streaming in on our bodies, through branches
through slats of the shades, and then
we got up and went outside to name the trees: horse chestnuts
in front lawns, magnolia, crab apple still budless,
thinking pink.

On the back of your hand, blue veins branch
like trees, like roots seeking water,
like the river that roils under the bridge
we are walking over, somewhere farther along,
where we could fish it, eat, not think
toxic silt, PCBs carried downstream.
Think: tree swallows in silver maples,
water-loving. We press
our hands against bark to print its pattern on our palms,
across our lifelines, grooved
skin and finger pads whorled to the center. I say

your name, and you turn
like a stalk toward the light. I love you.
There is no good reason
why any of this should be, which is why
we hold it in our mouths, turning it over. Today
we are naming the trees, calling them back to us.
Shagbark hickory, tamarack,
weeping willow and white pine.
Sugar maple, we say, and it is on our tongues:
Tap it now, in March,
the ground a mash of snow and mud, sap rising
from the roots, clear drop on the finger:
small sweetness we taste because we know it’s there.





Hannah Fries is associate editor and poetry editor of Orion and a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Calyx,, and other journals. She recently took part in an interdisciplinary artists’ residency focused on mine reclamation with the Colorado Art Ranch.


Featured Artist: Christine Collins

Christine Collins, "Untitled," 2010, from the series "The Keepers"

The Keepers

In the series “The Keepers” I am photographing people who are keeping beehives in suburban environments. Once limited to more rural areas, the practice of beekeeping participates in our fantasies about a suburban utopia, where we attempt to achieve both a pastoral and domestic landscape. Beekeeping speaks to our desire to “hold” nature in the face of an increasingly disconnected culture. I see these people as facilitators, and I think about how the small action of placing a hive in a backyard has broad implications about our desire for an interconnectedness with nature. There is a kind of magic in beekeeping; it is a practice that requires patience and faith. I am making pictures that suggest ceremony, ritual, and mystery of survival.

About the Artist
Christine Collins is a photographer, living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. Collins received a BA in English Literature from Skidmore College, and a MFA in photography from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Recent exhibits include Fellows’ Biennial, St. Botolph Club, Boston, MA; Forces at Work, University of Texas, Austin, TX; Flash Forward Festival, Boston, MA; The Easiest Season, Rayko Gallery, CA; Mentor: 40 Years/40 Photographers, Maine Center for Contemporary Art, Rockport, ME; Exposure 2013, The Photographic Resource Center, MA; and The Danforth Museum, Framingham, MA. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, Town and Country Magazine, Esquire Magazine, and Adbusters Magazine. She was recently a Critical Mass Finalist, nominated for the Prix Pictet, and selected as one of the Review Santa Fe100. Her work is represented by Jen Bekman Gallery, NY, and she is an Assistant Professor of Photography at Lesley University College of Art & Design in Cambridge, MA.

Noah’s Wife: A Diary

Cole Caswell, Image 1


Noah’s Wife: A Diary


So I’ve started to gather seeds,
stitch them
into the hem of my robe.

I choose a dozen flowers
to hide in the cuff of my sleeve.

* *

Rain: small craters in the dust
like holes to plant the wheat in.
Refreshing at first. At first,
things will want to grow.

* *

My ankles are black
with mud. The sheep sink in
to their knees,

Cruel, to choose.

* *

The beasts, obedient, file in.
Who will save the olive and the barley?
I hide a cherry stone beneath my tongue.

* *

When the bears shambled in with burs
in their coats, I secretly rejoiced.

Last night I groomed them,
plucked their coarse fur clean.

* *

The giraffes are seasick—knobby
legs wobble beneath their bellies.

So am I. I pick through
feces, finding the pits and seeds
of what last fruit they ate.

* *

The raven sits on my shoulder.
I feel his beak in my hair, and
his feathers are oil.
he follows me, my shadow
the shadow of wings.
I should have been left out there
in the sheeting rain.

* *

The clouds have dried
and withered like my hands.

Mountain peaks are islands, thrashed and bare.

the water is so still: a bowl
filled with sky.

* *

Two snakes have bred.
Their young slither about the floor.
I think of the poppy seeds sewn
into my right sleeve, a constellation
shifting around my wrist.

* *

The dove is a fool: it returns
to this mess of wood and flesh.

The raven went out first—
seeds tucked in his smoke-black beak.

He won’t return.
He’ll fly until he’s through.



Hannah Fries is associate editor and poetry editor of Orion and a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Calyx,, and other journals. She recently took part in an interdisciplinary artists’ residency focused on mine reclamation with the Colorado Art Ranch.



The Buffalo Robe

buffalo robe remix


Patrick Burns

The Buffalo Robe
(an excerpt from a novel by the same name)


Inside the cabin was cold. Marcus noticed the cracks between the logs where the old mud had fallen away. Pelts were hung and spaced like portraits, and mounts jutted out from the walls: the elk whose antlers rose like bone fire; the antelope; the deer whose eyes were not blank, but full of that remarkable alertness for which they are known even in death. There was a moose head above the door, its lips parted, its spoons stretched wide like the wings of some strange and rebuking angel. The single room held a musty smell as if a century of men and dead beasts had marked the air for good. It also smelled of tobacco, which hung thick in the air and seemed strangely familiar to Marcus.
Joby was perched on top of two folded blankets, heavy and woolen, and Marcus wished he could wrap one around himself to collect his warmth. 
The blankets gave her the added height to look across at him—down on him even—as she spoke tirelessly and seemingly without taking

without taking a breath. Her long braid, tight and even, reached down past her shoulders, and though he was certain upon entering that her hair was a smoky grey, it now took on a shade of blonde, perhaps from the sideways light that broke through the wall or the glow from the coals at their feet. The more she spoke, the younger she sounded. But maybe the change he perceived in her hair was the product of his own eager mind, always willing to believe that people such as Joby had mastered some craft that allowed them power over their own mortality, an ability to play with time like a soft piece of gold.
Her eyes were marbled with a milky glaze that would have suggested blindness were it not for the trace of anger. It was an anger so potent that she did not seem to be looking at, but rather through, him as if he were some shard of glass that allowed her to witness the man at the center of her scorn. As she spoke, Marcus felt the temperature drop. Goosebumps rose on his skin, and he feared he would

soon be frozen solid. Her voice crystallized, and her words—so full of a rising bitterness—brought Fidillar forth, not in flesh and bone, but in memory so thick, so pungent, Marcus believed he himself had known the man: the cut of his jaw, the pitch of his temper, the threatening calm he radiated like an approaching purple storm, the limp that made him walk faster—even stronger— through rooms and meadows.
Suddenly Marcus possessed Joby’s memories, jumbled yet vivid: he saw Fidillar, in all his fullness, with his black cowboy, known only as JB, beside him. They rode into town on a wagon piled so high with fur it looked as if it had traveled from Gaul or Babylon. Both of the horses, each a paint and born wild, seemed as if they would break for the horizon if given the chance. Marcus tasted the gun metal on his tongue and smelled the gunpowder, the smoke from which surrounded the entire scene, infused in the men and the wagon, the furs, even the iron around the wheels that creaked as they rolled forward.


Fidillar and JB wore great coats of fur, the  same as the load behind them, and by the size alone Marcus knew the hide was buffalo. The recognition was instant, familiar, as if the buffalo and the men who shot them had been a part of his childhood, a time during which he had grown accustomed to blood and warmth and the awful wheezing of an animal’s slow, ungraceful death.
Joby interrupted his musings. “I hear  you are going to the war in Korea. You might not come back. That is the truth of it, and I suppose the thought has already crossed your mind. Why you are going is your own business. War has a terrible call, and this is what you will find there: one man plucking another man’s eyes before the same can be done to him. There are those of us who could not resist that call—though we would be better for it if we had. But perhaps we were somehow destined to claw and scratch the eyes from one another.
You will not be the same, of course, having done what you will have done and seen what you have seen. You cannot know how war will change you until you no longer remember what it was to sit with a quiet mind.
“So let me say this now while you are young and uncorrupted and full of the requisite vigor. Before you go, I want  you to do something for me that I have not been able to do myself in the last sixty-two years. Someone stole my buffalo robe all those years ago, an old one that belongs to my family—of which I am the last in line. Find it and bring it back to me. I can assure you that this robe has far greater value to me than to whoever hides it. Find this before you leave; I will not ask anyone else in the meantime, since you are clever and adept and, perhaps, innocent looking enough to gain an old man’s trust. I have kept an eye on you, and people have told me stories. Besides, I am not asking. I am presenting an opportunity, a chance 
to earn some good fortune before you go, and believe me: in war, luck is a valuable currency. What soldiers have returned after refusing an old woman’s errand? They are few, and they are forgotten. Before it is all said and done, you will want to have accomplished something of legitimate significance. War will not give you that. Do you understand?”
Before he could answer, Marcus heard the conversation—not between him and the old woman Joby, but the one occurring inside him, throughout the space of his chest where the words were spoken and circled about like falcons before descent: two voices carrying on like tired rivals come to terms. Two separate Marcuses—the one leaving soon for Korea, and the other, who had not known life without the shadow of his twin, Rory, who, both sick and sober, had slept beside Marcus every night he could remember. Rory:  the same brother who refused to enlist, committing 



instead to the Mission Mountains or to Glacier Park—whichever had harsher weather—choosing land as always over men, and splitting the pair for the very first time.
The two separate Marcuses considered Joby’s request, speaking to each other in quiet tones of immediate perception, talking to work the thing out as if the words, 
spoken or not, were enough to forge a permanent understanding.
His name was Fidillar, said one Marcus. Can’t remember the last name.
-She didn’t give a last name, said the other.
Maybe she doesn’t remember.
-She remembers all right: can’t forget him if she tried.
And this Fidillar came to the Flathead with a black man and a wagon full of hides…
-Robes, they’re called buffalo robes.
Then he bought up some land. . .
-Or swindled it somehow.
From the locals . . .
-From the Salish, according to Joby.

To raise . . .
-To resurrect, it sounds like.
To resurrect the very animal he appears for years to have slaughtered. And he destroyed one family. . .
-At least one.
And set out to expand his land into its own territory with him as governor . . .
-Or king.
And his black companion acted as the sheriff who would, as Joby says, hand out his own justice in his own time, killing friends and family along the way . . .
-Joby’s friends and family.
And maybe our family, which is why she would tell us this now . . .
-Because of the war.
Because we are leaving and she wants us to find the buffalo skin . . .
-The robe.
The buffalo robe for her. But why us?
-Because there is no one else.
There are plenty of others.
-But not Rory?
Of course Rory! If she’s telling us, then she’s telling Rory.
-Then why isn’t he here?
She knows we’ll tell him.
-Or she trusts we won’t.

Marcus struggled to return to the other conversation, the one he alone was having with Joby. His thoughts were still in disagreement: This has nothing to do with war, or me, or the redemption she claims I’ll need. She wants a runner, an errand boy, to snoop and play detective because she’s too old or too afraid to do the searching herself.
It was late afternoon still, and Marcus felt in his pocket the handwritten note from his stepfather Gale with the old woman’s address in chicken scratch. Marcus imagined his stepfather answering the call, the deep voice on the other end asking for Marcus as if the old woman had called on him once a week to take out her trash and sweep the porch of leaves. She had called while he and Rory were at the lake, swimming as always toward Wild Horse Island before Marcus turned around mid-way while Rory kept going since courage, unlike everything else, had not been split between them but taken outright by Rory when he maneuvered to be the first born. Joby’s call was both

foreign and familiar such that Marcus, wherever he was in the lake, could somehow hear the ringing of the phone—even as he swam under water, willing himself to open his eyes and look down into the abyss.
Now, as he sat before her, Marcus could tell the woman was holding back, obscuring her reasons for calling as if her full disclosure was not possible, as if there were things she just could not say. That strange withholding, thought Marcus, that was a mystery greater than the disappearance of the robe.
Over the years Marcus and his mother, and then Marcus and Rory, had spoken of Fidillar many times. The man’s legend still held sway, even from the grave. Marcus knew stories of other men who fought and stole and suffered: the fur trappers, the wayward cowboys, the outcast Indians—Salish and Blackfoot both— the Jesuits, and the timber barons (buying all the land around the lake as if owning everything else were not enough). But Fidillar eclipsed them all. Fidillar: the buffalo hunterturned- rancher who had made his name as a Civil War surgeon,

stitching up the wounds of colonels and generals until he had gathered enough favors to have any post he desired. Those favors led him out west to the Indian Wars and eventually to the buffalo that he must have taken by the thousands. Fidillar: the very same man who, when he arrived at the Flathead Valley, not only swindled the Salish out of land, but convinced them somehow to help him build his fence and his house from the pines and mud of their ancestors. He spurred them on, teaching them to build a dwelling that could not be packed up and moved, but one that would stand for generations.
Such was Fidillar’s strange power of persuasion. His was a house so like a fortress that after the attempts to take it ended each time in failure, the Salish and the Pend d’Oreille eventually left him alone (or so the story goes). The house, of course, is still standing—faded and vacant, empty as a canyon, and haunted not by the ghost of Fidillar, but by everyone else, including
the buffalo whose  thunderous stampede can still be heard in the middle of the day but never under moonlight. Marcus had never heard the ghosts himself, but Rory claimed to, and that was enough for Marcus.
As Marcus waited for Joby to continue, it was as if Fidillar himself had ascended there from the dark earth below, sifting through the floorboards in the thinnest of smoke only to reassemble at a dreary corner of the room. His image hunched slightly, bowing under some great insufferable burden—its face gaunt, its neck sharp. This image, with its dull eyes, appeared to have kept aging straight into death. It was as if someone of his stature did not accept the natural law, but fought it well beyond the grave, and the battle had taken from the specter both its bite and the venom, leaving it weak and shy, the once-charging bull neutered of all its power.
As Joby spoke further, she drew forth Fidillar’s family as well. Eula: the wife and mother, fierce and rough of



hand. Eula who did not back down, rising up with white knuckled fists as the last breath left her body. Her stubbornness was gone now, and Marcus could see a softness running through her, the laconic peace of a slow-moving stream. He wondered if Joby could see what he now saw: a father and mother, three children who appeared tethered to one another by some invisible rope tied around each of their waists. And if she saw them, what then? Would she change her mind for a moment and lend them her pity? Marcus could see them all, the five of them loosely bound as if at a railroad station, together yet headed for separate destinations.
Although pity arrived first in his feelings, it faded quickly, replaced simply by a child’s curiosity. Would Joby have some change of heart seeing that Fidillar and his family had lost all luster, or would watching them together only increase her anger? Marcus decided such a thing were not possible: black cannot get much blacker.
“He was no hero,” the old woman continued. “I was not there, of course, but I have been told many times of his arrival: Fidillar’s strange adherence to courtesy; his clean shaven jaw, which then would have been more alarming than if you—at what, seventeen?— had a beard down past your knees. The quiet righteousness which had nothing to do with the Holy Ghost, but rather some strict moral code whose rules had their own logic, and contradiction was not some problem but rather a welcome course of action.
“He grew up in the confines of a Michigan lighthouse. Why would such a man come so far west to raise buffalo, something that few— if any—had done? It is a mistake to call it ambition, for that would imply some desired goal with an end in mind, an ultimate position where an unequaled success had surpassed everyone’s expectations but the man himself. This was not ambition; this was a dangerous meddling with nature, an attempt to doublecross what had been
thriving on its own since the very beginning. If to kill off the buffalo only to bring them back is not pure arrogance then what is? Tell me another instance where a man had, for some time at least, success at playing God.”
The Bomb, thought Marcus, though he knew she meant something else, something less sinister yet equally troubling.
“You are conjuring up those scientists and those far away men who, with a simple gesture, put so many to death.”
She seemed to read his mind, and for a moment he worried that she could read everything: his mistrust of Salish women, his desire for a wound, the tension with his brother, and the question of Joby’s real sex. All the thoughts he presumed were his own were not. This should have been threatening—and it was— but there was also some comfort in having his thoughts known without explanation, an understanding that not even his  
brother could achieve, and it required no more effort than he was prepared to give.
Yet he wondered, if she could read minds then how could someone living in the valley hide anything from her? And could he refuse someone who kept his secrets? Even in silence Joby drew him toward her, and once he stopped resisting, Marcus opened up completely to let her in. He still did not trust her, but that was another concern. He knew he could not withstand her, regardless of her intentions.
She continued to speak. “Those men with the bomb had armies at their command; they did not do such things themselves. It is easy to kill. How many have resurrected? You can see the problem with this. And yet that is just what he did. He brought them back. The buffalo. There were hardly ghosts of them when he arrived. Yes, we had skins and stories, even a lost-looking stray to tease us all with hope, but you could have asked anyone—medicine men included—and

not one of them would have told you that the buffalo would return. My mother said that one of the reasons people respected and resented Fidillar was that he had done it all without any input from us. No Salish, no Blackfeet. No cattlemen or cowboys. No hunters. Just that black man, a marksman from the East who rarely spoke and shadowed his captain most everywhere: including, some have said, behind the bedroom door.
“The day Fidillar arrived, everything changed. My mother said it was like waking up to find a mountain where there had been a prairie. One could not avoid his influence. I am sure there were those who thought he would fail. But then he and JB not only survived the first winter, but came through it with each of their animals healthy and a few calves to boot. It pains me to say this, but Fidillar was no ordinary man, driven and resourceful as the old mountain lion that never goes hungry. What made matters worse was that, the more folks wanted him 


to fail for all his single-minded defiance, the more the buffalo seemed to rally around him, obeying him in some strange, unnatural way as if he had bewitched them and, unlike Moses, all by his own hand.
“Of course it was not enough to move here and take the land and raise the buffalo in the shadow of the Salish, and especially near the Blackfeet, who do not take kindly to insult. And being an older man and not some buck without care for the future, he had to marry the youngest woman available—a girl, really— even though she had no intention to partner up with a man older than her father, no matter how much that father insisted.
“It is no secret why Fidillar came for that daughter and not one of her sisters: the youngest could offer the most children, or in the case of  
miscarriage, could keep trying. He also needed the first seeds of his herd, which he did not have when he arrived. Eula’s father Taravel, himself with some Indian blood, had a scant few


buffalo he had happened upon in the wild: an ignoble and meager group that he had tried in vain to double, a group that failed to captivate the most curious child.
“And though he would have no sooner given away both his daughter and his animals, he could not pass up Fidillar’s offer: one quarter of his future herd, plus the bull of his choice after two years had passed. Fidillar guaranteed that Eula would be well cared for as long as she lived, as would her family, since Eula’s kin would be his kin. At the time of the offer, Taravel had an invalid wife, three daughters— two of whom would not marry until the end of their childbearing years—and a heap of debt. He must have loved his youngest more than he loved anything, since he agonized over that decision for a week and (as the story goes) wept when he agreed—wept right there like a woman, losing whatever pride he had left.
“I did not see this, but my mother did. She was Taravel’s sister, the only one who had survived along with him

through droughts and winters and bears and everything else this land could deal them. My mother scolded her brother, and they allowed her the spectacle: let her scream and shout while Fidillar put out a hand for his bride-to-be—only thirteen at the time, and him with grey in his hair like a man who had already lived a dozen lives more than anyone there—and then hoisted her up into the bed of the wagon sitting behind him and JB.
“That’s when my mother stopped her tantrum, when she saw Fidillar’s strength. He lifted Eula with one curl of his arm as if he were lifting a cat up onto his bed. That strength, though, did not worry her as much as the compassion for which he showed Eula. A man flashing kindness in his eyes could keep a woman, whatever age, for as long as he wanted.
“But he was too old. A man near the end of his life has no business creating a new one; children for such men are the unfortunate product of a slow-burning, long-dying lust that time itself cannot tame: the culmination


of his knowledge and his endurance; more a testament to his strength and cunning than to the unyielding pride that love affords young fathers. A man that age had no business fathering children, no business at all. Too old really to be a husband as well, stealing the end of her youth from Eula as if there was no other man she could have had; draping everyone around him in a thick ambition that would have been bold even for a young man, an ambition that would not afford wife or child or friend to conjure separate desires or private hopes.
“Seventy-five years already spent pursuing his indomitable goals, hiding his past as if it were too terrible, too incredible to share with those he did not trust (which was practically everyone) and still he pursued the buffalo, of which the most lame had a hundred times his nobility. He pursued them not like a wolf, not in the end, but like a sorcerer, dabbling in the dark for power beyond what man should possess. What happens to a man that makes him chase such things? After all,

this was not some hard-scrabbled fur-trapper, not some mountain man brought up in animal skins, weaned on French and venison. Nor was he born out West hunting and farming and fending off the Souix. He was, after all, a soft-footed, light keeper’s son. He would have survived terrible storms and the monstrous winters one hears about in the North with its lakes like oceans.
“But what made him vicious was his savage heart. Perhaps he watched too many ships run aground. Perhaps he saw so many men fall in the war that he no longer cared about the natural way of things, deciding rather that there was no natural way but the one man created amidst all the toil and nonsense. And yet one must ask why he would have spent nearly a decade hunting the animal he would hope to reclaim, the obvious (yet certainly incorrect) motive being that he meant to make amends. Incorrect because I can tell you for a fact that he never lifted a finger toward reconciliation;

 and if he did not lift a finger for man, then I am certain he did not for some beast.”
She stopped for a moment to stir the fire. She had spoken so long without pause that Marcus realized he had not taken a breath. He felt submerged in a mountain lake so clear, even at its deepest point, that he could see the rocks on the bottom and the fish that grazed on their tops: underwater and looking skyward through the cold translucent shimmer with no fear in his heart for drowning, just a delicate concentration on the sun up above, as if the water made it safe to stare. He took a breath, finally, and filled his lungs with the smoky cabin air. As he did, the place took on an even deeper familiarity. He began to trust the old woman—though he had no reason to—as well as the cabin and the mounts on the walls.
“Eula had her first child after a year. A daughter. No one knew about the labor except Fidillar and JB, who, as a pair, delivered each of her three

children. My mother said she was always concerned that no woman was there to assist with the births, but Eula never lost a child to difficult labor or a botched delivery—not a single one. After the daughter came the son and then another daughter. She raised those children with little help, since Fidillar did not take kindly to having strangers in his house, and this included Eula’s mother who was only allowed to visit when Fidillar himself was home. But rather than drown in the work and loneliness of it all, Eula (still practically a child herself, remember) seemed to gather speed with each child until, by the time the last child was born, she was a force to be reckoned with: a locomotive running downhill with the weight and strength of three childbirths behind her.
“No one really knows how Eula died. Some say, of course, that Fidillar killed her, but I find that unlikely. Others point to JB. 
What was known was that she was bedridden before she died, her body racked with an


illness they could not diagnose. A mystery more troubling still occurred three weeks after Eula died, when Fidillar convinced my mother to marry him. She had a child not ten months later who did not survive the winter.”
“So Fidillar was your stepfather?” asked Marcus. For all the conversations they had shared, Marcus’s mother had never mentioned when telling stories about Fidillar, not in the same manner she did when they were gossiping about his children and grandchildren.  Joby herself had no children, and naturally so, since rumor held that she had been born a boy all those years ago. As if such a thing required no more than a change in the weather and a decision to wear a dress over pants, he became a she—her birth name all but forgotten except to those who could remember and to those who were later told. And yet the very thing that made her strange to everyone else—the stubble on her jaw, the thick and powerful hands—did not bother Marcus in the slightest. He believed (or rather accepted) that a man’s soul does mostly what it pleases, the physical

world be damned. If that means it no longer wants the life it was born into, if it wants to swap that life for another, then what was there to stop it? His mother convinced him of this, of the malleability of the soul, of how it could—and did—function unto itself.
“He was with my mother until he died,” continued Joby. “Still hoping, I imagine, to father a child who would take over his buffalo with the same maniacal attention. Why did she do it? Why did my mother take up with a man like that: a man her father’s age, a man rumored to have had a hand in her own niece’s death? I suppose you would think it was duty, and if not a duty, then a pure and simple selfishness, knowing that she and I, then a child of five or six, would be taken care of for years to come—and more if we were smart about it all. Perhaps it was neither duty nor selfishness, but coercion, swindled or seduced by promises she knew he would never keep.
“All possible, of course, but it was none of these reasons. No, my mother took up with Fidillar for the simplest 

of motives: she loved him. In spite  of  herself she loved him. Itpained her and it embarrassed her, yet she did love him. After all these years, I am convinced that it must have had something to do with the kindness she said she saw in his eyes. It is a kindness I did not trust, whether he had it in his eyes or not. And if he loved her in return, well, that is another matter, and one I will never know because the old man never said a kind word to me about her, not one. How she could love such a man is a complete mystery to me, but she did. I am certain. I hated her for it at times, but I knew she was sincere.
For the first time since Marcus had been there, Joby stretched out her legs and rubbed her knees as if there were no flesh or tendons, just bone grinding on bone. She reached for the fire, and Marcus noticed her large hands with plump fingers. They reminded him of his stepfather’s: the rough hands of one who worked with cold instruments on metal or rock, the wrinkles around the knuckles stained by a permanent dirt that was years beyond clean.


He wondered why the lost robe held such significance. Joby had at least two robes that he could see in her cabin; they were not that difficult to come by if she wanted to spend the money. This missing one had some meaning for her, certainly, but he doubted she would articulate it, saying instead that she wanted the robe because Fidillar had taken it from her, its rightful owner, or perhaps that it had meant something to him once, and Joby in her anger intended to burn it and bury the ashes. Still there was a chance, a slim one, that she had made the whole story up just to get some company after all these years alone.
The reason didn’t matter to Marcus, and neither did the robe’s significance, not that day in the cabin. Chores were nothing new: he and Rory had done them all their lives, but he had never 
been so singularly approached as an individual to attempt something important without his brother. And why him and not Rory? Why him at all? He had no reputation for tracking or solving puzzles. He had no way with animals. All he felt was a hint of yearning when 

she mentioned the  buffalo, yearning for what he could not say, but it tugged on him enough to notice and to remain. Then his mind wandered further, seeking the figures that had appeared in the cabin then vanished, the memory still vibrant in his mind: the clean-shaven patriarch and the young wife who could have been his granddaughter, the three children, grouped together as if inseparable. They were to Marcus somehow like family: distant relatives whose faraway lives were quickly imagined in a depth he could not explain, as if in another time he had grown up with them, the children especially, free for once of his twin.
For a moment Marcus was filled with an impossible nostalgia and remembered, as adults do, not his youth as it happened, but how his mind had stored it: the days always longer, the sun glowing warmly on his back, protecting and watchful as it stove off the night. And though he had since decided—at least tentatively so—that he would agree to find her robe, if only to give the old woman some peace and to satisfy the hint of yearning,

the children convinced him: compelled him in a way he could not articulate, not even with the feelings and visions a man uses to speak to himself. He was inexplicably lonesome for them, and whether they were significant to his finding the robe, he could not yet tell. He longed to spend time with them, to inhabit their youth as his own, watching Fidillar, their mad, old king of a father, try to raise a million buffalo.
Marcus felt shame in his desire, embarrassment even. He was more afraid of war than he would ever admit. And though he was not yet a soldier, he knew that choosing the past over the present was an indication of vulnerability, even cowardice. But he could not resist what he could not explain. He had always been that way—putting his hands on a thing in order to know it, even when it was not his.
The idea of his legacy, whether she had used it as a ruse or not, carried some weight, especially since death resided in his thoughts recently: not so much of his deeds and would outlast him, but of his own end, hovering like a storm he could not outlast. What would he leave behind except  



brother who always ran on ahead?  There was always the possibility of heroic gestures in the coming war: saving a life, saving ten lives, saving the entire platoon. There was a greater chance for legacy in Korea than in Montana seeking out a robe. What could he find in two weeks, he wondered, and why should he spend his remaining time working so hard for a stranger?
And yet he knew he would do it, irrational as it sounded: seeking a lost relic that may not exist at all, an artifact that was most likely no different than the robes she already had. It was not only the process of seeking itself—a pursuit for which he had no reputation—but also the motivation for the seeking, which had become an amalgam of temptation and selfishness. He would try to find it for a host of reasons—the least of which was a sense of duty owed to Joby.
He would look for the robe and find it, and he would do it all by himself. And though it made no


sense, finding the robe would mean something to those children of Fidillar, if only in his own mind. Not the children as adults or ghosts, but the children as children bound to one another whether that was their choice or not. It would mean something to them and possibly to him, Marcus, the one of two who had been summoned when both he and Rory were available. He would accept, and before she started speaking again, he told her.
Her response was no different from her proposal: the half smile, the harmless snort, and the slightest nod like a blooming stalk of bear grass swaying in the breeze.







Caswell, Fallen


Richard Downing


The last polar bear visited our town last
night. It was burping up parts of Billy
when Big John blew the top

part of its head off with one shot
from a Browning over and under.
Bear landed

on top of what was left of Billy.
Nice kid. Too bad. Bear went right
for the face. That’s what they do.

Most of us asked what the bear was doing
in town. It’s not like them to just drop in.
We figured we hadn’t seen one in a while because

we keep the garbage inside. Otherwise the moose
have their way with it. Ed slaughtered
the dead bear. “No sense letting it go

to waste,” he said, and as an afterthought, “Billy
would have wanted it that way.” From what I saw
of what was left of Billy, he wouldn’t

have wanted any part of any of it. Crazy thing
about it is he was the one that liked the damned
bears. He was always talking about their ice

melting, how it was their ice,
how they needed it to reach the seals.
He’d talk

about how we’re all in it together—
Interconnected, he’d say.
Well he sure was with that bear.



Richard Downing has won the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Poetry Contest, the Writecorner Press 2010 Editor’s Award, New Delta Review’s Matt Clark Prize, and New Woman Magazine’s Grand Prize for Fiction. His poetry can be found in his chapbook Four Steps Off the Path, in the anthologies Hunger Enough: Spiritual Living in a Consumer Society; Dire Elegies; and Against Agamemnon: War Poems, in many literary journals, and at He is a co-founder of Save Our Naturecoast and holds a PhD in English.

Sticking with the Stick

Meghan Brady

Michael P. Branch

Sticking with the Stick

The photograph of Curator Man that hit all the wire services and accompanied most of the online stories shows a tall, thin, well-groomed, friendly looking fellow (the kind of guy you’d actually call a “fellow”), with short hair, prominent ears, wire-rimmed glasses, and what looks like an expensive tie. In his hands he displays an elegantly framed item that in a few moments will become the most prized and celebrated treasure in his museum’s collections. Curator Man’s proud smile tells us that this is a big day for him. and what is the treasure behind the glass in the mahogany case? The stick.

This stick is at once just any old stick and not at all just any old stick. It is the stick that on November 6, 2008 was inducted into the National toy hall of fame at the strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New york. as the second anniversary of the stick’s induction rolled around, I was reminded of this photo of proud Curator Man, who could not have anticipated the media circus his museum’s stick would provoke. When news of the stick’s induction was announced in a ceremony and accompanying press release, the stick story was picked up by hundreds of online news sites and blogs, and even featured prominently in the last sixty seconds of many local tv news programs, right in the slot where the sextuplets usually go— which proves that even sextuplets can have a bad media cycle. Journalists invariably skipped the obvious question, “Is there really a Museum of Play?” and went straight to the kind of penetrating reportage that helps a benighted public understand the complexities of so important an issue. “What can you do with a stick?” they wondered in print. “Who plays with sticks, and just how do they do it?” since the stick doesn’t come with directions and doesn’t cost anything, they worried: how will Americans figure out how to use or value it? Not to be outdone, the tabloid sites asked what we really know about the panel of nineteen “so-called experts” whose deliberations resulted in its selection?

In short, everyone demanded to know what’s so great about a stick. I’m intrigued by this famous stick for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I still can’t figure out if it is profound or absurd, or profoundly absurd, or absurdly profound.

And there’s a little of the emperor’s clothes phenomenon going on here, I think. When I tell people about the celebrated stick, the reply is nearly always the same. “You’re shitting me. A stick? You mean a real stick? Like one you’d pick up off the ground?” There follows a long, uncertain pause. And then comes the grinning reply: “Hell, yeah, the stick. Greatest toy ever. Totally brilliant!”

After proclaiming something “totally brilliant!” it is difficult for people to turn back. But I do want to turn back, to ask whether the museum’s stick was nature masquerading as culture, or culture masquerading as nature. I want to return to the moment in which we had to decide for ourselves what to make of the idea that a stick, rather than being viewed as an object of play, needed to be displayed in a museum.

If Curator Man thought any of this was funny, he certainly didn’t let on. First, he pointed out that the selection panel of esteemed judges—intellectuals, artists, curators, poobahs of various stripes—had a very difficult decision to make. Not only that, but they adhered to a formally articulated set of explicit criteria when choosing a toy to join the vaunted ranks of already inducted classics like crayons, marbles, the Teddy Bear, and Mr. Potato Head. These rules mandated that a toy must: 1. possess icon status; 2. have longevity; 3. encourage discovery; and, 4. promote innovation.

Curator Man went on to extol the many virtues and uses of the stick: “It can be a Wild West horse, a medieval knight’s sword, a boat on a stream or a slingshot,” he pointed out. “No snowman is complete without a couple of stick arms, and every campfire needs a stick for toasting marshmallows.” And I speak the gospel truth when I say that the media’s immoderate love of Curator Man and his stick spawned a widely syndicated “news” article actually called “Notable Suggestions for How to Play with a Stick.”

It is at this point that the stick story jumps the tracks and begins tearing through the weedy field of american popular culture, no longer under anyone’s spin control. In Rochester there was still a stick in a case on a wall, but the story of that stick had gone viral. The first wave of responses to the stick was uniformly positive. What we might call the “Good old stick!” crowd rushed to expand Curator Man’s already long list of noble uses for the stick, and they were mighty hard to argue with. I wasn’t so impressed that a javelin and a golf club may be considered sticks—finding one so dangerous and the other so dangerously boring as to have no use for either—but a fishing rod and a baseball bat were sticks of an entirely different sort, and it was painful to imagine life without them. And what about a conductor’s baton or a pair of drumsticks? The fretted neck of my guitar is a kind of stick, and even my harmonicas are little, ten-holed sticks. The more I thought about it, the more impossible life without stickplay seemed, and for a while I teetered on the brink of conversion.

But then the intellectuals got involved, and before I could make up my mind about the stick all hell broke loose. First the developmental psychologists more or less said that kids would all be retarded without sticks, and some careless readers concluded by extrapolation that add, ADHD, OCD, LH, SLD, SLI, HDTV, THC, PCP, and LSD could all be blamed on the condition of brutal sticklessness to which “kids these days” had been so unfairly subjected. Evolutionary biologists then asserted that it was the use of sticks that caused humans to develop immense cerebral cortexes, which apparently we needed to ensure that the really sharp sticks would poke the saber-toothed tiger and not our brother-in-law—that being the kind of “accident” that might halt activities leading to procreation and would surely have been selected against by evolutionary pressures. The sociobiologists went even further, asserting that the human affinity for sticks was evident in our fort building behaviors, and in our innate desire to have pickets in front of our house when somebody came over to kill and eat us.

Then, predictably, the closet luddites who might best be described as “old white guys who recently learned how to use email” got involved in the debate, and they were so elated to see the triumph of the good old stick that they felt their lives fully vindicated. The excruciatingly detailed “When I was a boy. . .” stories about sticks proliferated so quickly as to crash several servers, even as young It guys scrambled to figure out how a lowly stick could have brought down their networks. These old guy stick lovers were soon joined by the TV haters, who didn’t care about sticks one way or the other but reckoned them better than what they called the “mind numbing cancer” of television, never mind that they were sitting in front of glowing computer screens posting their views on blogs with names like “Turned Off Moms.”

At last, the very worst occurred. the environmentalists got hold of the story, and that was when the shit that was already hitting the fan started to stick. Although we environmentalists are the last to get news of any kind, once we get it and bend it to our own uses, we’ll never let go. According to these green defenders, the stick is important not because it is iconic, or because it promotes discovery or innovation—indeed, even the detail that sticks might actually be played with by children drops out of the story at this point—but rather because it is “ecofriendly,” “the ultimate disposable, biodegradable, versatile, multipurpose plaything.” these ecobloggers celebrated the stick as “sustainable, recyclable, and upcycleable.” One euphorically exclaimed that “you can even turn it into mulch when you’re done playing with it!” which for some reason made me imagine tearing a stick from my daughter’s little hands and jamming it into my wood chipper.

I don’t want to rain on any parade that puts a humble stick in the lead float— after all, if silly Putty and the Easy-Bake oven can make the hall of fame, who am I to bitch about the stick having its day in the sun—but there’s something creepy about this whole business. as the viral contagion of the stick story spread, I found myself possessed by a desire to shake Curator Man and his army of zombie bloggers and yell, “Hey! Y’all are talking about a fucking stick!” But once the stick’s coronation was hijacked, what had once been a plaything was transformed into Captain Ahab’s doubloon, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, Citizen Kane’s rosebud: not a window onto childhood play, but rather a mirror in which obsessed grownups saw only the reflection of their own faces. The stick’s induction had been distorted from a celebration of how kids play into an ideological skirmish into which adults brought their own values and anxieties. And at this point something in the stick story was lost forever. After all, isn’t the beauty of a kid playing with a stick precisely that it is never our stick but always already theirs, that their imaginative powers define its shape, name, and use? Somehow, it seemed to me, we pathetic grownups wanted to usurp the magic of the wand: to name and claim it, to wield it as a shield against time and tide.

That’s the first thing that’s suspicious about this stick story. Who could be so pretentious as to think that a bunch of grownups—even worse, “expert” grownups— could possibly be capable of selecting toys for a Museum of Play? The real experts, who are obviously the kids, hadn’t been asked about any of this—including whether the idea of a toy hall of fame makes any damned sense in the first place. And what about the fact that all the negative connotations of sticks were being glossed over by these disconcerting stick enthusiasts? The sordid etymology and usage of the word “stick” offer powerful reminders that the stick we might imagine as a medieval knight’s sword in fact has a double edge. What about “stick in the mud,” “stick it to them,” or “beat him with a stick”? What about the wonderfully imaginative denigration of a pretentious person as having “a stick up their ass,” or the fact that soft speaking is enabled only by the carrying of a “big stick”? how about the derogatory slang terms “dip stick,” “dumb stick,” “dick stick,” and “weak stick,” or “to give stick,” which means to disparage or criticize, or the suggestion that one “stick it” (either in their ear or elsewhere)? or the unfortunate transformation of perfectly decent food like bread and cheese into sticks; or, conversely, the use of the stick to skewer and roast things like squirrels? And what about chopsticks, which americans would starve if forced to eat with, or stick shift, which we often can’t drive, or the hair band styx—which isn’t quite the same, I know, but still makes my point that for every two sticks lashed together to make a mast or rubbed together to make fire, two others are used to make nunchucks or a crossbow. For every bouncing pogo stick or stirring swizzle stick, every forked dowsing stick or sacred rain stick, some poor stick figure ends up swinging from the hangman’s gallows. for every bur- nished walking stick there is a cancerous fire stick, for every joy stick a night stick, for every prayer stick at least one stick of dynamite.

Of course the stick lovers don’t tell you any of this. They’d also like you to forget the main thing sticks do, which is to “poke your eye out.” And even if a lot of things in life are “better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” one thing that is not in fact better is actually being poked in the eye with a sharp stick. Indeed, the same people who are now swooning nostalgically over their own stick-blessed childhoods are also yelling at their grandchildren to put down the goddamned stick before they put somebody’s eye out. Let’s face it, sticks are dangerous. And if you look at what kind of imaginative play the old guy stick lovers valorize, it is invariably martial. One blogger unironically opined that what he most missed about his lost youth was the nurturing imaginative play by which he “could pretend that a stick was a big bazooka.” And Bazooka Lover had plenty of company. The most treasured memories of childhood play reported by these bloggers featured the stick as rifle, shotgun, machine gun, sword, knife, spear, bow, arrow, harpoon, spear gun, blow gun, and even pipe bomb (good old pipe bomb!). One respondent enthusiastically described the good fun of attacking his siblings with a stick that he pretended was a “Borg prosthetic arm/gun.” Another waxed sentimental over the character building effects of a spirited round of “dodge the stick,” a game that, from what I could discern, basically amounts to throwing sticks as hard as you can at another guy’s head. But in addition to the Good Old Stick Crowd valorizing the violent imaginative and literal uses of the stick, they were also smug. Here is a representative posting: “The toys we in the older generation grew up with, like the stick, fostered the imagination. Nowadays, children sit in front of a computer screen playing video games that teach them violence and disrespect. It’s no wonder kids these days are obese and ignorant.”

Perhaps the targets of this abuse were already in front of their computer screens, but in any case it didn’t take them long to put down the Big Mac and Wi-imote and give Gramps a piece of their mind. To their credit, the folks in this second wave of responses to the stick’s ascension were more playful than those in the Good Old Stick faction. Some mocked the stickophilic sentimentalists with sarcastic remarks like this one: “The sticks we had when I was growing up were way better than the ones they have now.” Others used humor to fight back against the characterization of American youth as depraved because they play with computers instead of sticks. My favorite of these technophile backtalkers was the kid who wrote wryly, “I have an old atari 2600 that I use as a makeshift stick.” Yet others used exaggeration to ridicule the violent pretensions of the Good Old Stick folks. “In a related story,” wrote one mockumentarian, “The National Child Toy Safety Commission has issued a recall on the stick, identifying it as the nation’s most dangerous toy. The Commission is now in negotiations with leading environmentalists, who make access to sticks easier every year.”

One especially witty blogger imagined comments that might have been posted to by consumers who had heard of the stick’s new fame and then rushed out to buy one. One of these fake postings, from a Mom and stick purchaser, describes the trauma suffered by her son after he discovered the troubling indeterminacy of the stick’s meaning. She advises that parents “speak to the neighborhood kids in advance to reach a consensus as to what the stick represents.” Another, posted by the wonderful “Grandpa Dan” (who, of course, writes from Florida), reads as follows: “The stick will never be beat. And it’s a great bargain, too! The wife and I bought a single stick, sawed it into five pieces, and now all our young grandchildren are having a grand time talking on their ‘cell phones.’”

But the best was yet to come. The debate about the stick soon spawned a number of playful mock campaigns to have various other items inducted into the toy hall of fame. Among these nominees were the leaf, bubble wrap, the popsicle stick, the log, the egg carton, shadows, the pillow, the dildo, the shoebox, dirt, the snowball, and Pete Rose (after all, Rochester is only 174 miles from Cooperstown). But the mock campaign that gathered the most momentum was the one agitating for inclusion of the rock in the toy hall of fame. First the rock advocates appropriated the discourse of racial justice to argue that the elevation of the stick over the rock was a clear case of bias, pointing out that sticks had received preferential treatment for far too long.

They also observed that “sticks and stones” had long been associated with one another—in various cultural contexts including the breaking of people’s bones—and it was thus unfair that the stick alone should receive recognition. And, of course, the rock folks gave hundreds of examples of the many wonderful ways in which rocks foster imaginative play. Taking a page from the battle plan of Bazooka Lover and his ilk, for example, they pointed out that a stick’s ability to be a gun is in no way superior to a rock’s ability to be a grenade. I found this hard to argue with. Finally, the rock people emphasized the precedent of the toy Pet Rock, which in the seventies swept the nation and made so much money for its creator that the guy became a millionaire overnight and at last achieved his lifelong dream: to own a bar in Los Gatos, California.

The persuasiveness of the rock campaign caused me to wonder not only about sticks and stones, but about all the toys that have been inducted into and rejected from the National journal of creative sustainability toy hall of fame. As it turns out, debate has surrounded these selections from the very beginning. For example, when the inaugural class of 1998 included Barbie but not Ken, a group of college students complained of sexual discrimination, adding that even if Ken is gay he still deserves equal billing with his female counterpart—who, they also pointed out, is insipid, emaciated, nippleless, and has poor taste in purses and terrible gay-dar. Some Marxist critics declared that the induction of “Radio Flyer Wagon,” “Duncan Yo-Yo,” and “Crayola Crayon” constituted the baldest form of product placement advertising. Wouldn’t “wagon” or “crayon” have been good enough, or was the hall of fame taking kickbacks from these companies? When Monopoly was the only board game included in that first class, the aficionados of everything from Candy Land to Parcheesi to Backgammon went wild—not to mention the evangelical Scrabbleites, who had plenty of choice words for the hall of fame after their snubbery (if that’s even a word).

Most interesting in this annual debate surrounding the choice of inductees is the adult baggage displaced onto and projected through these bizarre skirmishes over toys. So while the Ken doll faction was clearly in it for the laughs, the Raggedy Ann fans—who actually call themselves “Raggedy fans,” and who in many ways disturbingly resemble a cult—were in genuine fits from the beginning. It wasn’t so much that Raggedy Ann, whose oft-recited pedigree dates to 1915, was rejected—it was the fact that that mindless whore Barbie had been inducted with the very first class. The Raggedy fans took to the warpath, and for four long years endured repeated defeats until, at last, in 2002, came the “magical moment” (their words) when Raggedy Ann became the 26th toy to join the ranks.

During those four years the Ann cultists collected more than 8,000 petitions, but still had to endure the humiliation of having been outgunned by the Mr. Potato head lobby, which, after suffering a similar defeat in the inaugural year, had their man in office straightaway in year two.

My study of inducted and rejected toys also revealed the precedent that indirectly enabled the stick’s ultimate success: the surprising choice, in November, 2005, of the cardboard box. The box was an influential inductee, because it was the first plaything not produced by a toy manufacturer to have made the hall of fame. And once the humble box had cracked the dam of the hall’s logic, other toys not made to be toys couldn’t be far behind. The affinity between the cardboard box and the stick was in fact remarked upon by many folks who responded to the stick’s induction. One would-be parodist offered the onionesque headline “stick enters toy hall of fame, Cardboard Box snubbed,” only to be told that, in fact, the box was already in. And many parents liked the choice of the box because it confirmed their observation that no matter how much dough they shelled out for toys, their kids preferred to play with the box in which the toys came. As a parent who has spent too much time repairing over-engineered toys, I too approved of the box and stick, both of which I added to my personal list of “things that actually Work,” which until that time had included only WD-40, bourbon, and Moby-Dick.

I also found it instructive to consider some of the Toy Hall of Fame’s selections in light of their explicit criteria for inclusion. For example, while I’ll fight the man who claims that the Slinky doesn’t “posses icon status,” it is harder to see how the Atari can be said to “have longevity.” the Atari was inducted in 2007, by which time it had been obsolete for decades, and to make matters worse the Atari shared the class of 2007 with the kite, which is a 3,000- year old toy. It is also difficult to see how some of the toys selected “encourage discovery,” unless, as in the case of Play-Doh and Silly Putty, the discovery is simply that it is better if you don’t swallow it. And how can we legitimately claim that the Jack-in-the-box works to “promote innovation,” given that playing with this toy amounts to mindlessly cranking it up, scaring the shit out of yourself, and cranking it up again, over and over?

Then there’s the problem of the still-rejected toys. I note that after the embattled first year of the toy hall of fame’s existence, when every nut who could click a mouse raised hell that their favorite toy had been left out in the cold, the panel of wise toy “experts” responded in year two by rejecting both the soccer ball and baseball glove, thus ensuring that they would piss off every person on earth. And, as with the Raggedy Ann standoff, adult obsessions were at the heart of these debates. For example, after being judged unfit for service in the Hall of Fame for several years running, G.I. Joe went commando, and was carried into the hall in 2004 on a testosterone-driven groundswell of support from advocates whose appeals sounded as if they were excerpted from speeches by General Patton. Gender politics were equally transparent in the induction the following year of the Easy-Bake oven, which, though reviled by feminists as a symbol of the subjugation of women within a hegemonic, patriarchal system of exploitative domestic servitude, was celebrated by other women as “really cute.”

I ultimately decided that to settle the troubling matter of the famous stick I would have to consult a real play expert. Our daughter, Hannah Virginia, who is six years old, seemed the right choice. She’s thoughtful, asks good questions, and doesn’t jump to conclusions about anything other than the need to eat ice cream immediately. She has informed opinions about things she has experience with, and clearly she has experience playing. One day while Hannah and I were driving to her school, I told her all about the Museum of Play, and the Toy Hall of Fame, and about the stick. She listened carefully, raising her eyebrows a few times.

“Who are the kids who get to decide which toys are allowed to be in the hall of fame?” she asked.

“They aren’t kids,” I explained, “They’re all grownups.”

“That’s weird,” she said. “Kids have a lot more practice playing. Why don’t they ask kids?” I told her I didn’t know. Hannah said she could understand why somebody might think of a stick as a toy, since kids could use sticks to . . . and then she breathlessly listed about fifty uses of the stick that had never occurred to Curator Man: a bridge for an ant to walk across, a hole poker for making secret caves, a key to a magic ice castle, a cloud scratcher. Next, Hannah wanted to know how the grownups decide what’s a toy and what isn’t.

“If a stick is in there, how about a whole tree, which is better because me and a lot of kids love to climb trees. Can that be in there?” I told her I didn’t know. Hannah has always loved learning the names of flowers and trees, and so she also wanted to know what kind of stick it was. Was it a stick from a Utah Juniper, or a Jeffrey Pine, or maybe a Quaking Aspen?

“Nobody ever said what kind of stick it was,” I replied. Now she frowned in earnest.

“They put it in a museum without even asking its name?” she said.

I was nonplussed by how quickly Hannah’s simple questions were exploding the pretentions of the Toy Hall of Fame, and I was quietly embarrassed that her best questions had never occurred to me. But her next question was especially provocative.

“When kids visit this Hall of Fame, can they play with the stick?” I paused. “Nope, the stick is in a display case on a wall in the museum.”

“Really?” she said, with genuine surprise. “Why do they call it a ‘Museum of Play’ if you can’t play with the stuff there? Maybe they could make the case with a lid so you could just get the stick out. Or maybe they could have lots of sticks, so if a bunch of kids showed up they could all have a stick to play with. Why don’t they do something like that?” Again, I told her I didn’t know.

In effect, Hannah had identified the debate we’ve been having about modern art since about 1915. Does the display of an object—an African mask, a bicycle wheel, an antique milk jug—deprive that object of its life? When we put a vernacular object in a museum and declare it “art,” are we celebrating the meanings of that object, or are we decontextualizing it, impoverishing our understanding and enjoyment of it? Is a stick in a case just another butterfly with a pin through it? Is a stick on display in a museum even a stick at all?

Hannah was still thinking hard, and she sat quietly for a while before reaching her conclusion.

“Dad, since the stick isn’t made by people, it really is different than a hula hoop and stuff like that. and I think all nature things should be together, so if the stick is in there, then it isn’t fair not to put in the whole tree, plus leaves, and rocks, and everything else, with bugs too, but it isn’t nice to keep bugs inside like that. I think they ought to just leave the stick outside. that way it can get wind and rain, which it’s probably used to, and bugs can use it to crawl on, and also kids can play with it.”

I’m aware that we’ve been waxing rhapsodic about the wisdom of children since Billy Wordsworth tromped around the Lake District (without children, I might add), but this struck me as a sensible verdict, rendered by a thoughtful judge, and based on a sound interrogation of the facts. We grownups had turned the stick into everything from a three wood to a bazooka, but hannah had turned it back into a stick. I suppose we could say that adults crave play too, and that playing with the famous stick’s meanings is the grownup way of trying to think up something as cool as using a stick as a cloud scratcher. By eliciting the two most powerful forms of nostalgia, the loss of nature and the loss of childhood, the celebrated stick had captured our imaginations. But while we were arguing over its meaning, turning its induction into the Toy Hall of Fame into a cause for celebration or protest or the writing of essays, we also didn’t go outside and play. and I suspect that it is this failure to play—this atrophying of the ability to imaginatively engage nature and then also leave it as we found it—that separates us from our childhoods, and perhaps also from our children. We’ve been grasping at the stick because we need to recover something that we dropped on the ground a long time ago.


 Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is co-founder of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and series co-editor of the University of Virginia Press book series, Under the Sign of Nature. His creative nonfiction has appeared in magazines including Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Places, and Whole Terrain. He has had pieces nominated for the Pushcart Prize and recognized as “Notable Essays” in The Best American Essays, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. His monthly blog essay, “Rants from the Hill,” appears in the online edition of High Country News.