The Good Life: Spartz & Bok

James Spartz

Three Perspectives on the Good Life: Carl Rodgers, Yi-Fu Tuan, and Scott & Helen Nearing

Pursuit of the good life goes by many names. To the ancient Greeks it was Eudaimonia – thriving, flourishing, or well-being. Synonyms include plentitude, harmony, or the equanimity of Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. In South America, Amazonian and Andean indigenous philosophies remain influential and, in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, ways of good living or living well emerge as buen vivir in Spanish or sumak kawsay in Kichwa. By any name, “the good life” remains a synecdoche of values and virtues. From Aristotle in Greece and the Stoics of ancient Rome to modern philosophers of all stripes, living well remains a subject of endless fascination. Self-help shelves (virtual and real) are bursting with books on happiness. Contemporary comparisons of happiness to broader notions of well-being demonstrate a perpetual interest in the good life as a counterbalance to intemperate pursuits of leisure and

convenience.
What is the good life? How does well-being differ from happiness alone? Does it necessitate monk-like austerity? How can citizens in a society that rewards conspicuous consumption best engage in ways of good living? My own interest in answering these and other questions deepened while collaborating with Joe Quick, an anthropologist colleague doing field research in the highlands of Ecuador. His interests, though varied, include understanding how Kichwa people look to the ancestral past for inspiration in their efforts to build a better future. This occurs, paradoxically, as the national government appropriates the Kichwa concept of sumak kawsay in order to brand a model of development based on resource extraction involving the destruction of indigenous territories.


Influenced by this perspective, and in a spirit of “start where you are” and “use what you have,” I scanned my own bookshelf for signs of the good life. There, I rediscovered the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, the humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, and the husband-wife homesteading dyad of Scott and Helen Nearing – all of whom considered “the good life” in (mostly) North American contexts in the latter half of the 20th century. Exploring the good life through the lenses of Rogers, Tuan, and the Nearings – the focus of this essay – should not imply that these are the most important or even most interesting expressions of good living. These are simply where I began.
Investigating various discourses of the good life led me to discover other work such as philosopher William Irving’s A Guide to The Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy; Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A life of Montaigne; and anthropologist Edward F. Fischer’s The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Well-Being. Books I found that approach good living more obliquely include Jeffrey Jacob’s New Pioneers; Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth; Dona Brown’s Back to the Land; and Dan Buettner’s work on Blue Zones, where human longevity flourishes among tight-knit communities around the world. Strivings for the good life also align with the field of positive psychology (e.g. A Life Worth Living, edited by M. & I.S. Csikszentmihalyi) and the ideals of Buddhism, particularly what scholar and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls ways of interbeing or living in harmony with the world and its elements, seen and unseen. Interested readers might also explore articles by Will Storr in The New Yorker; Robert Wright in The Atlantic; and Sebastian Purcell in Aeon, linking ancient Aztec philosophies to pursuits of good living. This is not an exhaustive list of resources but does provide a starting point for further exploration.

Everyone wants the good life, Yi-Fu Tuan suggests, but each pursuit is different – each is tracking a good life rather than any singular notion of the good life. This essay, in part,

Lil Blue, 2016 ©Gideon Bok

attempts to offer a counter-balance to notions of the good life that include socially damaging means to self-indulgent ends (i.e. unenlightened hedonism) rather than a more

 


balanced unfolding of modern life, in harmony with other social, economic, and natural systems. Perhaps seeking an answer to the question of “What is the good life?” is futile. Many answers are culture-bound and therefore difficult to translate or apply for other people in other places. To be sure, my own perceptions of what is interesting or useful about living the good life are culturally limited. I know only

Everyone, 2014 ©Gideon Bok

my perspective. What I hope to do, however, is investigate a few questions, provide some helpful clues, and offer measures of hope in a time of increasing uncertainty.
As a pioneer of humanistic psychology, also called client-centered therapy, Carl Rogers published perhaps his
most

influential book On Becoming a Person  in 1961 as a personal reflection on 30+ years of professional practice. In one chapter – A Therapist’s View of the Good Life: The Fully Functioning Person – Rogers details certain characteristics he witnessed in people living more fully in their own unique lives. Twenty-five years later, Yi-Fu Tuan published The Good Life, a broader perspective on good living. Tuan examines humanity’s relations to space, place, and community across various cultural contexts. “Everyone wants the good life,” he writes. “How it is conceived varies greatly from culture to culture, and in a complex modern society even from individual to individual.” Like Helen and Scott Nearing, Tuan provides a focus on the agrarian perspective but, unlike the Nearings’ antagonism toward the city, Tuan also embraces the city as a hub of culture and vitality. Whereas Rogers takes a psychological view of the good life, and Tuan approaches the concept from a more cross-cultural perspective, the Nearings’ work can be seen as a case study in can-do Yankee perseverance laced with a practical socialism. Scott Nearing, an economist, first published Man’s Search for the Good Life in 1954. When re-printed in 1974, the book gained a wider audience among a new generation of homesteaders in New England and beyond. These writings and many later “good life” works by and with Helen offered significant inspiration for the adherents of a renewed back-to-the-land ethic. Scott Nearing’s social scientific observations, deeply intertwined with his economic philosophy, viewed the hard work and deep reward of homesteading as one providing the most direct path to good living.
It could be said that what these writers share, each in their own way, are views on sustainable living. Whether through the individual sustainability and resilience of Rogers, the cross-cultural diversity and place-based community analyzed by Tuan, or the calloused hands and clean spirited “bread labor” practiced by the Nearings; all are versions of practical sustainability. A buzzword du jour for 


environmentalists, sustainability can be taken here to mean systems of living that provide social and economic security – nested within environmental limits – without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to provide for themselves in similar ways. My hope is that understanding discourses of the good life in tandem with discourses of sustainability will help individuals and communities flourish in their pursuits of Eudaimonia, variously conceived. Such pursuits can, in turn, provide base levels of material and psychological security without denying other entities – present and future systems, human and non – the ability to do the same.

ROGERS: Launching Fully into the Stream of Life
“The good life is a process, not a state of being,” writes Carl Rogers. “It is a direction, not a destination.” Along this path people develop their own conclusions about what “good” might come from a given route. It is “selected by the total organism, when there is psychological freedom to move in any direction” (emphasis in original). The general characteristics of such a direction “appear to have a certain universality,” says Rogers. This life-long path is one of regular renewal in light of new experience. Rogers calls it Becoming – integrating one’s “total organism” into a cohesive yet resilient and adaptive existential whole. The good life as such tends to share three general characteristics: An increasing openness to experience; an increasing tendency to live in the moment; and an increasing trust in one’s self “as a means of arriving at the most satisfying behavior in each existential situation.”
An increasing openness to the variety of life experiences is not just about physical experience but the full breadth of psychological experience. This includes a willingness to engage in positive emotions (e.g. courage, empathy, tenderness, awe) as well as negative emotions or mental  

states (e.g. fear, dissonance, discouragement, pain).  Such openness is “the polar opposite of defensiveness,” says Rogers, and a key marker of the good life along with “increasingly existential living” which, given this lack of defensiveness, affords moment-to-moment opportunities to live life anew. Therapeutic clients of Rogers would “not infrequently” express the feeling that “What I will be in the next moment, and what I will do, grows out of that moment, and cannot be predicted in advance either by me or by others.” Put another way, Rogers describes such existential fluidity as the self emerging “from experience, rather than experience being translated or twisted to fit preconceived self-structure” (emphasis in original). In the process of becoming, Rogers says, a person acts as a participant in and observer of moment-to-moment experience rather than trying to master or control it.
The good life is “not a life for the faint-hearted,” says Rogers. This underscores the distinction between a meaningful, reflected-upon good life and the pleasure-motivated, short-term goals associated with what philosopher William Irving refers to as unenlightened hedonism – seeking pleasure while avoiding the negative, messy (and often essential) parts of robust life experience.
A growing trust in one’s self acts as “a means of arriving at the most satisfying behavior in each existential situation,” says Rogers. Rather than relying on guiding principles “laid down by some group or institution,” living well affords individuals the ability to develop and enact self-trust in response to new situations “because they discover to an ever-increasing degree that if they are open to their experience, doing what ‘feels right’ proves to be a competent and trustworthy guide” to truly satisfying behavior. The “complex weighing and balancing” of one’s lived experience comes to bear on any immediate moment as a complex computation, 

 


and not an infallible one, admits Rogers. But, because the good life also includes openness to experience, “any errors, any following of behavior which was not satisfying would be quickly corrected. The computations, as it were, would always be in process… because they would be continually checked in behavior.”

Still #1, 2016 (work in progress) © Gideon Bok

A person engaged in this process of living well, one who is able to view the present moment from a perspective of psychological freedom, “moves in the direction of 

becoming a more fully functioning person,” says Rogers. She or he is “completely engaged in the process of being and becoming.” This is not to say that external stimuli don’t factor into one’s judgment but does suggest an inverse relationship between freedom of choice and behaviors influenced by fear, defensiveness, or dogmatic norms. A more fully functioning person “would almost certainly not be a conformist,” says Rogers. The good life is also imbued with creativity and resilience. In the face of adversity, such a person is “most likely to adapt and survive under changing environmental conditions.” He or she would be creative in making “sound adjustments to new as well as old conditions,” says Rogers, and “a fit vanguard of human evolution.”
Living the good life, for Rogers and others, is a process of cultivating richness. This includes a robust diversity of life experience and, for Rogers, adjectives such as happy, contented, blissful, and enjoyable “do not seem quite appropriate to any general description of this process.” Happiness, contentment, bliss, and joy may emerge in due course but more appropriate adjectives, suggests Rogers, include enriching, exciting, rewarding, challenging, and meaningful. Living well involves the courage to launch oneself “fully into the stream of life.” When a person is inwardly free, says Rogers, he or she “chooses as the good life this process of becoming.”

TUAN: The Arc of Choice
“The good life haunts us,” writes the humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. Everything we do “is directed consciously or subconsciously, toward attaining it.” In the Western world, Tuan says, the good life “is envisaged, historically, in a limited number of ways. One of them is environmentalism, which sees the good life as a consequence of a special type of physical setting.” Connection to nature, via the raw beauty of wilderness or the constructed nature of urban greenspace,


includes a wide spectrum of nature-linked settings and activities. Focusing on activities, such as those of the traditional farmer, rather than settings is another way to conceive of the good life. The yeoman is a lingering, if over-romanticized, “icon of the good life,” says Tuan.
Even though most urban people remain disconnected from the true toil of husbandry, the growing popularity of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture programs suggests a renewed appreciation for small-scale farming. For many, this includes a growing concern for provenance – knowing how and where food is produced – as much as it can be a rejection of corporate agriculture and its stark environmental burdens. The good life, in this way, is not simply one of leisure and convenience but one of values on display as sustainable practice. It requires hard work. While various practices may or may not be as “green” as one might hope, over the arc of one’s life, the compass of good living points toward a true north of sustainability and resilience. What counts – the virtuous choice – is visible in the direction of a series of choices rather than any particular steps or missteps along the way. This includes a kind of openness, says Tuan, to “certain kinds of hard truth.” Such a direction points us away from naïve comfort and splendor – one enjoyed in “easy conscience” at the expense of others, as Tuan suggests – to a pathway of awareness and accounting for the costs of our actions “in the spoliation of nature and in the burden laid on people less fortunate than we.”
Connection to other people – relationship – is a crucial component for living well.  Contrary to Jean-Paul Sartre’s oft-misinterpreted assertion that “Hell is other people,” Tuan posits the opposite. “Heaven is other people,” he says. The full experience of living well “is necessarily filled with

pictures of human contact – erotic, affectional, courtly, and intellectual.” Lovers, friends, courteous relations with strangers, and stimulating interaction with people far or near all lead in the direction of good living. Connection to place is equally compelling. A healthy co-dependence on both the

Broken Arrow and Butti, 2015 ©Gideon Bok

Broken Arrow and Butti, 2015 ©Gideon Bok

constructed and natural amenities of a home base has allowed individuals and cultures to flourish since the transition of humans as a largely hunter-gatherer species to one of 

 


agriculture and centers of urban commerce. Few livelihoods are as directly connected to place than that of life on the farm.
“It is easy to be sentimental about the farmer’s life,” says Tuan, because the vagaries of country life have been written “almost entirely by members of the leisured class.” These are people “who know little, if anything, about the hardships of manual labor.” Yet the mystique persists. Land has virtue – spirit – and provides food, says Tuan; “Nothing can be more basic.” Acknowledging the culture of consumerism in full force by the mid-1980s, Tuan contrasts the noble (though often inaccurate) portrayal of farm life to that of corporate manufacturers’ “catering to appetites that may have to be invented by advertising.” The small-scale agriculturalist, compared to the mono-cropping industrial version who grows relatively little in the way of their own food supply, can more easily connect their daily chores with the food set upon the dinner table, suggests Tuan. The farmer “enjoys a degree of psychological security unknown to people of other occupations (such as salesmen or scholar) in which the linkages between exertion and the staff of survival are far more tenuous.” Echoing contemporary work by fiery farmer populists like Wendell Berry, Tuan suggests that

…a life in which what one does is so clearly tied, by a succession of discernible steps, to what one eats also appears more serious and in closer touch with reality than one in which the connections are remote and unperceived. The farmer does not live in a world of make-believe; his life is not a game. By contrast, the world of (say) an insurance agent, like that of a child, is rich in make-believe and miracles.

Despite what may seem like an idealization of rural life, Tuan also very much prizes the city. Good living from this perspective is not either/or so much as both/and. “The good life is lived in the city,” Tuan writes; “…nothing compares with the grandeur of the city.” It is not that country people can’t or don’t appreciate contemplating the good life like their more urbane counterparts. It is simply that city people, having more direct access to many modern conveniences, often have more leisure time. Farmers, Tuan suggests, have too much work to do. Farm life is a life of struggle that requires daily resilience in light of nature’s occasional unpredictability. City life, by contrast, “offers excitement and glamor, the root meaning of which is magic,” says Tuan. “What is magical is unnatural. The city is magical in its successful defiance of nature’s rhythms.”
The good life of the city offers new and unique experiences, strangers from strange places to engage with, a constant churn of sound, light, and bustle. Such unnatural existence is antithetical to rural living where stability and continuity are strongly favored. What works for some in their pursuit of good living does not work for others. A reminder of what Helen and Scott Nearing often said of their own pastoral pursuits – theirs was a good life, not the good life. One’s conception of what makes a good life often stems from foundational experience. Though the good life is fulfilled by an openness of experience from one moment to the next, as Rogers suggests, our perceptions are often deeply tied to past experience and sense of cultural belonging or cultural cognition. “The good life is a serious life,” says Tuan, “imbued with feelings of reverence that come out of an awareness of momentous events in the past – of a heritage that gives prestige but also imposes obligation.” Given the variety of human experience, the historical awareness and


connection of one cultural group differs from other groups. Virtues abound. To each their own good life.
“The good life need not be heroic or saintly, but if ‘good’ is to retain its moral meaning,” says Tuan, “it cannot be a life devoted merely to the pleasures of the senses. Such a life, in any case, would pall without periodic essays at austerity.” 

Meghan Brady as a young Grace Hartigan, 2014 © Gideon Bok

Meghan Brady as a young Grace Hartigan, 2014 © Gideon Bok

Moderate limits on pleasure-seeking, as Stoic philosophy suggests, can actually increase pleasure in other ways. This includes the hard truth of ecological limits. Creations of modern life, including societies and their economies, have limits imposed by the laws of thermodynamics – the laws of nature. Though such limits are generally unwelcome in a

consumer society, the truth of their existence remains.
The ultimate austerity, old age, is one that even the best of us cannot avoid. Mature people, rather than the young, says Tuan, are “better equipped to raise the question” of “What is the good life?” and to explore it thoroughly because “thinking about the good life must be based on what we know and have already experienced.” In trying to envision the good life in any detail, “the future… has to draw heavily on the past.” Planning ahead, says Tuan, entails taking stock and reflecting on “those things that seem to us least ambiguously good, of knowing the historical conditions that have made them possible, and then trying to see how these conditions can be expanded or changed so that the good things might flourish.” But how to create the necessary conditions for good living? Tuan considers three broad categories – body, personal relations, and world – “corresponding roughly to the sensual, the moral, and the aesthetic.”
Tuan’s book is reflective and draws on an array of cultural touchstones, including the inherent brutality of civilized society. Civilization, he says, “tends to destroy plurality: it eradicates, for example, local cultures and peoples.” The sheer scale of destruction that civilization has leveled on many of Earth’s ecological systems is “without parallel.” Yet, civilized society also produces geniuses, saints and “the severest and most clear-eyed critics of civilization.” Even those who denounce the inherent destruction of so-called civilized life, “Particularly as they are manifest in the Western world,” says Tuan, are also products of civilization. It is this relative sturm-und-drang of city life – with its commercialism, commotion, and occasional dependence on drink and drug – that Helen and Scott Nearing chose to leave behind. Though they, like Tuan, enjoyed extensive travel and intellectual engagement with a lofty crowd of urbane comrades, the Nearings’ home base – first in Vermont and later on the coast of Maine – provided an explicit rejection of city life and, as such, connection with the daily toils and rewards of self-sufficiency and a rewarding rural livelihood.


NEARINGS: Living at Five Levels
The essence of Scott Nearing’s vision of the good life is summarized in the introduction to the second edition of his book Man’s Search for the Good Life. Living well comes in many varieties, Nearing stresses, and “the good life is an ideal toward which people look and for which they strive.” Such a pursuit involves “a pattern of conduct which, if followed, will provide advantages for its devotees.”
In laying out this broad vision – one that stems from his own vigorous opposition to “discrimination, poverty, exploitation, and colonialism” – Nearing asserts several underlying assumptions. Pursuing the good life is, for its individual or collective adherents, more rewarding than other ways of being. People are able to distinguish good from less-good options for living. There is a freedom of choice in distinguishing good from not so good. In knowing the difference between bad and good, people will tend to choose the good (“this from Socrates,” says Nearing), and one who chooses the good will seek to shape the life of oneself and one’s community according to the requirements of choices that have been made. With a measure of hope, Nearing also asserts that if one fails to achieve the good life today, one can try again tomorrow; and, finally, “through effort, experiment and experience men [sic] will grow to a stature which makes the good life more attractive as well as more attainable.” These are the aspirations of an idealist, Nearing says, one striving “for the unity of theory and practice.”
If people today know the work of Scott Nearing, it is likely in the context of the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The books he and his wife Helen published throughout the 1970s were, for many, as essential as Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and other publications propagating the ideals of rural self-sufficiency. Such a marriage of theory and practice emerged across North 

America, Europe, and other industrialized regions of the global north and west, often acting as a counterbalance to rampant consumerism (i.e. the neoliberal economic ideals of free market capitalism). Few places saw this trend take hold like northern New England, from Vermont to mid-coast Maine. Such deep roots continue to bear fruit.
Scott and Helen Nearing’s homesteading narratives bookended the 1970s with a reissue of 1954’s Living the Good Life in 1974 and Continuing the Good Life in 1979. The Nearings moved from Vermont to the Penobscot Bay region of Maine to continue living in, working with, and fostering a community of like-minded compatriots around the virtues of living well. The Good Life Center, located at the Nearing’s former home at Forest Farm in Harborside, Maine, continues as a living testament to the Nearings’ ethics and ideals. The reputation of the Nearing’s idealism – though certainly not a naïve idealism – often obscured the realities of their challenging lifestyle. A life of chopping wood, hand working the soil, strict vegetarianism, and abstinence from intoxicants such as alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco (or anything else) was not the life for everyone, especially in the freewheeling 1970s. It is the inheritance of this legacy – one of hard work and self-mastery – that many modern homesteaders advocate for (and disagree about) in the ongoing practice of Nearing-like homesteading traditions.
The Nearings made “serious and various attempts to live at five levels” in both Vermont and Maine. These included living with nature; daily stints of bread labor; carrying on professional activities such as writing and correspondence; being neighborly and engaging with their “fellow citizens;” and “unremitting efforts to cultivate the life of the mind and spirit.” Such a good life then entails attention to environmental, economic, intellectual, social, and spiritual activities. A concern for not just human well-being but the


goodness of the larger biota was also evident in their conception of living well. Scott Nearing writes:

We also did our utmost to develop what we called the spirit of man. It is not enough to have a good earth supporting and improving a good society. It is also necessary that the various life forms (including the human) which inhabit the earth, should have a maximum opportunity to live a good life. Life in any community becomes “good” in so far as it utilizes and conserves nature, improves society and expresses itself in the good health of the inhabitants, their heightened sense of social responsibility and their success in developing successive generations of human beings willing and eager to live and help others live at the most productive and creative level that can be established and maintained by the present-day human family.

Thinking Ahead
The good life includes ongoing reflection and engagement with personal, societal, and planetary systems in ways that promotes the benefits of those systems and perpetuates the flourishing of other current and future generations. Through an authentic questioning of the true impacts of one’s daily activity, creativity in how we modify such actions as a way to promote future well-being, and engagement with others who are also pursuing ways of good living, we can truly create a better world. In doing so, those who enact the virtues of living well promote the goodness inherent in the world as it is and take part in sustaining the benefits and overcoming the collective challenges many face. The good life is an idealistic pursuit, open to everyone, but most successful for those willing to foster resilience through hard work and honest reflection on the virtues and vices of mainstream  

society. This seems particularly true in the Global North where resource consumption far exceeds the carrying capacity of ecological limits so often annihilated by the earthmovers of Progress and Growth.

Blackstar, 2016 (work in progress) ©Gideon Bok

Blackstar, 2016 (work in progress) ©Gideon Bok

In a consumer culture, many people get caught up in pursuing a version of happiness based more on the accumulation of material goods, power over others, ego, and domination of natural systems than the more altruistic pursuits of good living. Equating such hedonic tendencies to “the good life” 


makes a clear definition of the phrase challenging. A good life certainly includes a measure of financial security but it also contains a wealth of wisdom, empathy, spirit, community, and freedom of choice, up to and including a healthy sense of agency or self-efficacy. As global indicators such as the Gross National Happiness Scale, Happy Planet Index, and the Social Progress Index suggest, once the basic provisions of food, shelter, and clothing are in ready abundance, the accumulation of excess material wealth does not generally add to a greater sense of subjective well-being. Living well includes consideration for wider systems, an alternative to conspicuous consumption and ephemeral pursuits of self-satisfying pleasure. A working definition of the good life then remains as the freedom to experience one’s best vision of living so long as it does not impede on others’ ability (present or future) to pursue those same or similar goals.

As Barry Lopez suggests in The Rediscovery of North America, perverse versions of good living – i.e. modern pursuits of leisure and convenience – are rooted in a legacy of “lawless exploitation” of finite natural resources via the tradition of European colonialism. In contrast, pursuits of good living described here can be seen as inherently sustainable and supportive of natural systems – cohabitative rather than domineering, adult rather than adolescent. Closer to this spirit of a good life are ways of being that balance out greed and selfishness with the benefits of community resilience and individual character. This is the direction in which the good life moves, hand-in-hand with hard truths, hard work, and humility in the face of much deeper and older natural systems. Always present, always becoming.

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James T. Spartz is a teacher, writer, researcher, and Driftless Area native now in coastal Maine. Prior to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, he was a worker-owner at an organic whole-grains bakery, hardware store sales associate, social worker, and performing songwriter – but not all at once. Spartz is currently an Assistant Professor of Environmental Communication at Unity College.

Gideon Bok is an artist.  He graduated from Hampshire College (BA) and the Yale School of Art (MFA.)  He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. He paints, manages an organic farm, and teaches art.

Farming: Of Earth, People & Stone Barns

Jeffrey Myers

Stone Barns: Farming in America’s Oldest Suburbstones-4

The tall pasture grass is still soaking wet with dew, and the air is warming fast under the mid-June sun. As I approach the first Egg Mobile, I can hear the clucking and wing-fluttering of 75 Amber White laying hens waiting to be released into the pasture. It feels like the coop could explode with their eagerness to get out as they anticipate my arrival.
The girls are restless. They’ve been, well, cooped up all night against the skunks, foxes, and hawks that would decimate their ranks if given a chance. Now they’re ready to burst out into the sun and grass, to peck for insects, to bathe in the dust, and—a few bold ones—to hop the low, moveable fence that surrounds their pasture and run loose on the farm.

I open the hatch on one side of the coop and with a swift motion pull the ramp into place onto the floor of the coop. The hens stream out, some flying, some running down the ramp. One flaps into my face, another bounces off my chest, and a third is already pecking at my shoelaces, mistaking them for worms.  With most of the hens out picking at the grass, I climb the rickety ramp and enter the coop to top off the hopper with organic feed and refill the trough that holds the grit they need for proper digestion.  The inside is dark and cool. Though there is manure everywhere it smells surprisingly clean.



Emerging into the light again myself, I begin to collect eggs. Separate hatches open on the straw-lined laying boxes where the hens lay. Each holds four or five eggs, more or less, and I place each carefully into a large, blue metal basket. A few of the boxes are occupied by hens, and I have to reach beneath their warm, feathery bodies, nudge them aside, and snatch the eggs they are sitting on. The variety of their responses is interesting: some are rather good-natured about it, walking off without a struggle; others cluck annoyedly; a few peck sharply at my hands to show their disapproval.
The same process is happening at the other Egg Mobiles lined up across the large front pasture. Maggie, John, Rich, and Christie are all releasing hens, topping off feeders, and gathering eggs. Already Chris is hooking up the first of the coops to the trailer hitch on one of the Kubotas, the all-purpose vehicles that we use on the farm, to move the coops 100 feet or so to fresh pasture. The grass in the pasture we’re in now is matted and thick with manure that will fertilize the grass, which will be lush pasture in just a few days’ time. We’ll put other animals, probably the sheep, on it then, in a process meant to mimic the process of a healthy natural ecosystem. In the meantime, our baskets now brimming with fresh, brown eggs, we head back to the Western Barn, which serves as a kind of headquarters. It’s 8:45, and there’s a lot to do: pigs to be watered and fed, sheep to be moved, and the brooder barn, with our growing chicks, to be attended to.
I’m not actually a farmer. I’m a college professor living in Westchester County, New York—America’s oldest suburb. I commute to work, teach classes, grade papers, and go to meetings; I drive my kids to soccer practice and music lessons; I go out to dinner with friends and watch a little

 

football on Sunday. It’s a life that most contemporary Americans can identify with—a good life, and an easy life, with no concern about where or how we get our next meal.

Turning Wheel Farm in Bowdoinham ME, owned by Cate Stoner. Cate grows the majority of her crops for local Food Pantries and the GSFB Mainers Feeding Mainers Program. ©Brendan Bullock

But once a week this summer, I have been volunteering at Stone Barns, an experimental farm a scant ten minutes from my suburban town. Built on land donated from the Rockefeller estate and named for the magnificent stone barns built on the property 100 years ago, the farm is working “to change the way America eats and farms.”  With an emphasis on local, organic produce and pastured, humanely-raised livestock, Stone Barns serves local farmers’ markets and restaurants—including the gourmet Blue Hill at Stone Barns


on the property itself, where “fresh” and “local” take on a quite literal meaning. More importantly though, the farm, which is open to the public, serves as a model for bringing back local farms, a working experiment in post-industrial agriculture, and an incubator for young farmers eager to begin their own farms. I’m just a weekly volunteer, but the rest of the crew are either full-timers here at Stone Barns, or one-year apprentices who are hoping to begin their own farms or to learn about farming as a prelude to careers as diverse as chef and veterinarian. There are crews that work in the greenhouse, in the produce fields, in the farmers’ market—and a whole crew devoted to composting, which this farm has down to both an art and a science. I work with the livestock crew, helping to take care of chickens, pigs, sheep, and other animals.

Jay Robinson carries buckets of fertilizer at Sweetland Farm in Starks, ME. Jay has been producing food for Good Shepherd Food Bank since the beginning of the Mainers Feeding Mainers program.©Brendan Bullock

My own motives for this are frankly a little vague, even to me. In the 1940s my grandfather had a twelve-acre farm with produce, chickens, and pigs just outside the city of Baltimore.  His was the kind of mixed, local farm—common in his day—that the new locavore movement is trying to bring back. My mother grew up there, and though he sold the farm in the decade before I was born, it always figured significantly in our family lore. I have always yearned—even as that kind of farming gave way to the Big Agriculture of the 1960s and beyond—to return to the land. With the trend toward sustainable agriculture, organic produce, and humanely-raised animals growing, I wanted to see first-hand how such a vision played out in a practical way. But most of all, I think, I wanted to be involved in the production of food, that most basic of life essentials—what Thoreau called the “gross necessaries”—in a way that nearly all individuals in our society have lost. I wanted to take on a sense of responsibility for what comes out of the earth and into my own body.  That it means finishing each day on the farm speckled with mud and poop and blood I take as a mark of success, though unsurprisingly, no one wants to ride in my car.
Mid-mornings find us in the brooder barn, where the Stone Barns meat chickens begin their lives. The chickens are a pasture-raised breed called Freedom Rangers, and they’ll spend their short adult lives out on one of the farm’s pastures. But they’ll spend their early weeks as growing chicks in the large, spacious, and well-ventilated barn until they are ready to move outside. There are several hundred birds in here, grouped by age in open enclosures, and it’s a daily chore to keep them fed, watered, clean, and comfortable. A layer of fresh wood shavings goes on each enclosure to absorb odors and keep the barn as hygienic as possible. Each


enclosure has several troughs and hoppers of organic feed that need filling, and different sizes of grit, according to the age of the birds in each. Two waterers in each enclosure are rinsed clean and the large blue barrels supplying the waterers are topped off with fresh water. The long passageway in the center of the barn is swept clean and watered down, while a ventilation fan cools the barn and moves fresh air around.
On a Monday, four new boxes of day-old chicks have arrived at the farm, courtesy of the US Postal Service. The Postal Service has been delivering chicks this way for decades, taking advantage of the fact that day-old chicks who have just ingested their yolk can live without food and water, warming each other with their combined body heat. Only the USPS will deliver live birds—not UPS or FedEx—and I like the fact that there’s at least one item not available on Amazon.com.  While others finish the barn chores, Maggie shows me how to take the baby chicks from the box and place them in the enclosure. With a deft motion and a firm but gentle touch, she lifts a chick from the box, dips its beak in water with a dilute solution of sugar, and watches as its tiny throat pulsates in swallowing. Once the chicks show they can swallow, they’re placed on a litter of fresh wood shavings. They’re surprisingly quick and lively as they run around the pen.
Maggie is far more knowledgeable and experienced than I, but she too is somewhat of an unlikely farmer. A former English teacher and a gifted poet, Maggie Schwed commutes to Stone Barns from Manhattan three days a week to work as a farm hand, a reverse commute that also runs counter to the ways factory farming has distanced us from the sources of our food. The author of a moving book of poems, Driving to the Bees, based on her experiences at Stone Barns, she is uniquely positioned to observe the intricacies of life on the farm. I expect her to speak of the pastoral beauty of the

landscape, but as we drive back from the barn after chores, she tells me that what impresses her most is the knowledge that farmers have, how much they have to know about animal physiology, pasture management, soil chemistry, zoonotic diseases, slaughtering and processing, composting—the list is endless. Under her wide straw hat in the hot June sun, this cultured and highly educated woman deeply admires the intellectual skill that farming requires along with the hard physical work.

Hannah Semler of Healthy Acadia gleans spinach at Four Season Farm, Harborside, ME. ©Brendan Bullock

One noon finds me feeding and watering pigs with John, a farm apprentice who embodies the new locavore movement. Born and raised in Queens, John Aghostino is refining his skills and knowledge of animal husbandry with the hope of starting a farm of his own, within a few hours of his native New York City. Apart from his interest in animals  


and the land, he’s deeply interested in food preparation and food culture, as are all the farmers and apprentices at Stone Barns. His goal is to make a living for himself and his young family by humanely raising pastured chicken, pork, and lamb in a sustainable way for farmers’ markets, restaurants, and anyone else who is interested in delicious food raised in a sustainable and humane way on farms close to home. He’s also motivated to remain in the New York City foodshed. This is not an easy proposition. Marginal anywhere, the economics for small farms within a short drive of New York City are tough—the high cost of real estate, of course, being the chief obstacle. When I ask him if he would consider moving somewhere where land was cheaper and socio-economic conditions friendlier to small farmers, he shakes his head.

Samuel Cheeney of Salty Dog Farm in Milbridge, ME cultivates peas.©Brendan Bullock

“No, this is where I’m from—where my family is. Also, I want to help bring this kind of food, this way of growing food, back. It wouldn’t have the same meaning if I couldn’t do it here.”

What about some place like California, where the growing season is long?
He laughs. “I wouldn’t understand the seasons there. What I know are the seasons of the northeast—the rhythms of the weather and when things need to get done.”
John (who has gone on since I first began writing to start his own, Fatstock Farm, in Stuyvesant, NY) will be my mentor in my early days on the farm, showing me how to hitch up the trailer with the water tank, how to feed pigs without getting gored or trampled, how to stretch the long bundles of electrified fence we use to move sheep from one pasture to another. This last task goes to the heart of this kind of grass-based agriculture. With the goal of reproducing a healthy natural ecosystem, the sheep and cattle that we raise are moved from pasture to pasture on a rotating basis, just as herbivores in the wild would move on before munching the grass down to its roots. Meanwhile, their manure is a natural fertilizer that encourages grass to grow. The meat chickens or laying hens who come onto the pasture later peck at worms and insects in imitation of wild birds that would follow in the wake of animals such as bison. And so it goes with everything on the farm. The Berkshire pigs are kept in shady, wooded areas outdoors, where they can wallow in mud and forage for acorns that supplement their feed. The piglets live with their mothers and are kept separate from the large boors, like Don Juan, who has a prime spot all to himself. Heritage breed turkeys are moved in small flocks from pasture to pasture and brought in at night to keep them safe from predators. The key to this kind of farming is the use of portable electric fences that roll up in bundles and can be moved easily from place to place. In a matter of minutes a new fenced pasture can be created, and sheep or chickens can be moved to fresh grass.  It’s a labor-intensive process and in many ways an inefficient one that sacrifices cost-cutting efficiency for sustainable use of resources and humane care of animals.


After several weeks at Stone Barns, I begin to get the rhythm of the chores and become more useful than cumbersome. Each week I am entrusted with new tasks. I feed and water the pigs on my own, which means driving a water tank on a trailer behind the Kubota around the farm to the shady spots where the pigs are corralled behind an electric wire. It also means getting into the muddy pen with three hungry sows and their young. The sows are a more than a little aggressive about their chow, and I can never get their feed into the big, rubber dish fast enough to avoid being knocked about and stepped on. Always I watch for their tusks, which though short could cut open a leg like a sharp knife.  Once a pig gets loose in the brooder barn area and runs amok. John, Chris, and I take sheets of plywood and play matador with the pig, chasing it around with our “shields”; it takes 15 minutes of frenzied running back and forth before we corral it again.
One Tuesday, I help Dan slaughter the chickens. This is a task that I have been approaching with anticipation and a small amount of dread.  On a practical level it’s a skill I would like to have, although I don’t believe the day will come when I’m forced to feed my family from animals we raise in the backyard.  But on a deeper level, I’ve come to believe that those of us who eat meat should be willing to do the work of slaughtering and processing the animals we eat, to face the fact of animal death, to bear some of the karmic burden that killing animals for food surely entails. This is hard work, both emotionally and physically, and it’s no coincidence that in the industrial model of farming we have pawned off most of this kind of work on an underpaid and exploited immigrant labor force.
Dan Carr, who still looks like the college football player that he recently was, is a gentle soul who speaks softly, keeps bees, and will soon be going to Africa to 
teach bee-keeping techniques. Raised in Montana, he seems born to this kind of work. We begin by putting the chickens in crates, and
 I’m struck by Dan’s gentle manner as he handles the birds, trying to minimize any sense of trauma or pain even in their last moments of life. I try to emulate his manner by staying calm, speaking softly, not making sudden moves.  

Cate Stoner of Turning Wheel Farm in Bowdoinham is a single mother, and a one-woman farming operation. Here, she’s pictured planting carrot seeds with her dog, Anomi. Stoner leases her fields from a local landowner; her farm is off the grid, and runs on solar power. Last year she harvested seven tons of food for the Mainers Feeding Mainers program. ©Brendan Bullock

As we bring the crates into the slaughter room, I note how he keeps the chickens out of the sun and positions them so that they can’t see what is happening in the slaughter area. This consists of seven or eight metal cones lined up along a wall over a metal trough.  Beside this is a machine, a scalder, that moves freshly-killed birds through a tub of hot water to loosen their feathers, and another that whirls the birds through rubber “fingers” that strip their feathers in seconds and deposit them into the next room, where they are quickly processed into what look like the product you would find in the supermarket—only far more delicious.


Dan shows me how it’s done.  Six at a time, the chickens go head first into the cones. They are strangely calm, with their wings pressed gently to their bodies. Deftly and deliberately, Dan takes a sharp knife from his apron and quickly severs both arteries on either side of the windpipe. “Never cut into the windpipe itself,” he explains. “Don’t cut off the head—you want the chicken to bleed out so that blood doesn’t taint the meat.” As each chicken bleeds out, it goes into convulsions

Reflection, Sweetland Farm, Starks, ME.  ©Brendan Bullock

for what is probably ten seconds—but seems a lot longer.  And then they are motionless, limp, and obviously dead. There’s no getting around it—it’s messy and bloody. And though Dan has taken every care to minimize it, the birds obviously have at least a moment of stress.

Some larger humane poultry producers are beginning to use CO2 to render their chickens unconscious before slaughter to avoid even this level of stress, but I doubt whether producers on the scale of Stone Barns can afford such systems, which would mean keeping small farms like this from proliferating. And the scale of a farm like Stone Barns, which processes about 200 chickens a week, ensures that the animals are living virtually stress-free their entire lives. They live in clean brooder barns as chicks and on fresh grass as adults. They aren’t trucked to a slaughter-house or put into crates until the very hour before they’re slaughtered. Everyone is scrupulous about hygiene from the beginning to the end of the process.
I take the freshly killed birds and put them into the scalder, then into the plucker, which whisks them through a small door into the adjoining room, where they are quickly processed by other farmers. Everyone in the livestock operation at Stone Barns participates in this process, breaking down the layers of specialization that would occur in industrial farming.  Christie cuts off the head and feet (the feet go into a clean container for a special customer who “likes chicken feet”—I don’t ask what for); Craig and Adrian quickly and expertly eviscerate them. They are cooled immediately and taken into an immaculately clean, refrigerated room where others vacuum seal them in plastic bags as whole chickens or chicken parts and then immediately refrigerate or freeze the bags. The birds go from chickens to “chicken” in less than an hour. Their lives in the pasture, their high-quality organic feed, their humane manner of death, and their careful handling make these chickens both sustainable and delicious. At the farm stand, I have heard customers rhapsodize these chickens, in hushed tones, as the best they have ever eaten.


After watching Dan several times, it becomes my turn.  I feel remarkably calm as I take a bird from the crate and position it in the cone. The pressure to do this right—to give the bird the quick death it deserves, that I feel I owe it—somehow steadies my hand, and I quickly cut one artery, then the other. I get it perfect, and it’s over in seconds.
“Good job,” Dan tells me. “That was just right. Now keep going, because we have a long way to go.”
He’s right. Once the process begins, it’s crucial to keep going. Soon, I’m into a rhythm, and the two of us efficiently take turns slaughtering birds and moving them into the scalder and plucker. It feels efficient but never mechanized, and I can honestly say that the birds experience very minimal distress. Sooner than I would have thought, the crates are empty and the last plucked chicken has gone through the door into the processing room.  As we clean up—a big job, and again, one that is scrupulously done—I have time to reflect. Do I feel a sense of remorse? I do—but only a little. I think that there should be some psychic cost to meat eating. But more than that, I feel that I have really participated for the first time in this process that has sustained me for over 40 years.
And indeed there is a cost to eating anything, from wildlife habitat lost to fields of soy and grain, to energy used to transport produce from grower to consumer. Like any other animal, we cannot subsist without taking other plant and animal life. We can only try to do so in a way that it is as humane and sustainable as possible—while also respecting and valuing human cultural customs around sharing food and allowing farmers to make a decent and honorable living.
By the end of the summer, I catalogue the various experiences that I’ve taken part in, none of which I had ever

 imagined myself doing—or even, as a consumer of food, given much thought to. Beside the continuous feeding, watering, and moving of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese, I’ve run across a dewy pasture with a bucket of alfalfa and 40 sheep and lambs running behind; 

Jay Robinson plants squash at Sweet Land Farm in Starks, ME has has been producing food for Mainers Feeding Mainers program since it began, and says it accounts for about half his yearly sales. Jay believes that agriculture is a starting point for economic and environmental justice in general; he says that by staying in one place and forging deep ties with one’s community, there is more incentive to give back.  ©Brendan Bullock

repaired electric fences; line-trimmed and staked out new pastures with electric fencing; caught and sorted a barnful of heritage Bourbon turkeys; scraped sheep hides all afternoon to prepare for tanning; ran an egg washing and packaging line; processed chickens from whole chicken to shrink-wrapped parts; and helped inoculate sheep, jar fresh honey, 


set up a farmers’ market, and castrate a piglet. I’ve also been stepped on by a boar, butted by a ram, pecked at by geese, stung by bees, and scraped by the wings of turkeys. Much of this was hard physical labor and most of it on hot summer days in open, sunny fields or saw-dusty barns.

Sarah “Sass” Linneken started volunteering at Veggies For All in 2013, as a student pursuing a degree in Environmental Writing and Media Studies at Unity College. Now graduated, she runs an organization called Resources For Organizing and Social Change. Like many people across Maine, Sass herself was once food insecure she relied on programs like Veggies For All to feed her family healthy food. Now that he own situation is stable, Sass gives back by volunteering, and often brings her husband and kids to help too. She also keeps a vegetable garden at home. ©Brendan Bullock

Craig Haney, Stone Barns’s thoughtful—even cerebral—livestock manager, told me, when I asked about working on the farm, that volunteers “have to understand that it’s less about taking care of the animals than about tending to their environment.” He told me this mainly because his experience with past volunteers was that some don’t understand how

 

much physical labor is involved. It’s more about moving fences, filling watering troughs, and collecting eggs than direct contact with the farm animals, who are mostly not that interested in contact with human beings—with the exception of Stanley and Stella, the two sweet Italian Meremma sheepdogs who watch over the sheep. But his phrase “tending to their environment” stuck with me. Because this of course is what farmers do—they tend to an environment, shaping it in conscious ways for the health of the animals, human and otherwise, who depend on it.
More and more this is what we are called upon to do as a species in the time of climate change—just at the historical moment when most of us are doing it less and less. When my grandfather farmed in the 1940s, nearly twenty percent of American workers worked on farms; now, fewer than two per cent do. Where farming does exist on a large scale in the US, giant combines make the it possible for a few farmers to manage thousands of acres of land planted fencerow to fencerow—or, in the case of factory-farmed livestock, for a few farmers to raise thousands of chickens or pigs in confined spaces. And where large-scale farming does still involve copious labor—in the harvesting of produce—the work is done almost entirely by migrant workers, whose value to the society in doing this often brutal work is severely underestimated and whose plight is largely ignored, sadly even by those who are looking for more sustainable food. In places like Westchester County, which was still largely agricultural almost until the 20th century, farmlands have reverted to forest, which many people think of as a more “natural” or “environmental” form of landscape, forgetting that even the Algonquin peoples who lived here before the colonial farmers “tended to their environment”—by clearing land for their crops of squash and corn and improving the habitat for deer.

 


Most of us are not “tending to the environment” in any meaningful way, but perhaps things are beginning to change. Farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs), and the farm-to-table movement are creating space for a new/old way of farming to grow. At Stone Barns I met a new generation of young people interested in careers in sustainable agriculture, “individuals who are observant, like physical work, and can appreciate the adventure of farming,” as Craig Haney characterized them to me. Even among the vast majority of people
who will never farm, many are awakening to Wendell Berry’s observation that eating itself is “an agricultural act.” If more and more people expect their food to be sourced locally and sustainably, animals to be treated humanely, and farmers to treated fairly, then perhaps the landscape can change. I realize that there are serious political and economic obstacles to this kind of agriculture on a meaningful scale, but at Stone Barns, in America’s oldest suburb, I met people who are able to imagine it.

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Feeding Maine: Growing Access To Good Food
When you see the phrase “food insecurity,” you might picture scenes from distant places hit by the global food crisis: barren fields marked by drought, families fleeing wars, or people waiting in long ration lines.
You might not picture Maine.
Yet more than 200,000 Mainers are food insecure. The term encompasses hunger and scarcity, as well as lack of access to food that’s fresh and healthy.  Meeting this need for good food is where Maine’s farmers, workers, and volunteers come in. We are fortunate to have at hand everything required to feed our state: abundant farmland, skilled farmers, and people invested in forging ties between farms and low-income Mainers.
In making fresh ingredients accessible to those who need them most, the projects featured here are also forging new opportunities for Maine farms by opening up markets, diverting waste through farm donations and gleaning, and creating new customers who seek fresh, local food.
This series is a collaboration between Maine Farmland Trust and Good Shepherd Food Bank. It seeks to document some of the many people working for change in our communities across the state, with the hope that these efforts will continue to grow into a resilient food system that serves all Mainers. Images by Brendan Bullock, text by Annie Murphy.

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Jeffrey Myers is Professor of English at Manhattan College and the author of Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature, as well as essays in African American Review, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and several anthologies. As both a scholar and creative writer, he focuses on race and the environment in literature and culture, with particular attention to the implications for environmental justice.

Brendan Bullock is a freelance photographer and photographic educator based in Bowdoinham ME.  His work has been published in a number of publications including the New York Times and Virginia Quarterly Review, and exhibited in numerous exhibitions nationwide.

How hemlock got its name

Chris Marshall

  Hemlock (eastern hemlock, as it is properly called) is a tree of some distinction, and worth getting to know more closely. It grows straight and tall; the largest hemlock on record measures 165 feet in height, and another famous specimen had a trunk seven feet thick. Hemlock shows a pyramidal shape, much like spruce from a distance, with an elegant taper. Flexible branches slope downward and out at a gentle angle from the trunk and turn upward at the ends with elegance, like the fingers of a South Indian dancer; this is the way they bend without resistance and shed accumulated snow. Young hemlock tops aren’t stiff like other conifers but yield gracefully under the pressure of snowdrifts. This soft supple quality distinguishes hemlock from spruce and fir, its forest-mates, whose bristly needles and firm branches we experience every Christmas. Hemlock foliage has been described as airy, feathery, delicate, fine.  From a distance the tree has the feel of a soft green cloud.

A    lot of people associate “hemlock” with poison.  Socrates drank hemlock and died, and we’ve never heard the last of it. In fact, there is a plant called poison hemlock, Conium maculatum, a weedy flower about three feet high that looks something like the common Queen Anne’s lace. It grows by water margins, roadsides and waste land throughout North America and the Old World.  The seeds and leaves bear a toxic compound much like South American arrow poisons. It causes death by disrupting the workings of the central nervous system: an ascending muscular paralysis gradually reaches the respiratory muscles, which results in death due to lack of oxygen to the heart and brain.

INDENT
The man . . . laying his hands upon him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said “No”; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And then again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and

uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said – and these were his last words – “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” “That,” said Crito, “shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.” To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.¹ ~

  So here we have a tall, handsome, deep-green tree of the dense forest – an eighty-foot-tall plant that can live for nine hundred years – sharing its name with a scrawny two-foot annual weed of damp pastures (and a lethally poisonous one at that!)

  Rural Northerners know one hemlock from another, even though city people might get nervous about a hike through the hemlock woods.  Robert Frost wrote, “The way a crow/ Shook down on me/ A weight of snow/ From a hemlock tree// Has given my heart/ A change of mood/ And saved some part/ Of a day I had rued.”  A student asked Frost about this sweetly quiet winter scene: “What did you mean by 

such a sinister image?” Frost was puzzled, and the student explained, “You know, the black crow, the poison hemlock…” Frost, Yankee to the bone, made some sharp observations about people from away and left it at that.

  But how did such different plants get the same name? For years writers have speculated that the tree’s needles resemble the plant’s leaves (they don’t), or that its foliage smells like the plant when crushed (it doesn’t). Evidently these guys didn’t get out in the woods much. The answer is deeper and more interesting – it takes us into the minds of the American colonists, and even further back to the Saxon occupiers of England more than a thousand years ago. The Anglo-Saxons’ name for the poisonous streamside weed was hemlike, a combination of hem” (a border or margin) and “lik” (a leafy plant) – literally a “leek” that grows on the “hem” of the land. The plant was notable for its wildness and its ill-will towards humans – it grew on wet wasteland unfit for human gardening, encroached on productive fields, and poisoned

their browsing cattle. Other plants were beautiful, blessed, obedient to the human hand, helpful in our God-given work to improve the Earth and make it a garden.  Other plants lived under our care and settled happily on our fields and forests. This hemlock was otherwise – a contrary creature growing in useless and accursed places, resistant to our care, deceiving our cattle, and contributing only death. The hemlock plant epitomized evil.

  The British newcomers to North America found the poison hemlock herb growing here; they called it what it was and regarded it the same way as had their forebears.  They found the hemlock tree problematic, though, because it didn’t grow in Europe. It was clearly a conifer, and back in Britain any conifer was loosely called a “fir,” sometimes even the indigenous Scots pine. But how to distinguish the new species from the true fir, a familiar timber tree that grew on both continents? To choose a name, the British did what they had done a few centuries earlier when England began importing Baltic wood for ships

and buildings. The fine tall timber of Latvia and Prussia was a “fir” of a variety unknown in Britain, and so they had called it “Prussian fir,” “pruce fir,” and eventually “spruce.” In like manner, this new “fir” of the Americas became “hemlock fir,” or “hemlock pine.

   They called the tree “hemlock” because it was accursed. Other conifers milled out as clean, clear boards and timbers; this new wood, compared to pine and spruce, was rough-textured, splintery, and tended to warp.  Other conifers grew on broad uplands and slopes where the human hand could be turned to productive lumbering and farming; this contrary tree seemed to prefer cold gullies, northern slopes, and terrains that resisted cultivation, wild marginal landscapes hostile to the civilizing mission of the farmer. In the world of trees it was a perverse sinner living in a godless place . . . just like the poison hemlock in the world of plants.

  Every kind of tree had its own moral character in those days. Oak, walnut, and chestnut were generous in feeding the farmer’s livestock, 

and strong and helpful for tool-making. Ash was beneficent in providing good firewood and straight-grained timber, and gave shade to cattle in the summer sun. The evergreen boughs of the “priestly” cedar served to remind humans of everlasting life (and so was planted in graveyards), but also brought welcome cash to the farmstead as homemade shingles went to market. Pine was king – straight grained, huge in diameter and height, growing everywhere, immensely valuable in the boards it provided. Trees like these represented virtues of dignity, strength, productiveness, religiosity, or courage, according to the temperament of the species. Think of phrases like “hearts of oak,” or “Old Hickory.”

  Always, though, Americans found those trees most beautiful that indicated the most fertile soil. In selecting a good farm, you would draw on the tree lore of several European nations, as well as locally acquired knowledge of tree habitat, to help you recognize good land for husbandry. The virtuous trees favored the same land humans did.

  In that world Hemlock was clearly evil. It chose for its home a terrain that resisted the divine will to cultivate Nature through human husbandry; its wood was uncooperative    
and resistant; it produced neither quality firewood nor good lumber nor useful fruits,nothing to aid its human neighbors. It was a moral poison … just like the herb known as hemlock.

¹ Plato. Phaedo, 117e-118a. In Plato, with an English translation by H.N.Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.

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Chris Marshall studies the historical ecology of land-human interactions on the Maine frontier. He is a retired Unity College professor.

The Hemlock Ecosystem Management Study is a multi-year study of how the loss of eastern hemlock trees affects ecosystems and people in Maine. The project is directed by four primary faculty members: Amy Arnett and Erika Latty from the Center for Biodiversity; and Kathleen Dunckel and Brent Bibles from the Center for Natural Resource Management and Protection with assistance from Unity College students.

Alison Vilag’s Bonfires

Alison Vilag

Summer’s existence is debatable in the middle of the Bering Sea yet, even there, we continue her quintessential gathering: bonfires. We have to be resourceful—the island’s only wood comes from waves of Russian origin—so we resort to burning pallets that once supported the cases of Alaskan Amber we’re drinking. Your s’mores may be constructed with carcinogenic marshmallows but it gets the job done. 

Thursday afternoon, Halibut Girl Liz pedaled to A-Dorm and shouted through the supersize peephole once plugged by a lock. This is our most reliable form of communication, since she fails at dialing phones and I fail at answering them. Her arrival was a welcome distraction from the brow-furrowing task of how to best cook salmon (having been raised vegetarian, this knowledge is not intuitive).

“You wanna go to the bar tonight?”

“Sure, I’ve got tomorrow off.”

“We’re gonna have a bonfire at Staff Quarters after; Boat Boys are in town!”

“You know I’ll be there.” 

I solved the salmon problem with a squeeze of lemon and a dash of basil, shooed the Aleut boys out of our work vehicles (“You can’t be in there until you’re tall enough to reach the pedals!”), scrambled up the rocks above town, next to the diesel tanks. There I sat with my mandolin, journal, and a beer, watching the halibut boats come in. It was idyllic—the first day I’d seen the sun for over a month, the first time it’d been warm enough (i.e., 50 degrees) to wear just a t-shirt. The evening was calm, the harbor placid, glassy, reflecting green from the hills. 

By the time Liz was done sampling halibut, though, it was after 10:00. Any Thursday night in town, the bar could be open from 9 p.m. till midnight, but there’s a minor technicality: if there are fewer than 10 people inside the bar at 10:00, it closes. When we arrived, there were four—the Boat Boys, halibut fishermen I’d met a fortnight ago at St. Paul’s dance hall.

Tonight at the bar, Andrew and Brandon were shooting pool and Gary was desperately trying to find weed. The bartender was trying to get rid of us and go home; I gestured with a Sierra Nevada I’d swiped from Andrew towards the curling smoke across the road.

“They’re having a bonfire. We should go over there. I’ve got booze.” 

That’s all it took; their boat was registered as a dry vessel and they’d been at sea for two weeks. We walked back towards A-Dorm, Gary pleading with everyone—even young mothers pushing strollers—to please find him some weed. On paper, St. Paul is damp. That is, you can purchase beer or wine, but not the hard stuff. 

These rules don’t prevent anyone from drinking liquor. Just because you can’t buy it means little. We stashed my jug of Alaska Outlaw in Liz’s green backpack and waited behind A-Dorm with the Boat Boys, now 3. (Gary, still weedless, fell victim to a streak of sentimentality and decided the moment was right to send emails to his ex-women.) 

The aroma of burning chemicals led us around the harbor to NMFS the palatial white National Marine Fisheries Service building known to us only by its acronym. Inside, I finally met the enigmatic Sean, who I knew only for his pre-dawn rising (commendable in the land of midnight sun) and skill at enraging male fur seals (unfortunate, since his job hinged on not enraging male fur seals). This remains all I know about Sean, for he shook my hand, informed me it was cold, and then retreated—presumably to bed.

We continued out to the burning pallets. Beers were cracked, my whiskey began making the rounds. Halibut Liz tried to convince Brandon, an Alaskan native, that he was actually Samoan; when she failed, she instead taught him South Pacific war cries. Bobette, queen of seal pups and classless jokes, got so drunk she couldn’t stand up. 

Halibut Liz was struck with an irrepressible urge to show me the inside of a rotting warehouse near NMFS Palace. She grabbed my hand and led me to its yawning entrance. The sagging metal exterior housed an abyss of broken glass and questionable smells—the perfect set for a horror movie, I thought. Halibut Liz and I both forgot that I was wearing sandals. I promptly cut my toe, although I couldn’t feel it.

“It’s fine, my tetanus shot is up-to-date,” I reassured her.

We continued into the dark, and Liz handed me a hard hat and told me to hold my breath. She then opened a long-unplugged chest freezer. Its contents were mostly unrecognizable, but we could discern a knee-high brew of soupy reindeer remains.   

We departed hastily and decided that, having shared that experience, we should pee together and further cement the 

moment. Back at the pallet fire, the whiskey jug was still going around. Anthony—one of the Boat Boys who I’d spoken to twice that night, both times in ridicule, followed me towards NMFS Palace. He staggered a beautiful serpentine.

“Couldn’t pass a sobriety test like that,” I prodded, waltzing ahead of him. Next thing I knew, two rough hands grabbed my hips firmly, pulled me backwards. I ripped Anthony’s hands off my body and spat, “I don’t think so. That’s not happening. Don’t fucking touch me.” 

I marched back to the fire, seething.

  “He fucking grabbed me,” I told them.

It was an effective way to kill a party that should’ve ended long ago. I walked back toward A-Dorm with Halibut Liz and an Anthony search party. 

My whiskey and Liz’s bike were also missing—seems he’d been grabbing everything he could get his hands on.

The next afternoon, Liz pedaled to A-dorm and yelled through the peephole. She’d found Anthony swimming half-naked in the boat’s live well and interrogated him. They found her bike in the road in front of the cannery, salvaged my half-gone jug from a patch of grass. Bobette had puked during seal harvest, Andrew looked like death. Brandon—the biggest of the crew—had passed out on the deck, leaving his boatmates with the challenge of carrying him to bed.

The paucity of wood on St. Paul may be a blessing; if it were easier to bonfire, the island might not be able to handle the consequences. Being resourceful, however, we tend to find a way. Perhaps that’s why St. Paul has banned liquor.

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Alison Világ is has been studying Environmental Writing and Media Studies at Unity College since 2014. When school isn’t in session, Világ moonlights as a professional birding guide; her work has carried her to an array of far-flung places (Philippines, Michigan, Alaska.) Follow more of Alison’s work through her blog, Peregrination, and Medium.

 

“Bonfire” by Deanna Witman modified from source  “Image Drifwood fire 2” by Mike Fernwood; Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

On Activism & Cement Eclipses

©Isaac Cordal

Taylor Brorby

On Activism

 

Activism, for better or worse, seems to be the buzzword of our time. Climate change, gender issues, political policy, GMOs, education—all are laced with an element of activism. As I sit at my desk, scratch words across the page, or type letters on a computer screen, I spend more time thinking about what it means to be an activist writer in the 21st century.
My own work revolves around hydraulic fracturing and energy. At this time we, as writers, face some of the most pressing matters in humanity’s history–increasing acidification of oceans, transgender issues, economic wage disparities, women’s reproductive rights,  topsoil erosion. The list can, and probably should, go on and on. In my own work, in my desire to speak from a sense of place, peppered with an element of longing, fury, and hope,

I wonder where writers can best serve to help shift the conversation.
Many of us know the work of prominent activists–Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—because their work is crucial in understanding not only the world we have left behind but also the world we live in. Without writers, we wouldn’t be able to see the pitfalls and foibles of our own actions.
In his 1996 book, The Book of Yaak—a lengthy defense of the Yaak Valley in northwest Montana—Rick Bass says, “Sometimes panic would spike up deep within me—electrical charges of fear registering off the scale—and I would want to abandon all art and spend all my time in advocacy. I still believed in art, but art seemed utterly

extravagant in the face of what was happening. If your home were burning, for instance, would you grab a bucket of water to pour on it, or would you step back and write a poem about it?” You, too, might often feel this when snapping open the newspaper or turning on your computer monitor.
Most days I feel the duality that Bass describes, scratching my head and scribbling in my notepad, wondering how best to convey the degradation of my most sacred place: the Badlands of western North Dakota. Over the past eight years of the Bakken oil boom,  the number of reported oil, saltwater, and chemical spills has topped 10,000; housing prices have skyrocketed; the drug trade continues to spread; sex trafficking runs rampant on the prairie; flares roar across the horizon. How do I put pen to paper to speak out against these horrible acts? Maybe the question is this: How do I speak out on behalf of everything I love?

 

Some days I spend time in bed,done-in by the magnitude of my self-perceived responsibility in writing about this matter, of trying to convey the beauty inherent in native prairie grasses—switchgrass , Indiangrass, or blue gamma—or the long-term shifting of silt, carrying the ancient dust of the Rocky Mountains, settling and forming the striated buttes and bluffs of western North Dakota. Even flora and fauna that I avoid, such as prickly pear cactus or the rattle of the venomous prairie rattlesnake, sneak into my prose. I feel this so deeply because it seems that amid the growing oil boom everything I love is withering and disappearing from my home.
But still I wonder where this writing can rest in our consciousness. So much of our world is divided between liberals and conservatives—

 

pro -choice and pro-life, large government and small government advocates, organic and GMO food. Where is the conversation that allows us to live in the muck of everyday life?
Activist writing too often lives in the political language of our day. Advocates with a pen create phrases that isolate and reprimand, forcing the reader to easily close the book, never reading another word. This should be recognized as a failure on our parts as writers. As Annie Dillard says, “We should mass half-dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.”
I try to wake up my neighbors by writing letters-to-the-editor, perhaps our last hope for a democratic state; I travel around the country, speaking at colleges and universities about the perils and pitfalls of fracking; and I 

join  activist organizations that promote a different economic system and way of being in the world. Much of this, though, feels hollow, repetitive, and, well, not very fun.
In her essay, “Winter Solstice at Moab Slough,” Terry Tempest Williams says, “I think of my own stream of desires, how cautious I have become with love. It is a vulnerable enterprise to feel deeply and I may not survive my affections…If I chose not to become attached to nouns–a person, place, or thing—then…when a known landscape is bought, sold, and developed, chained or grazed to a stubble…my heart cannot be broken because I never risked giving it away.” Perhaps that is what I am arguing for in a type of new activist writing—a sense of love.
For many of us, writers included, there is a responsibility to render in words the passions of our daily lives.

We pick the world up like a water-worn stone, turn it over, hold it up to the light, examine it from multiple perspectives, and then ask: How shall I describe this? I believe this is how many activist writers feel as well, only their words can feel entrenched, harsh, and grating. I want a writing that is fresh, is filled with zest and gusto;  a writing that runs towards its subject, rips open the curtains, and lets the sun shine in. Writing should snap open our eyes, crack open our brains to new perspectives. Activist writing should not so much tell us what to think or feel but instead activate our own inner sense of emotions, energize our own ability to be and do good for the world.
In a beautiful essay called “Doing Good Work Together,” William Kittredge writes, “We live in stories. What we are is stories. We do things

 because of what is called character, and our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in. Late in the night we listen to our own breathing in the dark and rework our stories. We do it again the next morning, and all day long, before the looking glass of ourselves, reinventing reasons for our lives. Other than such storytelling there is no reason to things.”
But the story in the wider culture has fallen stale, allowing us to live in a world of particularity—we can choose to only listen to Glenn Beck and Fox News or we can sequester ourselves to The Huffington Post and Derrick Jensen. Activist writers recognize that we largely live in stories that are unworkable. We structure and build our lives around stories that threaten the lives of not only other human beings but also the other creatures of this planet; we export jobs we’d rather not do here to countries that pay lower  

worker wages and relax regulations; we help perpetuate a system that pushes piggish politics by depleting forests, rivers, and oceans. We simply haven’t found a story that allows us to be good.
The root meaning of the word activist comes from the Latin word actus, which means “a doing, a driving force, or an impulse.” Herman Melville knew something about finding the driving force in writing: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
So in the 21st century I would like to propose that we reexamine what it means to be an activist, what it means to find a doing or maybe better yet, an obsession. Something where we, as writers, can apprentice ourselves, fingering our ways through the nooks and crannies of our minds, lunging towards phrases that create a patchwork of meaning for the reader  

and writer. Now perhaps more than ever Wordsworth’s words clang true: The world is too much with us.  And now seems the perfect time to sit, pen in hand, scrawling sentences that have the staying power like Muir’s, Shakespeare’s, Woolf’s, or Emerson’s—sentences that help reactivate our own reasons for writing in a world that seems to be more constricted by corporate greed, individual malaise, 

and political apathy. After all, in the busyness of daily lives, we need  a voice that slips in sideways and reminds us that stories are the bedrock of our minds and foundation to our beings.
As writers, we have a certain responsibility to put out the fire that burns our house. But after sorting and  
sifting through the charred remains, there is still the opportunity for expression, the opportunity to build with adjectives and verbs and nouns a sense of meaning and being in the world. Only after staring at the blank page day after day do we start to dig and find the gift that resides in every bit of verse and prose: The ability to change the way we see.

 

Isaac Cordal

Cement Eclipses

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Taylor Brorby is an award-winning essayist, and poet. His chapbook of poems, Ruin: Elegies from the Bakken is through Red Bird Chapbooks and his forthcoming anthology on fracking, Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America is through Ice Cube Press. He is the Reviews Editor for Orion Magazine.

Isaac Cordal is an installation artist whose project Cement Eclipses tackles issues of social importance. These tiny sculptures of people staged in various dire contexts provide thought and raise questions about what it means to be human today. The selected images were completed as part of a residency at The Arts Student League of New York in November 2015.

Ten Minutes in Balasana & Coastal Presence

Jesse Curran

Ten Minutes in Balasana

I came to hatha yoga to deal with stress and low self-esteem. I can be very sensitive, non-confrontational, and have a propensity toward vulnerability. I don’t like being the center of attention or being watched and I suffer from a negative ego. My own worst critic, I came to yoga to take care of me.

Humility, patience, sincerity,

I came to yoga because my dissertation director reminded me to remind myself that I was tall. My dissertation director is a poet. He taught me to read even the most figurative poetry literally. I took that word at face value. Tall. I needed to stop hunching forward and drawing inward. I needed to stand upright and draw the shoulder blades together. To lift my chest like a proud bird. I needed tadasana.

nonviolence, uprightness, purity,

I found a teacher I trusted. I find her beautiful. Her parents are Turkish and she was born in Germany. She is trilingual and her accent soothes me as she guides the class through the poses.From the first class, I felt safe in her foreignness and at home in her compassionate intelligence and disciplined intensity. I later learned that she was raised with Rumi. His teachings and poetry guided her family’s spiritual compass. I never felt judged in her presence. She is among my deepest reasons for gratitude.

devotion to one’s spiritual teacher,

I trust teachers who help their students feel grounded enough to take risks. I gravitate to teachers who do not criticize so much as take seriously the student’s intention to learn. An intention to learn is one of my strongest qualities.

constancy, self-control,

Yoga asana works viscerally. It works before language or conscious awareness. It works with organs and the in the muscle fibers. Internal, intuitive, integrative, integral. It starts at the level of the cells. It hovers between slowness and stillness. A cessation of speed. A quiet holding. Restoring, remaining, reminding.

freedom from the I-sense, insight

A point of fascination: this coming from body into mind. The literal into the metaphorical. An ongoing exploration into the subtle and interconnected layers of experience. A point of great mystery. Mystery accessed only through breath. Spiritus. The biological enmeshment of spirit.

into the evils of birth,

It gives intellectually. A teaching philosophy grounded in a beginner’s mind being ready to begin. A theory of poetry based on the breath. A sense of beauty that cradles the paradox of strength and surrender. A metaphysics that seeks to yoke the fragments born of fear.

sickness, old age, and death,

What I did not expect it to give me is the ability to consume less. To become less of a consumer. That it would offer a personal intervention into the pressing issues of sustainability. Instead, a producer of contentment. A receiver of rest. A professor of poetry. A teacher of tadasana.

detachment, absence of clinging

One’s relationship to hunger changes. Hunger. Literal. Figural. On one hand, the hunger easily mediated by banana or handful of nuts. On the other, the hunger of insatiable discontentment. The hunger of grasping. Both become tempered. Both are occurrences of body and mind that arise and fall away.

to son, wife, family, and home,

And so, needing less. And when needing, knowing what is needed. An apple. Chick peas and olive oil. Brown rice with vegetables. A pint of ice cream can last for two weeks. Just one or two spoons each evening. To be content with a glass of water. To be content.

an unshakeable equanimity

Hunger is no longer hunger. Appetite is no longer appetite. The letting go spirals: to shopping, to planning, to keeping busy. To bargain hunting and searching for fashion. Desire softens into washable cotton, wearing things into the fading and fraying.

in good fortune or in bad,

To be happy staying at home, waiting for the afternoon sun to enter into the break in the canopy of maples that shade the modest apartment. Less need, less worry. A permission to slow down. The world is only opening.

an unwavering devotion to me

Reexamining productivity. Adrift for too long in the suburban crucible of business and beauty. A world of running marathons and radical diets. How counterintuitive restorative yoga practice seems in a culture that is always working to burn calories. Ten minutes a day in child’s pose might do the same work. Hunger is no longer hunger.

above all things, an intense

Ten minutes in balasana.

love of solitude, distaste

Maybe these things happen to all people as they age. The frantic pace of youth cannot endure. Sneakers replace stilettos. Sweatpants replace fitted jeans. Maybe not. Maybe these choices come naturally to some. They didn’t so much for me. I saw enough television growing up to have been deeply affected. I felt enough competition and was exposed to enough images of manicured beauty. I felt impossibly adrift, and often ugly, amidst a reality that could never sustain me. I grew up on Long Island in the shadow of the world’s most photographed city. A city proud of itself for not sleeping.

for involvement in worldly affairs,

Excellent at putting pressure on myself to maintain excellence. A straight-A student. A winner of awards. Phi Beta Kappa. Summa cum laude. Looking like a Christmas tree on graduation, adorned with a dozen tassels. During graduate school, winning the big prizes in teaching and writing. An ongoing involvement in worldly affairs.

persistence in knowing the Self

Addicted to pleasing others. Addicted to being taken seriously. Addicted to validation. Addicted to recognition. Addicted to excellence.

and an awareness of the goal of knowing—

And now, ten minutes in balasana.

all this is called true knowledge;

Thank Shanti and Shiva for poetry and Italy. For the hippies and a plain natural beauty. Thank Whitman for the aroma of armpits and the body being part of the earth. Thank yoga asana for hunger no longer being hunger.

what differs from it is called ignorance.

The greatest terrors of the Anthropocene echo and manifest in the fears and cravings of my own mind. They are perpetuated by each and every action. The psychological dimensions of sustainability are just opening up. The old questions and values are surfacing again. It’s time for less consuming, to shed the old ignorance. It’s time to save and store energy. It’s time to accept responsibility.

I will teach you what should be known;

It’s time for the wisdom of the Tao and of the Gita. It’s time for a turning. Time to switch the televisions off and to let the smart phones break and remain broken. It’s time to turn away from the media and market. Sing songs for mindfulness and a revival of therapeutic philosophy.

knowing it, you are immortal;

And so, some more time in child’s pose. Legs up against the wall. A backbend as a reminder of release and a headstand to flood the anxious edge with warmth. I’ve learned I can have these things just about anywhere and they don’t have a carbon footprint. Balasana. As much child’s pose as I want. No one is stopping me. It’s here. It’s right now. The supreme reality—right here—within me.

It is the supreme reality,

A craving is no longer a craving. Rather, a resting. A breathing. The conservation

which transcends both being and nonbeing.1

of energy.

 

1 The italicized passage comes from Chapter 13 of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Bhagavad Gita (New York:Harmony Books, 2002).

 

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Jesse Curran holds a PhD in English from Stony Brook University and is an educator, gardener, and yoga instructor. Her poetry and essays have been published in numerous journals including, The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Journal of Sustainability Education, Green Humanities, Blueline, The Fourth River, About Place Journal, Lime Hawk, Spillway, and The Common Ground Review.

Rachel Eastman is a native of Maine, graduating with honors from Maine College of Art, where she worked with Johnnie Winona Ross, Ed Douglas, and Honour Mack. She later attended Vermont Studio Center, working with Wolf Kahn and Lois Dodd, as well as conducting independent studies in Paris, London, and The Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. In recent years, Eastman’s interest in Eastern Philosophy,and Romanticism have begun to merge with perennial influences Joseph Mallord William Turner, Frederic Church, and Mark Rothko as her passion for color and light meet the Maine coastline. Currently maintaining studios from the ocean’s edge in Biddeford, Maine,and from the majestic vista views of Evan’s Notch Chatham, in New Hampshire.

A Look at Cecco d’Ascoli’s Book of Beasts

Professor Diane Murphy

Cecco d’Ascoli’s Book of Beasts

The medieval bestiary, literally a “book of beasts,” is a collection of animal lore that combines observations about the natural world with moral lessons.  Bestiaries form part of a literary tradition that can be traced back to earlier genres such as Aesop’s fables.  The concept that nature provides us with models for ethical behavior was probably transmitted orally, however, through proverbs and stories told to children. In the Middle Ages, the descriptions of fauna, both real and mythical, were often rhymed and accompanied by whimsical illustrations that continue to fascinate audiences of all ages. 

Manuscripts were expensive in the period during which they had to be painstakingly copied by hand. The popularity of bestiaries is attested by the fact that almost every noble family and religious institution in Europe possessed one in their private libraries. With the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, books could be mass produced, but they were still considered luxury items.  Even a famous artist like Leonardo da Vinci could afford only a modest collection of approximately forty titles.  The list for his library includes a reference to Cecco d’Ascoli, author of the Acerba, which contains a bestiary section that some scholars believe was used as the source for Da Vinci’s own version. 

Ironically, neither Da Vinci nor anyone else should have owned a copy of the Acerba, which was banned by papal decree when Cecco was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1327.  It seems likely that people in the late Middle Ages, like people today, were attracted by the “off limits” status of the book, which circulated widely in clandestine copies after the author’s death.  Cecco’s reputation as a necromancer who disseminated the secrets of black magic to his students has little to do with the actual contents of the Acerba, but there are indications in the text that the astrologer may have prudently decided to exercise a bit of self-censorship while he was under arrest. 

Some manuscripts of Cecco’s unfinished encyclopedic poem use the title L’Acerba Età, which can be translated as The Bitter Age. In fact, it’s tempting to interpret many of the messages contained in the book as references to the poet’s own state of mind while attempting to complete his work, knowing that time was running out. The samples from the bestiary included here contain poignant lines that evoke the anguish of a man facing an unjust death sentence ordered by the Inquisition. More information about the historical period during which Cecco lived, which was indeed a “bitter age,” can be found in the English translation available as a digital text through Capponi Editore. 

 

The Phoenix

Love is like the phoenix in this way:
when it feels that its vitality is waning,
it’s born again. Listen to this marvel!
The phoenix, found in eastern deserts,
will beat its wings against the heat
until the motion ignites hot flames.

Then, I tell you, it’s reduced to ashes.
But by means of the moon’s influence,
little by little the phoenix returns to life,
rising from the ashes to its former state.
There’s never more than one in the world,
yet its range expands throughout the East.

In these dark times, anyone facing death
at the hands of deluded, rapacious men
should light desire’s flame in his heart.
As he burns, he’ll sing a righteous song.
Defeating ignorance with fervent faith,
he’ll return to the world via Paradise.

 

Tiger_Page

The Tiger

The tiger runs as swiftly as an arrow,
somewhat like its cousin the panther.
It’s always worried about its young.
Hunters use mirrors to cast images
of the cubs, so that the parent tiger,
seeing the likeness, won’t chase them.

Gazing into the mirrors, it believes
that its cubs are safe; then the hunter
flees, quickly getting beyond reach.
When the tiger realizes that it’s been
fooled by shadows, its mind succumbs
to grief and it roars in pain and sorrow.

Thus our enemy the devil deceives us,
using the seductive mirror of illusion
as a trap to strip wisdom from our souls.
How frightening it is to me when I think
of how little time we have on this earth,
and how rapidly our lives can slip away.

The span of a human life flows like water,
and soon we must leave this world behind.

The Crocodile

The crocodile spends the winter in water
and the summer on land, growing rapidly.
Its worst enemy is a type of crested fish.
The upper jaw of the crocodile moves,
while the lower mandible remains still.
Females, in heat, bury eggs in the earth.

Crocodiles never emerge during winter,
but are revived by mild spring weather,
when young plants bolster their strength.
They’ll kill a man as soon as they see him,
but once he dies, the beast begins to cry,
seeming to mourn, with piteous sobbing.

Then, having wept, it chews and devours
the human flesh. If a serpent crawls into
its mouth while the crocodile is sleeping,
it destroys the enemy’s heart and entrails,
not stopping until it dies an agonizing death
that almost seems like an act of vengeance.

Hypocrites and devious men do this.
Their hearts delight in inflicting pain,
while their faces retain a merciful look.
Any little thing seems to make them cry.
They’re untrustworthy and malicious:
watch out, and don’t fall for their traps!

 

Crocodile

 

The Oyster

The oyster opens its shell completely
when the moon is full: seeing this,
the crab starts planning its next meal.
It places a stone or a branch inside,
so that the oyster loses its safe cover.
In this way, the crab traps its victim.

Similarly, a man who opens his mouth,
revealing his secrets to a false traitor,
will feel the wound deep in his heart.
Words can be a matter of life and death.
A wise man will always remain silent
in the midst of wicked acquaintances.

If you want to live long, remember:
you’ll never be damned for silence.

Oyster_page

Oyster_Detail

The Viper

The female viper is a poisonous snake
that bears her young with great effort
and dies painfully while giving birth.
Once pregnant, she kills her mate
and decapitates him with her teeth,
feeling her heart betrayed by love.

The young snakes are born by tearing
through her side, according to nature,
which rules the instincts of all beasts.
Because they’re full of venom, vipers
sleep in caverns during the cold season:
spring weather brings them out in force.

Their blind eyes can be cured with fennel.
Before engaging in the act of copulation,
the female viper regurgitates her venom;
as soon as her desire has been achieved,
she reabsorbs it and goes on her way,
since poison is essential to their lives.

Some men act this way when they confess,
regurgitating their sins and seeming contrite:
they don’t stop sinning in their hearts, though.
They aren’t truly repentant, even if it seems
they’ve changed, since they always return,
shamefaced, to their previous wicked ways.

*All images courtesy of the British Library, Catalog of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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Diane Murphy earned her BA at Brown University and her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst in Comparative Literature, with an emphasis on medieval studies.  She is currently a Professor of Humanities at Unity College, where she has taught literature, composition and general education courses since 1997.  For the past ten years, she has conducted research on Cecco d’Ascoli, author of the Acerba, and has recently published a full translation of the poem, available as a digital edition. 

Crow

Karen MacDonald, "UTTERANCE" 2013;

Alison Hawthorne Deming

 

CROW

Crows are ubiquitous in the Connecticut hills and fields, the landscape of my childhood.  Their feathers shine in sunlight like obsidian.  Over a cornfield, a flock of crows is an elegance.  Gleaning grubs  from a fallow field, it is a society of peasants.  Crows fly with patience, their flapping never belabored.  Sometimes they glide. They make their own clothing, feathers grown from their skin, every keratinous cell of the calamus, every black silk fiber of the vane, made by the crow, made thoughtlessly and without effort.  There is a hollow place in the quill, a space used by veins to supply nutrients while the feather is alive and growing.  But the feathers are dead when the crow wears them, a head dress, wing dress, body dress,

basic black, and bearing the lovely sheen of life.  For forty million years the iridescence of bird feathers has graced the earth.
But it was the sound of crows that I loved as a child.  Ca-aw.  Ca-aw.  The throaty, emphatic call announced their presence.  It rose from cedar trees on the edge of the yard, from that place in the sky just out of sight above the hickory tree or behind the house, it entered the open window of the school bus or the chaotic playground during recess at school.  The caws announced some work to be done, some passage to be flown, some sight to be seen, some news to be shared.  What was it that made them call like that from the air as they passed on their way?  Ca-aw.  The syllable bends slightly

downward at the end, almost like the Doppler effect of a passing train.  It was a sound I knew well and a voice that made me feel the world was right, that some lives beyond my life were going about their business, being with their being, and I felt suddenly larger than my small self.  Even now remembering it, I feel as if I am opening the door and stepping outside into the wonder of things.  Crows were always a surprise and never a menace to me.
My father did not like crows.
  He spent many hours working in his vegetable garden.  It was his solace.  He started corn from seed, germinating Golden Bantam stock in Dixie cups, then transplanting it into hills he had hoed up in the rocky soil.  No sooner

had he tamped the seedlings into the ground, than the crows would fly in to pluck up the tender greens.  I saw him storm out of the house with his shotgun many times to teach them a lesson.  I’m sure he failed.  I was never shocked to see his rage.  I empathized with that feeling of helplessness that riled him, though I did not share his hatred of crows.
A group of crows is called a “murder.”
  It lines up in a festive parade of animal names: flock of sheep, herd of horses, pack of wolves, parliament of owls, cauldron of hawks, bouquet of pheasants, whiteness of swans, murmuration of starlings, gaggle of geese, improbability of shearwaters, newspaper syndicate of gannets, charm of finches, raft of ducks, exaltation of larks, unkindness of ravens.  The poor corvids scored low in the judging.
Murder as a group name for crows goes back at least to the 1400s in England.
  The American Society of Crows and Ravens suggests the origin of the name might be in the folk legend that crows, in their black robes, hold tribunals to judge and punish members of their flock exercising bad behavior.

If found guilty, the crow would be killed by the flock.  This notion, the society claims, may be based on observations that a crow will occasionally kill a dying crow that doesn’t belong in their territory or will feed on a dead crow.  In medieval times, crows scavenged human remains at gravesides, battlefields, and execution sites
Crows are smart.
  Crows use tools.  They adapt to city life.  They rival primates in cognitive ability.  In the wild, New Caledonia crows will use a twig to probe in a tree trunk for grubs.  In captivity, two crows sharing an enclosure learned to retrieve bits of pig heart, their favorite food, from a bucket.  The male chose the hooked wire, which did the job well, so the female took the straight wire and bent it into a hook, using it to lift the small bucket of food from a vertical pipe. She had no other crows to model the behavior, little training with pliable objects, and very limited experience with wire. Such skill at turning a found object into a tool is rare among animals. Chimpanzees presented with a similar task—using a length of pipe

to pass through a hole to retrieve an apple—failed until they were coached.
Since 1990 Japanese crows have been observed using cars to crack walnuts.
  The trees grow beside a street on a university campus.  The bird drop the nut into traffic and when it’s cracked, fly down to retrieve the meat.  Because traffic can be heavy on campus, the retrieval can be challenging.  So the crows have learned to drop the nuts onto crosswalks.  Crows and humans line up and wait on the sidewalk. When the cars stop, the bird hops into the street and safely retrieves the snack.  Crows in California have been seen using the crosswalk technique. The birds have long known how to drop clams onto rocks to break their shells.  But this behavior requires inferential thinking: if I drop this nut here, it will be cracked open by the passing cars.
Crows also demonstrate compassion and companionship.
  Kevin McGowan, working with the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory, has studied crows for over twenty years. The group he has tagged and studied suffered an epidemic of West Nile

virus that killed one-third of the population in 2002; the following year, another third were lost to the virus.  Crows are very social.  They roost in murders that can range from one-hundred individuals to millions.  Crows have twenty-five calls.  The call for distress brings other crows.  Crows develop a complex system of helpers. They will defend unrelated crows.  One crow will wait in a tree watching out for predators while others forage, making a small personal sacrifice for the good of the flock.  Crows in the wild live fifteen to twenty years.  They mate for life.
During the West Nile epidemic, when one crow lost a partner it stayed with the larger family of eight or so birds.
  Widowed adults moved in with their parents.  Even with plenty of open territory in which to go off and mate anew, they chose to stay and care for siblings.  When only two sisters were left, they joined neighbors and helped raise their young.  Researcher Anne Clark reported that the crows that had suffered big losses to their community did not move right away into the opened territory.  It was as if they

didn’t know who owned it anymore or they simply didn’t want to go back to the place of so much dying.  She called it the “haunted house” effect.
During the epidemic, when a crow was sick and dying its mate would sit beside it until the end.
  If the dying bird had no mate, another member of its blended family would perch by its side.  The researchers concluded that no crow dies alone.  Far from being murderers, a flock crows might more aptly be called a caretaking of crows.

 

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“Crow” from Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014).  Copyright © 2014 by Alison Hawthorne Deming. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. www.milkweed.org.

Alison Hawthorne Deming‘s most recent book is Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed, 2014). She is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona.  She lives in Tucson and Grand Manan, New Brunswick.

Wild Fare

 

Andrew Lawler

WILD FARE

Only later, after lunch, did I see the snakes. They were thick as ocean-liner hawsers, ominously speckled and striped, and coiled in a tea-colored pickling juice in 2-foot-high jars on the tall counter at a roadside eatery in rural Vietnam. My plan for a quick bite had morphed into a plastic table covered with a dozen del icious dishes, but snake apparently was reserved for a more special occasion. Wild or tame, hooved or winged, root or mammal, land-living or water-loving, almost anything living here can be pickled, boi led, steamed, or fried.

The Vietnamese take Woody Allen’s famous saying about nature—“It’s like an enormous restaurant”—to lengths unimagined by finicky Westerners like me who think it edgy to eat venison. There are dog farms here. Hanoi bistros special ize in snake blood-and-bi le cocktails. At an open-air market in a small town, women sell fly-laden water buffalo skins good for a meal, though exactly how to prepare them gets lost in translation. Nearby, a woman with scissors expertly snips open little snow-white silkworm cocoons, setting aside the wriggling electric-green worms for a customer’s stir-fry dinner. In the next row, an energetic egg vendor proudly shows off her most expensive product: fertilized duck eggs prized for their fetal crunch.

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INDENT
THIS IS NOT YOUR NATURE OF HENRY DAVID Thoreau or John Muir, a transcendental retreat or a sacred park behind a carefully protected border. This is nature as take out. The forest is home to what can’t grow or live on the farm—herbs, mushrooms, fresh-water crabs, and boar. The distinction between wild and domesticated is hard to maintain in a pot on the stove. In Vietnam, nature is a great larder against hunger as well as a medicine chest for what ails. Some things might be poisonous and others can heal, but nothing is disgusting.Order chicken, and you get, well, chicken. It comes sliced in a neat medallion with a circle of skin and bone encasing fat and  
gristle and, finally, almost as an afterthought, meat. And the cooked comb is there for you to pick up with your chopsticks—if you dare.

Like soul food or French country cooking, Vietnamese cuisine approaches nature’s heady variety with a gusto that is both refreshing and intimidating. I grew up in a world where the sound of the can opener’s metallic saw heralded dinner. Animals were neatly corralled into three kinds: the meat on our plate, those born free in the wild, and the pets we loved. We ate only the first. Our deer-hunting neighbors, with their guns and hounds and camouflage, were faintly alarming.Even now, I like my snakes far away, my dog on the rug, and my

chicken lean, boneless, and combless.

In Vietnam, even chicken is not just chicken. Every village seems to have its own peculiar combination of varieties, each with its own name and history. At one meal I was served three distinctive breeds, identically prepared but quite different in texture and taste. One was honey-colored, another a metallic grey, and the third black—black bones, blood, and even its comb. All were, to my taste buds raised on predictable and bland KFC, oily and hard to chew. I found the darker the flesh the less palatable the meat. This was chicken that didn’t taste like chicken.

Such distinctions are sources of deep

 

pride. In a small settlement outside Hanoi, Nguyen Dong Chung preserves a breed called the Ho, a tall ungainly bird with dark feathers, red skin, and huge feet. Chung is slight with a shy smile. Over tea in his sitting room next to the family’s ancestor altar late one morning, he recalled that the finest pair was once presented to the king and queen at Chinese New Year’s. Villagers would make a Ho chicken dinner offering at their home altar on special occasions, then enjoy the tasty meat. They also would train the huge roosters to fight one another; cockfighting is still the favorite spectator sport of rural South Asia.

Today, the Ho is still prized. A single egg can net $3, twenty times the price of a regular hen’s ovum, and a rooster can sell for a hefty $150. A French company, Chung said casually, is considering turning the Ho into a line of broilers. Down the street, a friend has Ho fighting cocks in wicker baskets for sale. Overall it’s a profitable business that employs many of the villagers, and people come from all over the Hanoi area to place their orders.But Chung’s thin face was radiant with old-fashioned devotion, not nouveau-riche avarice, as he  

showed me his birds. His tone was reverent, almost grave. “My grandfather and his grandfather raised Ho. We are proud of them. We think they are very important.”

Animals in this country’s shrinking wilderness, however, lack such dedicated advocates. The last wild Java rhino in Vietnam was downed in 2011, with only its horn—rumored to cure cancer—removed by hunters. The gaur, the world’s largest species of wild cattle, is numbered only in the hundreds. And the mysterious saola, also called the Asian unicorn, hangs on in small numbers in high mountains. The World Wildlife Fund ranks Vietnam first in wildlife crime, and its huge neighbor China is the world’s largest market for wild animal parts. Combine that with Vietnam’s culinary gusto and a population that has nearly tripled in a half century—one which will soon surpass 100 million—and there’s less and less time to restock the forest larder.

Further complicating the matter is the issue of what species command attention. You won’t find, for instance, an obscure wild bird called the red  

jungle fowl on the extensive list of Vietnam’s endangered species. Unremarked by mammal-fixated conservationists, this creature is slowly and inexorably vanishing from its South Asian home. It’s as if a family suddenly took in several teenagers who raid the fridge with impunity.It’s a stealth extinction. Unmourned, the fowl is losing not only its habitat but also its very genes. And the unwitting collaborator in this quiet extermination is its very own close cousin and famous descendant, the domesticated chicken.

Given the environmental problems this planet faces, kvetching about the loss of the wild chicken might seem, at best, ludicrous. There are still plenty of red jungle fowl—certainly tens of thousands—in comparison with, say, Bengal tigers. And, after all, there are more chickens on Earth than any other bird: 18.5 billion, give or take a hundred million or so. They crow the dawn in Polynesia, cluck around frosty Siberian villages, and annoy neighbors in Brooklyn. They are everywhere. And they are survivors. After the apocalypse, the ragged remnants of the human race will find clucking hens pecking nonchalantly through the rubble.

 

So what does it matter if its wild cousin gets the axe?

There’s a sensible-shoes response: chickens are now humanity’s largest single source of protein. In the land of the hamburger, Americans today eat a third more chicken than beef. And in rapidly developing countries like Vietnam, the bird also rules the culinary roost. As people flock to cities, cheap eggs and white meat are essential staples that only grab headlines in their absence. When avian flu wiped out 22 million chickens in Mexico last summer, egg prices tripled in the capital, and angry protestors took to the streets, shaking the new government. In Iran, the price of chicken is rising out of the reach of most consumers, prompting the nation’s top police chief to recommend a ban on televising people eating chicken. He worries that such provocative images might spark dissent.

Given that the chicken is arguably our most important animal companion, preserving its wild cousin seems prudent. The red jungle fowl’s particular gene bank, only dimly understood now, could prove a  

treasure trove for future breeders since it lacks the genetic tinkering we’ve done with the domestic version over five millennia. All that tinkering produced hundreds of chicken varieties like the Ho. But local breeds are diminishing in our global economy. Today, a half dozen of these, controlled by a smaller number of corporations, account for more than 80% of the world’s population. The possibility of mass disease sweeping through nearly identical flocks is a real and present threat, and one sure to grow in the future. Chicken corporations claim not to be worried. But keeping the wild bird in reserve would seem wise and judicious nevertheless. 

And, as I learned on my visit to Vietnam’s rugged northwest, it is easier said than done.

On a humid late November afternoon in a small town in northwestern Vietnam, I saw my first red jungle fowl. I didn’t need binoculars. It was in the back of a drab-green Russian jeep. The flame- and sea-colored bird nearly  glowed in the small wire cage. Its beady black eyes, sleek body and long black tail reminded me of a

pheasant. With its red comb and wattles, however, the bird would not have been out of place in the fancy-breed chicken shed of a county fair. But unlike the domesticated bird, this fowl avoids people, prefers the deep forest, and flies.

I came upon the red jungle fowl while in the company of Chinese geneticist Jianlin Han, Vietnamese biologist-cum-gourmand Le Thi Thuy, and a young driver with an eclectic mix of heartfelt socialist songs and thumping disco. After a six-hour drive from Hanoi, where every one of the 3 million inhabitants plays chicken on a motorbike, we rolled into a provincial town set among the rice fields of a wide valley bracketed by strange stony mountains.

In a crumbling French colonial building, we plotted our campaign. Marx and Lenin looked sternly from their frames as former enemies—Vietnamese, Chinese, and American—hunched over a map together.Our goal was to hike into promising and remote forest areas to spot and photograph the bird in the wild.

 

The fowl is notoriously skittish, and tracking it is no simple matter. To improve our chances, the leader had already procured a male red jungle fowl that now sat in the jeep: bait for his wild brethren. We drove away as schoolchildren next door sang a song of socialist paradise.

The sun already was sliding into a gauzy western haze as we hugged the edge of the wide valley, green with ripe rice, framed by fantastically pointed and domed peaks. The fields looked ancient, but are in fact carefully engineered to move water imperceptibly. The resulting product is famed across the country for its sublime flavor. At first glance, this scene seemed one of eminent sustainability. But between field and peaks, the dark thick forest that serves as prime red jungle fowl territory was pocked by ugly red gullies and marked by the pervasive light-green shade of corn plants. The slope of the fields here is breathtakingly steep:

 Iowa on an impossible slant. Entire mountainsides are given over to this hand-planted cultivation. The resulting corn feeds the chickens and pigs that feed the expanding appetite of the cities. Demand for chicken is steadily destroying the red jungle fowl’s habitat.

Turning off the paved road, we forded a river, bumped through a pretty village of wooden houses on stilts full of children and chickens, and worked our way up a slippery track, past lumbering carts of rice and tall dignified Black Thay women in black headdresses with bright needlework, who swooped along on shiny motorbikes. One simultaneously clutched a handlebar and a dead chicken. 

Along the way, after a flurry of cell calls, we picked up our guide, Lo Van Huong, a stocky young Black Thay villager. He was wearing camouflage and seemed nonchalant about our odd little expedition. A few minutes later, high in the foothills, we parked in

mud and walked into an unexpected paradise. Stone cliffs dotted with twisted trees loomed high above a little saucer-shaped valley discharging a rocky stream that made a tumble of a little waterfall. A lone farmer in a conical hat harvested rice in a sea of green amidst a meander of raised dirt paths. The scene had the cozy feel of an English meadow bordered with hedgerows or an Italian vineyard town—a beauty shaped slowly and methodically by innumerable generations of farmers.

While I paused to savor the moment, Huong was already heading up the mountain at a distressingly fast clip, the cage with the jungle fowl strapped to his back. I hurried after, my foolish loafers sucking into the red goo on the path. Eventually we reached mossy scree as a thorn caught the center of my forehead. The brambles closed around my legs. The other members of our party, less invested in the hunt, turned back.

Just below the mountain’s crest, we halted at a rocky stream. Mosquitoes whirred; my heart pounded. In the distance, motorbikes honked. The guide set the fowl’s cage on the ground, and we hid separately, some distance away in a thicket. But the caged bird refused to crow, the tropical night came on fast, and my urban fidgeting ensured that no sane wild creature would come within a hundred yards of our position. I felt like the bumpkin unwrapping candy in a packed theater.

After a time, Huong reappeared. Too polite to roll his eyes, he instead began walking back down the mountain. I had no choice but to follow, sensing—as I did—the disdain of Abel for Cain. The caged bird was as silent as ever.

Later, I spent a restless night in the world’s loudest hotel room: outside my window, every motorcycle and truck blew its horn as it sped down the empty town, and every cock then decided it must crow.

As the sun rose, we—Huong, the driver, and I—were already beyond the little saucer paradise, climbing again in search of our elusive red jungle fowl. Skirting rocky outcrops near the summit, Huong put down the cage, quickly built a screen of vegetation for us to hide behind, then vanished.

The driver and I crouched down. Through an opening in the cage, I could see the trapped bird standing erect but remaining still. The mosquitoes swarmed. The driver idly texted on two cell phones. Truck horns blared from the distant road. A long half hour passed. Then the caged bird suddenly shook its feathers, raised its head, and let loose a surprisingly deep noise—a slightly more sober and serious sound than a domestic cockle doodle doo. A moment later, not far above our perch, another wild cock answered. Then another on a neighboring ridge. Peculiar, this most domesticated of sounds piercing the dense forest.

But as soon as it began, our fowl slumped back into a reticence that lasted another half hour. The sun was rising fast, and our chances of actually spotting a wild bird were rapidly diminishing. Some time later, Huong reappeared without making a noise. We picked our way past boulders and clung to vines as we worked our way back down to the mud and rice fields and motorbikes. By now, seeing a red jungle fowl in the wild had lost its shine. What I really wanted was to talk with people who know the bird.

Han suggested a farm an hour’s drive to the northwest. The owner greeted him with a wide grin. Han oversees a United Nations project to help South Asian farmers breed better chickens, but he’s also fascinated by the bird’s history. Since the days of Darwin’s grandfather, biologists have argued about where and when and how the chicken was domesticated. That debate remains a hot topic in the little world of specialists.

 

For his part, Han is gathering genetic samples of the fowl to shed light on the remarkable transformation of a shy wild bird into our most critical animal protein.

In the farm’s main courtyard, we drank tea and ate sweet potatoes as a 3-year-old red jungle fowl watched us warily from a cage hanging in a nearby tree. Nguyen Quir Tuan, a lean Hmong worker who has cared for such fowl for more than 40 years, said the bird came from high in the mountains, beyond the reach of humans and domesticated chickens. Opening the cage and grabbing the reluctant bird by its feet so as to avoid its razor-sharp spurs, he offered us a close-up view.

“There are fewer now because the trees are being cut and they are being hunted,” he said matter of factly, looking down at the now-calm bird.

Tuan then gestured to the fields beyond. Years ago, he recalled, when tigers were still prevalent, the birds inhabited even this valley.

But now, he added, the wild places are dwindling to a few islands at high elevations.

Tuan, like many Vietnamese villagers I met, is a little awed by the bird. It is smart, he said, and avoids traps. If captured, it more often than not dies, refusing to eat the rice grains that domestic chickens adore. Or it might break its neck rushing to the other side of a cage if a human enters. It is small, but tough enough to beat a much larger domesticated rooster in a fight. And it can fly. As we chatted, a flock of hybrid birds—fowl crossed with Egyptian Fayoumi—effortlessly flapped into the top of a nearby tree and settled down for the night, as fully wild ones do in the forest.

At house after house in the area, we encountered a single red jungle fowl either tied to a string or living in a cage. Though the birds surely are kept for cockfighting or for sale, their owners all said they take particular delight in the sound of the fowl, which they described as fuller and richer than the domesticated kind that pecking away outside. The wild rooster’s crow seems to cast a particular spell on these practical Vietnamese farmers.

Perhaps because it is illegal to hunt and trap the bird—one woman explained her husband just happened to find a red jungle fowl egg while looking for mushrooms, and brought it home to hatch—people at first were reluctant to discuss its gastronomic qualities. Finally, though, one village chief confessed: “The meat is very good—dark and juicy. There is nothing that tastes so wonderful.” He admitted he eats about 20 a year.

At the small-town market, I asked the egg vendor if she carried red jungle fowl eggs. She hopped up and hovered boldly over my notebook. I gave her my pen, and she scribbled down a cell phone number. “No eggs, but call and order a fowl,” she said. I could expect to pay about $100.

Whether these birds truly are wild, however, is no longer an easy question to answer. That night, I emailed two American biologists pictures of the red jungle fowl I’d encountered, including Tuan’s bird—supposedly from a remote area. The scientists, however, saw subtle signs—invisible to me—that made them suspect the fowl are all hybrids. What’s more, they said, if any such birds are calm and eating grain, their behavior may be a tip off to their mixed nature.

Can a fowl that acts like a chicken truly still be called a red jungle fowl? There’s little doubt that in the past century, with the human population explosion, better roads, and growing demand for food, more regular contact has been established between the chicken and the red jungle fowl.

And biologists have noted that a dramatic plumage once unique to the wild rooster—feathers that showed up only briefly when it moulted annually—have vanished since the 19th century.

Ornithologists have long argued over exactly what traits define the wild variety. Genetics seemed poised to provide another less subjective line of evidence in 2004 when the chicken, as befitting its status, was the first domesticated animal to be sequenced. But nearly a decade later, scientists still don’t have a clear baseline to compare the red jungle fowl with its fellow subspecies. Untangling the genes associated with wild versus domesticate turns out to be far more difficult than anticipated. Wild nature and human nurture are deeply intertwined within today’s common chicken. It may prove impossible to determine if there are any truly wild red jungle fowl left. By then, they may well be extinct.

It is hard, of course, to compete with drowning polar bears and hornless dead rhinos. And a bird that looks and sounds so much like its 

barnyard cousin must contend with familiarity breeding contempt. Chickens root around in the soil; they rush about. And while they may dream of flying, they cannot soar. They are like us: ordinary, noisy, and busy creatures tied to the ground. Humans and chickens are like the old married couple that comes to resemble one another.

That may be the very reason, the non-sensible-shoes reason, to save what we can of the red jungle fowl—or at least to acknowledge its passing. Its presence reminds us that civilization is not a sudden creation, a Genesis-like gift or a free pass for domination. Civilization rests on the complicated web of relationships that we’ve built with plants and animals, the grueling negotiated work of generations with the thing we call nature. That may be why the red jungle fowl’s crow appeals so strongly to Vietnamese villagers already surrounded by chickens. It’s the wildness that we want to keep in our homes, close to our hearts: tied or caged perhaps, but a happy reminder that our dominion has its limits.

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Andrew Lawler  is a freelance writer who has written more than a thousand articles for a dozen different magazines on topics ranging from asteroids to zebrafish and places ranging from Japan to Iran to Sudan. He is a contributing writer for Science Magazine, the world’s largest scientific weekly, and a contributing editor for Archaeology Magazine. He has written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discover, Columbia Journalism Review, The Sun, Orion, Astronomy, Body & Soul, Yoga International, and several European newspapers.

Sunset Ridge

Mark Kelly, X Ray, smoke on paper

 

Alina O’Donnell
Sunset Ridge

IN SUNSET RIDGE, THE NEIGHBORHOOD
where I grew up, there wasn’t much to do. It wasn’t within walking distance to a park, and no one I knew had a pool. “The field” was where my friends and I spent stifling summer afternoons practicing cartwheels and running through sprinklers. My house was right next to the field, which meant that all of the neighborhood kids came to my house to swing on the swing set and take breaks for popsicles. When darkness fell we’d run home with gummy fingers and gleaming foreheads to gather flashlights and jars for capturing fireflies. When I ran away from home when I was four years old, I packed a suitcase filled with plastic play food, my ballet costume, and a toothbrush, then sat in the middle of the field until my parents retrieved me. Looking back, it is hard to conceive that the same docile earth my friends and I plucked flowers from was laden with 12 inches of arsenic. My parents bought the house that abutted this field in 1990. Their first, it was a brick, single-family home, less than a year old and located in Burlington, NJ. It had been a model home, an exhibit for interested buyers. It had a sprawling backyard, large enough to accommodate a big, wooden swing set, walk-through garden, and a brick patio, and still have room for lawn parties. We were the last house of the cul-de-sac, so our property was fenced by a thicket of pine and maple trees, which, in autumn, supplied great leaf piles for jumping into. Historically, Burlington County, New Jersey, had been one of the state’s foremost agricultural counties. In 1940, Burlington County had 7,600 fruit orchards. By 1992, the year we moved in, that number had been whittled down to 745. And it wasn’t just the orchards that vanished. It seemed that each year
that passed, another row of the pine and maple trees framing my house was supplanted by cookie-cutter houses. When I looked out my bedroom window, I no longer saw thick forest, but a house that was virtually a clone of my own and a meager bulwark of trees my father planted to define our property line. These transformations didn’t just take place within the confines of our neighborhood. The orchards, farms, and parks we had passed on my bus ride to school had been trampled by a stampede of convenience stores and fast food restaurants: Wawas, Checkers, and 7-Elevens. It wasn’t long before the name “Sunset Ridge” was steeped in irony, as the housing development left so little of nature intact. My family became distraught over the devastation of our charming, pastoral community. Yet, it wasn’t this residential development that ushered the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection into our backyard in 1996. Almost two years earlier, the NJDEP launched an investigation of soil contamination in two housing developments in Burlington County as part of the lands’ sale to a new company. One of these developments was Sunset Ridge. The tests unearthed elevated levels of arsenic, lead, DDT, and DDT byproducts in 73 properties throughout Burlington Township. Both my property and the field beside it were rife with these chemicals. One contaminate found was dieldrin, an intensely toxic insecticide that was banned in 1986. The levels of dieldrin found were up to 14 times higher than the NJDEP mandated limits. By state law, the DEP was not required to inform the public, and chose not to. When the company selling the tract informed the DEP of its contamination in 1994, the two

Cole Caswell, Image 1

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Alina O’Donnell is a junior at the University of Delaware, where she is majoring in English and Environmental Studies. Aside from contributing to the Review newspaper and Deconstruction magazine, Alina has worked as a tutor at her university’s writing center since her sophomore year. She has also been interning with Community Energy Inc., a developer and marketer of renewable energy, for the past year. When she graduates next May, Alina hopes to marry her two passions and work as an environmental reporter.