Kristin Keane / Harris Fogel
I am not sure who made the Grand Canyon so wild—it is hot, petrified, ready to bake you alive. In summer, the air strangulates, suffocates, smothers. The way it takes you by the neck, you must dip your entire face—your whole body, even—into the Colorado River for relief, the residue evaporating from your skin as quickly as air releases from a punctured balloon. Dehydration comes regularly and the canyon takes lives that way. Sixty-five to be exact, lifeless and seized on the switchbacks off the rim. Some come for the beauty, but usually it is for the risk.
Once a man waited out the heat by resting, foregoing the hike down towards the river because of fatigue. When his friends returned, they found him dead. I would like to ask that man: Were his last moments with the canyon as intimate as two hands pressing together? Did he see inside himself? Was there a choice?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the Grand Canyon because deep in the gorge I fell into a rapid and the river and I had a moment with one another. I traveled with an outfitter one hundred twenty-six miles in, two billion years of geological history and layer upon layer of eroded rock, a deep gash inside the Earth’s crust. A silty river, colored like chocolate milk rests below the rim, one hundred twelve rapids dotting the surface, shifting and changing every moment; it does not die. The crests of them are entirely whitewater, turbulent and frothy. Formed by holes, formed by heavy, collapsed things; formed by blockages; formed by waves themselves—breaking white-capped haystacks. They are not all the same of course, and a guideline indicates their power by numbers one through ten. We went there to ride across them, hang on for dear life and fly through them, the river guides cowboys armed with wooden-oared reins. The danger was the draw: it made us feel more alive.
The water, remarkably, is not the only peril inside the canyon. Dust storms take you by the throat and during monsoon season, the way the river sweeps into the craggy channels between the rocks, you can get pinned against a boulder and drown. That’s not to mention others: sunburns so intense the layers of your flesh become as powdered as a cigarette sleeve’s ash. The winter temperatures drop so far below zero, the frigid water can freeze your extremities so they snap off the way you break a candy bar in half. Sheer cliff edge’s hairpin turns and rattlesnake bites, the thorny ends of catclaw acacia brushing against your bare legs, poisonous scorpions, the bulls’-eye shaped targets of mayfly bites, left for other animals to sink their stingers inside. It goes on.
When we arrived at Lava Falls, one of the most technically difficult American rapids, the guide turned and said right before the drop, “You really don’t want to go over, so grasp the raft tightly,” after I asked what we should do in case of emergencies, in case the whole plan fell apart down there. In fact I asked this just moments before we got slammed, before the raft lifted up and licked the sky one last time and we hit the wave train in a way that we might as well have been striking the stony surface of the canyon wall. She had also said, “Just make sure you have thirty seconds of air in your lungs,” and something else about not getting caught on anything.
But thirty seconds is a big stretch, after all. It is enough time to forget why you’re there, to make a terrible choice, yield to something. When I saw the guide fumble the oar as the rapid approached, bending down towards us high and glossy in the arch of a snakes’ tongue, I thought: that’s really beautiful; and then: it’s over.
The rapid. Days of getting beaten down by swells of water, pummeled at the edges of the rafts’ frames, made it hard to tell we had flipped, but then I felt my feet looking for a place to anchor themselves where the foot straps should have been. I opened my eyes under water and saw the detritus the canyon spit out floating around inside, brown as a nut. It was quiet under there. I was quiet under there, twisting around the places where the water’s velocity shifted me. I realized I couldn’t really hear the rapid because it is thing you feel, even after breath has been knocked clean out of you, even when your ears are wide open. My heart met the rapid’s heart, they fastened, and we slid down a drain together.
It was a bludgeoning like a baton to the right cheekbone with the rush and force of two magnets’ poles: a tethering that could not be undone. Days could have passed under there, who knows? We compared notes. Bodies: my extremities to its jagged, pencil-thin twigs; the mosaic of its bedrock to the freckled constellations of my shoulders. We have both dreamt of butterflies. In mine their crab-shaped bodies fluttered inside my grandmother’s antique jewelry box; in the rapid’s, their wings were made from weighty arrowweed, sinking them in the river just as soon as they pitched themselves into the sky. The rapid lined my regrets and secrets up like smooth river rocks and held my face up to each buried one: I’ve toiled too long in places I should have left sooner, spent too much time in worry. I hide from myself. It is hard to weep in water, but right then I found a way. You might not believe me, but the rapid shifted shape and showed me myself.
I paused trying to recall what Betsy had said right before the drop. (Be careful not to get caught up, or be careful not to get caught on, anything?) The rapid and I agreed this was a moment when time appeared to fold in on itself.
I don’t know how I came up, or where. I remember immediately trying to commit to memory the things felt inside: arousal, pulling my heart from inside of its heart. I turned back from the rescue raft and suddenly it was gone. The waves barked up from the other side, and considering the mess of the current, there was no going back. You might tell me that a wave never dies, but it also never doesn’t.
The last night on the river, a guide is struck by lightening. Chasing pineapple upside-down cake with thimbles of bourbon, we sang “Happy Birthday” while fingers of electrostatic zipped across the canyon’s edge.
“Lightening rarely comes off the rim, so we’re fine,” someone actually said right before a bolt hit the umbrella we stood under to keep dry. The passenger we were singing to still held a plate of cake in his hand, seven candles stuck into the slice, one for each decade. At first I thought the struck guide was gazing at the lightening from his back like he was watching clouds form—unicorn, bear, ice-cream-cone-riding-turtle. I was reminded of the rapid, how it could reshape itself into anything. But then someone said, Is Jim dead?, just like that. A few of us stepped towards him. He was blue as a starling egg, but breathing.
I went there to bake under the sun, contort myself up rope ladders, travel into something famously perilous. I went there not to be remembered of death but to push against it, to ride the river’s wild edge and feel more alive. The awakening was supposed to be in the risk of the rapid, not in falling for it: it lives unapologetically, moves the way the stars and shifts of the moon’s gravity go, careens and turns and bends for itself because what makes it up is everything else—it is the rapid, but it is the river, the dirt, the rocks—living by its own accord, unafraid and unapologetic of what’s next. We see danger in the way that light flashes against a rapid’s foamy ridges, and the rapid just sees the light.
I could have done things differently down there. I could have reached harder for a handhold, pinched the tips of my fingers between a slot in the rock bed’s surface, wedged my feet inside a gap, bowed my head to exhale. I could have punished myself, ended things. I could have caught razorback suckers with my bare hands, ripped their heads clean off with my teeth. Under is where fear finally stops. Under is an uncomplicated surrender. Under is a good place to hide. The guide got struck by lightening that night, and he went back the very next summer. I wanted to ask him what he experienced inside that streak of electricity, how he felt underneath the pulse. I didn’t get the chance to, but I’m guessing I probably already know. If the opposite of cheating death is dying, then what do you call the place in between?
Somewhere along the way we learn fear, we worry for what’s coming next, relinquish ourselves to control, to loss of pure unrestraint. Then we hide from ourselves. I’m no good at learning from the past, but I know now there is a place under that rapid more powerful than the roar of the water ricocheting between the canyon walls, a place where you can go get caught. A rapid doesn’t drown anyone: it lives primal and intrepid, unafraid of broken bridges.
Here’s a trick I’ve found to feel more alive that is not in dodging rattlesnakes, their forked, smelling tongues: I imagine heading for the edge of the vertical drop, but do not ask what will happen next. I see the rapid ahead, prettily misshapen and speeding towards me. I do not sink my feet into the footholds of the raft; I do not grip the straps so tightly my knuckles go white. Instead I let go, press my hands together. I think about time, butterflies, drain holes. I pull my fingers apart and set the palm of my hand against the place on my chest where my heart is under. I listen. I wait for time to fold.
Kristin Keane lives in the Bay Area where she teaches at the University of San Francisco. A Vermont Studio Center writing resident and LitCamp juror, her fiction has been shortlisted for a Glimmer Train prize in fiction and has appeared or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly and Fjords Review.
Harris Fogel. These photographs were made using an 8×10-inch Deardorff view camera; for most of the images the camera was fitted with a Fuji 250mm F6.8 lens. The original book maquette of a Few American Cultures was created in 1993 at the request of the late Reinhold Misselbeck, then curator of the Museum Ludwig in Köln. Housed in a black plastic negative binder, it was filled with one-of-a-kind Cibachrome 8×10-inch contact prints printed on the glossy print material when I lived in Palm Springs, California. The advent of digital imaging allowed me to revisit the work and reconsider it in a larger framework.
The project began in the 1980s, with several themes; water politics in the West centered in California, the western landscape, portraiture, the South, etc., all cultures unique to themselves, but overlapping at the same time. I have continued to work on the project, creating new images, evolving and expanding. The shift to the 8×10-inch view camera not only slowed me down, but it allowed an exploration and description of texture instead the rough jottings of texture that smaller formats provided.
It is so easy to get lost in our hurry to get there- time dissolves as we browse the internet; as we speed from place to place, ingesting soundbites and tweets, directed to the fastest route possible by Google’s algorithms, by the voices from our phones. But, what, ultimately, do we lose in our quest for efficiency?
Poems slow us down and open us up by creating space in which we can navigate and renegotiate the terrain of our lives, explore the intersections between self and other, and imagine new worlds. Dwelling in poetry changes our bearings. Maps do the same thing. They create layers of time and place; they allow us to imagine multiple paths, alternative destinations, new worlds. Illustrating geography, history, politics, and culture, maps, like poems, serve as portals, like the map songs Harriet Tubman and others used to connect stars in the sky and moss on trees and people on the path to freedom.
Michelle Menting’s poetry and Margot Carpenter’s maps invite consideration of the consequences of haste, and they illustrate alternatives. Their work reminds us that many paths lie ahead, twisting and turning and intersecting and diverging, appearing and disappearing, again and again. Slowing down, dwelling in their work, we may feel the connections between humans and other mammals, consider the shared spaces we inhabit, and learn where to find what nourishes us.
AFTER READING “A BLESSING” BY JAMES WRIGHT
I pay more attention to life
along the highway. Literal life. Literal
highway. So often I’m consumed
by the death, the road-kill-carrion
smeared muscle of rodents, raccoons,
even bears. Oh my.
Before A Blessing, I noticed not
the Guernsey cows, so golden, so sweet,
and the deer that make it, that do
their best Baryshnikov over the ditch.
I noticed instead the porcupine’s needles
follicle-ing from asphalt pores, the fox’s tail
bobbing and stuck in a seam of tar,
and the feral cats who didn’t do their best
Martha Graham to avoid a Honda’s tire.
After A Blessing and learning about breaking
into flower, and the joy experienced
from observing two ponies nuzzling,
I pay attention. I see turtles living on the edge,
scooping the gravel to lay their eggs.
And my left arm greens to a stem.
I see frogs being improper in the road, right
in the middle of the road during a rain storm,
and I brush pollen from my shirt.
Those cows, those gentle Guernseys?
I see them, and the fingers on my right hand
become petals. I can’t step out of
my body completely and break
into flower, but parts do blossom.
After reading A Blessing I’m still no fool.
I can’t ignore the sadness of the road,
the literal road, the metaphorical one too.
One morning while running in Madison,
Wisconsin, I saw further up the street
the shape of a squirrel hovering over
some thing, some still but soft thing.
I caught up and the squirrel, that visible
squirrel, didn’t flee. It didn’t leave
its partner, the soft lump in the center
of the road, clearly hit, clearly dead.
This squirrel, this living rodent, this pest
to attics and garages, prodded its dead love.
Nudged her. Wouldn’t leave when I ran by,
and only fled to the grove of oaks
when another truck approached.
I kept running. I looked back,
and that squirrel had returned
to its partner’s side. That’s when I thought
I’d break. That my whole body and heart
would break, but not into blossom.
Instead, I would crumble like a leaf
in November. I would crisp into pieces—
some parts dirt, while others
would sparrow into the wind.
The odor was septic and made us speechless,
though we’d already lost our voices
when the sun napped dusk, when night’s sheet
hushed the traffic, the birds, our thoughts.
It was a peahen hit to the ditch
and decaying. Her left wing shielded
her breast–a draped cape, her final
comfort. The smell of turkey is not
always the same. If we cooked her carcass,
would the scent remind us of arugula,
of berries brined? Of autumn and wood fires,
or late summer’s chilled wine? This find,
this bird, we encountered on an evening
that made us question beauty, was she messaging
her last will and flight? Her lofted feathers,
those still sticking to live twigs weighted
with winter berries, lead us further still
into the meadow policed by the farmer’s
one black horse and one banded cow.
Land we did not own but that owned
our souls in its soil like all life its surface
sends meandering. Not listless in loss
but lustful for fresh discovery in beauty
found in failed crossings, we crossed
as wayfarers. We foraged through paths
in pastures of sorghum futures or would-be whey.
Our earlobes and nostrils, every follicle
of skin, set as seismographs collecting
fall rot and cyclic decay–any fresh
disturbance–in measurements of awe.
HOW, NOW FROM OUR FRONT DOORWAY YOU CAN SEE A FAIRWAY
Maybe the moon rises like this everywhere?
Wide, reflecting the pond in the middle
of a golf course? We laughed: how
coarse, a course of golf. How now
we went from a home in the woods
to puddle and turf. Now,
we look from a gate with wire
that wraps the remaining pines: how, now
they fence the land. Still, that moon,
once buck now harvest, is slow
but full over the tree line. Low
and looming. Too orange to be safe.
This time in my house, I’ll bring in the furniture, inside
this time, from the garage.
Years ago, our house–the one we lived in together, thought
how cool to be new in our twenties with a deed and a driveway,
that house, a brick bungalow with charm–stayed empty
for a year with bags as dressers, futon for our bed.
That house–hollow without tables or chairs, sofa or stools–
we didn’t know how to fill, except with our voices: inside
the air between rafters and thresholds, all that space, we’d loft
phrases, pastoral and poetic. You’d say lines
like, you shed our morning blankets like a dragonfly
molting, and I’d say, you’re wading along the lakeshore,
wielding a net. And back and forth, the words we tossed
echoed and faded, bounced in that space we shared
against emptiness. Maybe if we had created an alcove,
spackled a wall, constructed a partition, or just brought in
our furniture, we could have secured our words, trapped them
inside, filled our house like an aquarium of language.
Instead, after coffee that final August morning–our last
together in that house or anywhere, with windows
open, breeze traveling through–we sat in silence.
The only words were stuck on the refrigerator door.
In block letters we formed phrases, final and magnetic.
You linked: SHADOWS WE FELL THROUGH
TRUTHS WE LOST. And I linked: I KNOW
AND MISS A HOUSE A HOME.
And all around us, inside and quiet, the wind blew
our phantom voices from rafters to thresholds.
Remember when you could draw Ursa Major
from memory? How you knew to dip from line
to endpoint to line to endpoint? Ursa Minor was the same
across the sky, and Orion was a three-prong belt. Maybe
this was in third grade when string cheese was in lunch boxes
and string theory on TV. When space shuttles taught you
the word tragedy and you hoped your teachers would never
fly away. Something about outlining the stars—
forming constellations by connecting the dots, something
about endpoints— seemed necessary, like a new language
you could use in a future where everyone soared in cars.
Something about mapping those lines, and memorizing
the Latin, and that joy you got from asking, “how is that a bear
or an archer with a bow, and what is a big dipper anyway?”
Some things are so easy to forget once you learn tragedy by heart.
Stephanie Wade teaches writing and environmental humanities at Unity College. Her interest in maps and poems is part of a project to define narrative ecology, which posits narratives as living systems that include the stories conveyed by physical environments and material items; that shape our experiences and also respond to our actions; and that persist in layered, multiple, dynamic forms.
Michelle Menting is the author Myth of Solitude (Imaginary Friend Press, 2013) and Residence Time (Dancing Girl Press, 2016). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, The Offing, The Southeast Review, The Hopper, and the Deep Water and American Life in Poetry columns, among other places. She lives in mid-coast Maine.
Margot Carpenter creates digital and print maps for a diverse market. She has made maps for the Maine Department of Transportation; recreation, tourism and environmental groups; and for books published by Downeast Books, Dutton, Simon & Schuster, and Falcon Press. Her business Hartdale Maps is in Belfast, Maine.
Osprey of the Blue Refuge
Early this morning, I went to the visitor’s center to ask after ospreys. I shook hands with the ranger, whose name I could not recall. He knew mine. He stood up behind his desk when I came through the door. “If it isn’t John Cossman,” he said. He waited for his name. The visitor’s center is not air-conditioned, so he sweat. I sweat. Since I could not ask his name, I asked for a map of the island.
He was wearing a park ranger’s Stetson. If he’d taken off the Stetson, I might have known him. I knew we’d gone to school together, to the only island school. I knew he was one
He asked what work I’d been doing, and I told him I was working as a pathologist in Charleston. I did not tell him fifteen months ago, I diagnosed a cyst from the left breast of a woman—we’ll call her Ms. Lydia Harris—as a radial scar, benign. It was malignant. One year later, they diagnosed tubular carcinoma, stage three, metastatic in five of seventeen lymph nodes. You can’t know what might have been, but her prognosis now is nine months of hell and then fifty-fifty. They printed an interview with her in the local paper, covering the malpractice suit. She said, “I just want him to admit he made a mistake.” But a man doesn’t make a mistake like that. I have diagnosed tubular carcinoma more times than I can count and never gotten it wrong before.
He said, “Good for you.” He said he’d seen my father a few weeks ago at the food mart. My father lives waterfront on the island’s eastern shore. “Said he was thinking of selling the house, heading north.”
I shook my head. My father built that house fifty years ago. My wife Sandra has been trying to get him to sell and move up to Charleston, closer to us. She thinks he’s lonely. I tell her he likes his space, same as I do. I said, “We’ll have to pry him out of that house.”
“Lots of people are selling,” he said. “Going inland for work. I’ve had every fisherman on the island come through this office in the past three months. They stand just like you’re standing, asking have I got work for them.”
“I’m not looking for work,” I said.
He said, “I tell them like I’m telling you now. I tell them if I had work don’t you think I’d give it to you? In a minute, I’d give it to you.”
“I’m not looking for work.”
He rolled his chair back from the desk, tipped his hat up on his head.
I nearly had his name when Charleston called. I let my phone ring itself out against my hip. It was the lawyer, wanting to confirm tomorrow’s meeting. In the message, she said, “Eight in the morning, doctor.” She said, “See you then.” We are to meet before the deposition. The deposition is tomorrow. The deposition is at noon. I could have left
I walk east, skirting the loose sand of the dunes, because Russell pointed me east. He said there is a nest this way. “Keep to the shore. You can’t miss it.” I keep to the shore.
Sandra calls. I feel her humming against my hip. I take the phone and hold it in my palm. She will want to know what time she should expect me home, to know if I hit traffic in Mobile, construction outside of Atlanta. “Where are you?”she asks in the message. She asks twice. If I called her back, I would tell her, “I’m leaving now,” and she would say, “I’ll wait up for you,” and she would wait and wait.
Last time I talked to Sandra, she told me they could take our savings if malpractice didn’t cover the suit. They could take the Roth where we’ve been putting money every month for retirement. They could take the house. She said, “I’d hate to lose the house.”
Ospreys orient home by the sun on their biannual migrations. They come to this island from Cuba, following a trail of floating rigs, whose derricks offer places to perch, to rest their wings or lock talons and sleep. At night, when there is no sun, they fly by the stars—not single stars, star patterns, constellations. If clouds obscure the stars, they follow the grid of ultraviolet light. If they are blinded in the name of science, they use magnetic cues to find their way.
I haven’t slept in the house in Charleston in weeks. I wouldn’t mind if they took it. I could stay here, sell prints of my photographs, maybe work as a docent in the visitor’s center, make enough to keep myself in boots and canned peas. I’d enjoy that sort of work, put-your-feet-up work, work that doesn’t help anything, doesn’t hurt anything. When I get back to Charleston, I’ll tell them take the house. I’ll tell them take it all.
On the fishing pier, a man works a cast net, his cooler open and empty at his feet. His hands spider across the webbing—limber hands, young hands. My hands are stiff. About a year ago, I started having trouble grasping the fine-focus knob on my microscope. I took to working just with the coarse focus, playing it out and back until the tissue came clear. And I have thought about that. I’ve thought if the image was sharper maybe I would have caught it, would have seen the slight pinching of adipose tissue stained orange, a rusted carcinoma.
Behind the net fisherman, a blue heron skulks, hoping for a handout. Last summer, the pier would have been packed shoulder to shoulder, families sleeping at night in lawn chairs to keep their spot, farming their narrow patch of ocean. That was before the spill, before word came from the trawlers of eyeless shrimp, crabs without claws, two-headed fish, fish covered in boils, in black lesions, fish that bled black at the hook and were black inside, gills and muscle and bone, like they’d been charred.
Santa Rosa Island was spared the worst of the slick. Off the Louisiana coast, it is said the oil sludge was so thick you could walk between barrier islands without sinking into the water. They burned what oil they could off the surface.
On the shore beside the pier, a man wearing headphones plays a free line in shallow water, catch and release. He hasn’t bothered bringing a cooler.
My osprey has ceased his arcs and settled on a branch overlooking the waves.
“What are you after?” I ask the man with the free line. He pulls his headphones down from his ears, and I repeat my question.
He says, “Anything that’ll bite.”
“Retired,” I say.
“These things happen, John,” Gary said after the summons. Gary and I shared an office. We shared cases, the head-scratchers, passing them back and forth until we came to a consensus. The day I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris he wasn’t in the office. His son was pitching a little league game, and he had gone to watch.
“You’re a good doctor, John,” he said. I stood looking at my microscope in its heavy dust cover, at the slide trays stacked ten-high on the desk beside it. “You think you could take them for me, Gary?” I asked him. “Just for today?”
He had a stack of his own, but he took them. They asked me to resign the next day.
I tell the fisherman, “I’m living like I should have been all my life.”
He tells me he’s retired as well. He was a conductor, he says. “The Cincinnati Orchestra.”
The osprey leaves his perch, and I raise my camera. I watch him fly. “You miss it?” I ask him.
He shakes his head. “It’s the nerves,” he says. “You get so a body just can’t take it anymore.”
The osprey shades the water with his wings, searching the shadows for the flash of a darting fish. At that shine, he will hover, positioning, then plummet feet first, extending his head at the last moment so beak and talons enter the water together. He will miss just one catch in fifty.
The net fisherman has brought up three small herring and lowers them carefully into his ice chest. I lift my camera. I take one photo—the ice chest, man, and heron all in a single frame. The light is heavy, iron light.
I tell the conductor I’ve been photographing ospreys. “Keeps me occupied,” I say. He can understand that. He’s fishing just to toss the fish back. “Only found two nests so far,” I say. I tell him there’s some who blame the oil for that, say it’s made for bad fishing, say the ospreys are staying away. “Somebody cut corners,” I say.
He shrugs. He says, “Somebody wasn’t paying attention. That’s my guess.”
I shake my head. I’ve thought about it, of course, thought I might have been distracted. I’ve thought maybe the Saturday Gary’s son pitched his first game was the Saturday Sandra told me she was going to visit her sister for a few weeks, maybe a month, said she needed some time away. “I’ll come with you,” I said. She said, “You’ve got work.” I told her I’m ready, anyway, to be retired. “Work three more years for me, John,” she said. “Just until we pay off the house.” I told her she knows, doesn’t she, that I need her here. She said she knew. But it can’t have been that Saturday. That Saturday I didn’t go into the office. I stayed at home with her.
“Grossly negligent,” I say. That is the phrase the courts will use. I say, “They knew what they were doing.”
The conductor has caught a fish. He wades out into the water to take it by the tail, gets it unhooked and tosses it up to the heron on the pier. It is a fifteen-inch sea trout, one-headed. The heron does not, of course, want it. Too hard to get down and keep down.
The net fisherman comes away from his net to stand over the fish. “That’s a catch,” he says to the conductor.
The conductor shrugs. “Been at it a few hours. About time.”
The fisherman nudges the sea trout with one toe. “You see the herring out there?” he asks us, pointing over the water. “I bet this one was after the herring.”
He says, “Man tried yesterday to charge me three bucks a pound for skipjack. Three bucks a pound, and the fish so thick out there you could shovel them up.”
The conductor says, “I’ve never heard herring to leap like that.”
“Any fish’ll jump if he’s got cause.”
My osprey hovers above the school. I lift my camera. I catch him with kinked wings.
I shake my head.
“I’m in the market,” he says. “They took my seiner to Luling to help with the clean up. Might as well take my legs, I told them, but they just needed the seiner.”
“I don’t have a boat,” I say.
I’d lease her from you if you didn’t want to sell,” he says. “Schools like that I’d turn a profit quick.” He tugs at the brim of his ball cap. He is looking down at the trout, which has more meat on it than six herring. “You just going to leave it?”
“I was meaning the bird to eat him,” the conductor says.
“Bird doesn’t look interested to me.”
The conductor shrugs and pulls at the cord of his headphones, which dangles, cut, at his navel.
The net fisherman stoops and takes the trout by the jaw. “You don’t want him.”
The conductor says, “I wouldn’t eat anything out of the Gulf.”
The net fisherman lowers the trout into his ice chest and starts packing away his net. He says, “What else is there to eat?” He lifts his cooler onto his shoulder and makes his slow way down the beach. He stops once to rest, and I point my camera at his back, but the sun is out in front of him, shining directly into the lens. He is just a shadow, the world brightened to rainbow around him like oil sheen on water.
I turn back at a splash. The osprey is coming up out of the Gulf, shaking the water free of his feathers and gaining altitude. He is not carrying a fish, not carrying anything at all.
I tighten the belt of my jeans and wade into that marsh. The water is black and warm, folding around me. I come up onto dry land soaked and blooded and feeling altogether good, because a female osprey is perched on a branch just two yards ahead of me, and my eye is level with her lizard eye. She sees past me, past all the heavy-browed hominids right back to Homo erectus egg-snatcher. She knows better than to trust me.
I wander the sand pines, searching for her nest. Last week, I watched a nest fall from a sand pine in a grove like this. It was an old nest, a decade old or older—four feet in diameter, two hundred pounds at least, enough seaweed and grass to start a slow process of decomposition, generating heat for the nestlings. There were two nestlings. When the nest fell, I was squinting through my viewfinder at their snaking heads.
The fall was quiet, marked only by the whistled two-note alarm call of the female osprey hovering above the newly barren tree. I left my camera and crawled into the thicket of sweet acacia surrounding the trunk of the nest tree. I spent forty minutes working on hands and knees, searching for the fallen nest. I found it on its side—sticks and seaweed, down feathers, a scrap of denim.
zoomed in tight with the aperture wide open. I caught with my camera the vein of each pinfeather, the bristled legs of the bluebottle flies that swarmed the nest. In the pictures, the background is blurred. In the pictures those nestlings might be twenty yards up in the air.
I wander until I lose the light. I do not find a nest, but I know it is close, because twice the female osprey flies a tight circle over my head. I lift my lens to shoot her agitated.
I walk back to the campground along the narrow seawall surrounding the old naval fort. As a boy, I rode my motorbike along this seawall, picking up speed and lifting the bike onto its rear wheel. In those days, colonies of plovers nested on the island, thousands of them, stretched for a half-mile
One night I took my motorbike down onto the beach and through the center of the nesting colony, plovers blowing up before the front tire like scraps of shredded paper. I came away from the colony scratched and splattered with urea. My father, when he heard, was furious. In part, because the bike’s sprocket and chain had to be replaced, but mostly because I had proven myself capable of malice he had not expected.
After that night, I could not get within fifty yards of the colony without being mobbed by a dozen birds, sprayed with excrement. Every year it was the same. Even when I returned after eight years away, the birds remembered me. The plovers are protected now, the shells of their eggs so thin they shatter at a touch. They don’t nest on this island anymore.
Sandra calls. I answer. I don’t want her thinking something happened to me on the road. I don’t want her worrying.
She says, “John.”
I ask her if she thinks I made the misdiagnosis on purpose.
She says, “No.” She says, “Where are you?”
I say, “What other explanation is there?”
She says, “Have you left yet?” She says, “It was a mistake, John. They know it was a mistake.”
“You can’t miss the deposition. It’s against the law to miss the deposition.”
I say to her, “I know.”
“No one thinks you’re a criminal, John.”
I say, “I knew what I was doing,” thinking not about the Saturday I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris, but about all the other Saturdays, the Saturdays I remember. The Saturday Lacy broke her wrist playing softball, and I signed out two frozen sections before meeting Sandra at the emergency room. The Saturday Sandra’s mother passed, and we stopped at the office on our way to the airport, so I could sign out a lymph node biopsy—sarcoidosis, benign. The Saturdays I bickered with Sandra over cold cereal and came to the office head-pounding. I imagine the day I misdiagnosed Lydia Harris was a Saturday like any other Saturday. I woke in the morning and left Sandra sleeping. I made a pot of coffee, put Sandra’s mug in the microwave, so it would be ready to heat when she woke. I drove twenty minutes to the office and parked in the lot reserved for doctors. The office was quiet, as it always is on Saturdays. It’s one of the reasons I like working Saturdays, you get the place to yourself. I took my time over the frozen, just the single frozen, and finished the handful of cases left from the week before. I returned home for dinner, and when Sandra asked how was it, I told her, “A good day.” I told her, “One frozen, benign.” I told her, “She got lucky.”
I call my father, because it is Sunday, because we eat dinner together on Sundays when I am on the island. He is free,
he says, and so I pick him up from his house and take him toJoe’s, the only diner on the island that doesn’t serve seafood. After dinner, I ask him if there is any place he needs to go, but he says Mrs. Parker took him into town that morning. She takes him once a week for groceries and to refill his prescriptions. On Saturday mornings, she takes him to the brunches Gulf Power puts on for their employees, past and present. He wears his denim work-suit and the gold star he was given at retirement for putting in forty years. He retired at seventy-two, though I suspect they kept him on, those last few years, just out of obligation. He’s the only one at the brunches with a star. The other attendees are all kids in their thirties. Pole boys, he calls them.
it. There are three chicks in the turnip nest. I steady my camera on its tripod, the viewfinder centered on them, just in case.
I didn’t move. It’s not something you expect to see, the man who striped your thighs with a Sam Browne belt panicked like a beetle on his back, swallowing water. Lacy was the one who pulled him to his feet, and after she stayed close right beside him. She put one arm around his waist, taking his weight, struggling with him up out of the water and into the dune fields. I came behind them, watching her, thinking she was going to be all right, Lacy, thinking kids mostly raise themselves, wondering at how easily she loved him.
I asked him this evening if he wanted to go out into the surf, but he said he’d rather not, so we are watching birds. The female is on the nest. If we watch long enough, I say, we’ll see the male fly in with a fish. He’ll have eaten what he can of the head and torn the rest away to lessen the weight.
He says, “I talked to Sandra this morning. She seemed to think you were heading home.”
I say, “She doesn’t need to worry about me.”
“When are you heading home?”
I tell him I don’t know.
I bend again to my camera, focus it on the silhouette of an osprey on the near shore. It might be the female from the nest that fell. I can’t be sure. She is perched high over the waves, scanning for fish. I wonder if she has abandoned the nestlings, and if some part of her is relieved to have finally failed, glad to have the evening to fish just for herself.
We wait another thirty minutes, though there’s no point. The nest is quiet, and the light is low, western light, rusted light. He is impatient, and so I drive him home in my car, which he does not like, crowded as it is with dirty clothes and an unrolled sleeping bag, canned food, camera equipment.
“Is there a restroom,” he asks me, “at the campground?”
We’re past the campground. “I can go back,” I say, but I do not turn around.
He says, “I’ll be fine.”
He wets himself three minutes from his house. I look over when I smell the ammonia, but he is backlit by the window, and I can’t see his face. When I pull up into the drive, he says, “You go on in.”
He comes in a few minutes after me, says, “I’ve got sheets put on your bed.” Says, “You sleep here tonight, and in the morning we’ll take your car to the wash to get the sand off of her. You’ll ruin her with that sand.”
I say, “This house?” He built this house after we moved down from Virginia. He was happy in those early years, living on a 34-foot sloop, trucking lumber over from the mainland. I was happy.
“You don’t want the house,” he says, “and I’m getting too old to live like this.”
I say no to the first, no to the second. I say, “You’re doing fine.”
He works his scissors around an advertisement for turkey sausage. His hand shakes.
“If you want a smaller place,” I say, “I can find you a smaller place.”
“I thought I’d go with you to Charleston. When you go.”
“I don’t know when I’m going.”
He nods. “When you do.”
“We don’t have the space,” I say, “in Charleston.”
“All I need’s a place to sleep,” he says, but his house is full of things, and our house is full of things, and we might not have the house.
I say, “You built this place.”
He says, “I had a son to raise and no place to raise him.” He says, “No one would build it for me.”
I drink my coffee.
He says, “I watched them bury Lutt Parker in sand so shallow next storm he’ll be above ground again. You hit an age you start thinking practically about these things.”
“There’s time and time,” I say, “to figure all that out.”
“You came to this island. You left Virginia.”
“I came to this island to raise a boy up. And I did that.” He raps his finger down on coupons offering fifty cents off Selma’s Blueberry Spread or two stone-baked pizzas for the price of one. “Island like this, you want to be just passing through.”
The visitor’s center at the refuge is closed. I walk past it, east into the pine forest, toward the place where the nest fell. I pass a park ranger headed the other way. “You can’t sleep out here,” she says. “You have to stay in the designated camping grounds.”
I tell her I’m just walking.
She wants to know if I have a camping permit, and when I tell her it’s in my car, she wants to walk with me back to my car. We walk together. She stays behind me, as though given half a chance I would turn and bolt. She says, “There’s no camping in the park without a permit.”
It takes me ten minutes to find the permit. While I’m looking, she bends the brim of her hat in her hands. It is the traditional park service hat, the Smokey Bear hat, the lemon squeezer.
I hand her the permit. She looks it over.
“I haven’t broken any rules,” I tell her.
She hands it back. She says, “Have a good night, Mr. Cossman,” and I do not correct her.
“At the campground, the conductor has built a fire using two-by-fours as fuel. When he lifts a hand to me, I go to sit beside his fire, though the sun has just set, and it is still eighty degrees at least. We sit in silence. I pinch the sand flies that
case and starts to strum, he puts on his headphones. He leans over and tells me to have a good sleep. He stands, offers his seat to a woman standing behind it, and ducks into his tent.
There is nothing at his campsite but an army-issue tent and the chair he is sitting in now. “Where are your things?” I ask him. “Your car?”
“Sold the car,” he says. “Ten years ago, it was.”
“How’d you get down here?”
“I had a buddy coming as far as Atlanta. I got down all right.” He kneads his hip with one hand.
“It’s the wet,” I say, because my knees have been aching and slow to bend.
He shakes his head. He tells me he shattered the joint years ago. He fell off the podium halfway through Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. “Ten feet. Down into the orchestra pit.” He tells me they don’t list his name with the other conductors for the Cincinnati Orchestra. Every other name, but not his. “Nine months I waved a baton for them, and they can’t be bothered to remember my name.”
“I ask him what is his name. Daniel Hartzog, he tells me, and I say it back to him to be sure I’ve got it right.
“What about you,” he says. “Think they’ll remember you?”
“I say, “Yes. I do.”
“Well then,” he says. “That’s something.”
The other campers come from their air-conditioned fifth wheels and Winnebagos to join us. They would stay in the cool if they could, but the conductor has built a good fire, and so they come with folding chairs and children and easy
case and starts to strum, he puts on his headphones. He leans over and tells me to have a good sleep. He stands, offers his seat to a woman standing behind it, and ducks into his tent.
Award winning artist and storyteller, Jessica Hines, uses the camera’s inherent quality as a recording device to explore illusion and to suggest truths that underlie the visible world. At the core of Hines’ work lies an inquisitive nature inspired by personal memory, experience and the unconscious mind.
Morgan Thomas graduated with an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Oregon. She is currently a Fulbright student, teaching English and creative writing in Darkhan, Mongolia.
Robin Chapman / Clint Fulkerson
Dear Ones—dinner of sweet potato fries
and Black Angus burgers with bloodied boxers
on TV, the puppeteer journaling her family
under the flickering fight. Circus instructors
plan their work on silks and ropes and hoops
and the 30 foot swing of the giant trapeze.
The far-flung world whispers to faces buried
in their screens. The new Creativity Center rises
sheathed in steel and glass. In my studio,
the dark outside retreats before the sluice
of podcast radio, science news, gigabytes
of music I transfer from my memory stick.
Attention is our scarcest resource—mine,
to find the mountains rising all round us,
the stars flickering beyond the drizzle of snow,
the earth in its journey turning us again
toward light, the text of good will arriving,
the red silk fluttering with its human freight.
Dreams of the Science Writers’ Workshop
I go naked to the Senior Center
to pick up our speaker, much
to the disapproval of the matron
and the surprise of the reporters
gathered to hear yet another
political candidate. We barely escape.
What do I want to shout?
Look at the plans of our scientists
half a century ago to bomb
in hundred-Hiroshima units
anyone we were afraid of!
Look at our powers to make
the poisons that could kill
all life, the viruses that the birds
could spread, the gene editing
and drives that could change
the lives of species in ways we know
nothing about! Look at our inventions
pouring into soil, and water,
and lives; it is not enough
to be a scientist, handmaid
or handyman to the state,
not enough to blow things up
or knock them out.
The headlines now fear robots
with machine intelligence.
Leonardo da Vinci: it was not enough
to make plans to improve the machines
on the rock shelf of civilization
to hurl stones and pour oil;
not enough to paint Mona Lisa
and walk beautifully about.
How be a peacemaker,
a baker, an obstetrician,
a dancer, a weaver, a musician,
a gardener, a lover of life?
ordered the burning
of Montezuma’s aviaries.
The US rained down
Agent Orange for years
on the forests
of Vietnam. And now
our peaceful driving about
and heating our houses
and burning our trash
threatens to strip
the aviaries of all the world.
Mummified, we stand around the table
each in our open coffin shouting out
our own particular version of truth
for our allotted hour or number of words.
Amplified, true; but hard, in my dream,
to walk-about, and the reporters
have closed their notebooks.
Dear Ones—the avalanche cannons
are going off on chinook-slicked slopes.
Listening to their distant booms I try
to imagine the sounds close up, loud
enough to trigger the tree-felling rush
of snow and ice down mountain sides—
the way those New Year’s cannon fireworks
must have sounded to the blackbirds
in their roost—I wonder who set them off,
and whether they meant for five thousand
birds, in blind panic, to collide and die,
falling dead from the sky—no one
in that small Arkansas town is telling who
or why, though all must know by now
whether it was a kid’s tragic prank
or some hired exterminator’s culling.
Robin Chapman is author of nine books of poetry, most recently One Hundred White Pelicans (Tebot Bach, 2013). She is recipient of Appalachia‘s 2010 Helen Howe Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared recently in Alaska Quarterly Review, Flyway, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.
Clint Fulkerson lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and daughter. He has exhibited his work in Maine at venues such as at Corey Daniels Gallery, Space Gallery, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, the University of Maine at Farmington, and the Portland Museum of Art. He is represented in NYC by the Curator Gallery. His recent commissions include a mural at the Facebook Inc. NYC office, two murals at Maine Maritime Academy and a sculpture at USM Gorham under Maine’s Percent for Art program.
Clint’s work will be exhibited at the Unity College Center for Performing Arts in November/December 2016.
The girls are restless. They’ve been, well, cooped up all night against the skunks, foxes, and hawks that would decimate their ranks if given a chance. Now they’re ready to burst out into the sun and grass, to peck for insects, to bathe in the dust, and—a few bold ones—to hop the low, moveable fence that surrounds their pasture and run loose on the farm.
I open the hatch on one side of the coop and with a swift motion pull the ramp into place onto the floor of the coop. The hens stream out, some flying, some running down the ramp. One flaps into my face, another bounces off my chest, and a third is already pecking at my shoelaces, mistaking them for worms. With most of the hens out picking at the grass, I climb the rickety ramp and enter the coop to top off the hopper with organic feed and refill the trough that holds the grit they need for proper digestion. The inside is dark and cool. Though there is manure everywhere it smells surprisingly clean.
The same process is happening at the other Egg Mobiles lined up across the large front pasture. Maggie, John, Rich, and Christie are all releasing hens, topping off feeders, and gathering eggs. Already Chris is hooking up the first of the coops to the trailer hitch on one of the Kubotas, the all-purpose vehicles that we use on the farm, to move the coops 100 feet or so to fresh pasture. The grass in the pasture we’re in now is matted and thick with manure that will fertilize the grass, which will be lush pasture in just a few days’ time. We’ll put other animals, probably the sheep, on it then, in a process meant to mimic the process of a healthy natural ecosystem. In the meantime, our baskets now brimming with fresh, brown eggs, we head back to the Western Barn, which serves as a kind of headquarters. It’s 8:45, and there’s a lot to do: pigs to be watered and fed, sheep to be moved, and the brooder barn, with our growing chicks, to be attended to.
I’m not actually a farmer. I’m a college professor living in Westchester County, New York—America’s oldest suburb. I commute to work, teach classes, grade papers, and go to meetings; I drive my kids to soccer practice and music lessons; I go out to dinner with friends and watch a little
But once a week this summer, I have been volunteering at Stone Barns, an experimental farm a scant ten minutes from my suburban town. Built on land donated from the Rockefeller estate and named for the magnificent stone barns built on the property 100 years ago, the farm is working “to change the way America eats and farms.” With an emphasis on local, organic produce and pastured, humanely-raised livestock, Stone Barns serves local farmers’ markets and restaurants—including the gourmet Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Mid-mornings find us in the brooder barn, where the Stone Barns meat chickens begin their lives. The chickens are a pasture-raised breed called Freedom Rangers, and they’ll spend their short adult lives out on one of the farm’s pastures. But they’ll spend their early weeks as growing chicks in the large, spacious, and well-ventilated barn until they are ready to move outside. There are several hundred birds in here, grouped by age in open enclosures, and it’s a daily chore to keep them fed, watered, clean, and comfortable. A layer of fresh wood shavings goes on each enclosure to absorb odors and keep the barn as hygienic as possible. Each
On a Monday, four new boxes of day-old chicks have arrived at the farm, courtesy of the US Postal Service. The Postal Service has been delivering chicks this way for decades, taking advantage of the fact that day-old chicks who have just ingested their yolk can live without food and water, warming each other with their combined body heat. Only the USPS will deliver live birds—not UPS or FedEx—and I like the fact that there’s at least one item not available on Amazon.com. While others finish the barn chores, Maggie shows me how to take the baby chicks from the box and place them in the enclosure. With a deft motion and a firm but gentle touch, she lifts a chick from the box, dips its beak in water with a dilute solution of sugar, and watches as its tiny throat pulsates in swallowing. Once the chicks show they can swallow, they’re placed on a litter of fresh wood shavings. They’re surprisingly quick and lively as they run around the pen.
Maggie is far more knowledgeable and experienced than I, but she too is somewhat of an unlikely farmer. A former English teacher and a gifted poet, Maggie Schwed commutes to Stone Barns from Manhattan three days a week to work as a farm hand, a reverse commute that also runs counter to the ways factory farming has distanced us from the sources of our food. The author of a moving book of poems, Driving to the Bees, based on her experiences at Stone Barns, she is uniquely positioned to observe the intricacies of life on the farm. I expect her to speak of the pastoral beauty of the
One noon finds me feeding and watering pigs with John, a farm apprentice who embodies the new locavore movement. Born and raised in Queens, John Aghostino is refining his skills and knowledge of animal husbandry with the hope of starting a farm of his own, within a few hours of his native New York City. Apart from his interest in animals
“No, this is where I’m from—where my family is. Also, I want to help bring this kind of food, this way of growing food, back. It wouldn’t have the same meaning if I couldn’t do it here.”
He laughs. “I wouldn’t understand the seasons there. What I know are the seasons of the northeast—the rhythms of the weather and when things need to get done.”
John (who has gone on since I first began writing to start his own, Fatstock Farm, in Stuyvesant, NY) will be my mentor in my early days on the farm, showing me how to hitch up the trailer with the water tank, how to feed pigs without getting gored or trampled, how to stretch the long bundles of electrified fence we use to move sheep from one pasture to another. This last task goes to the heart of this kind of grass-based agriculture. With the goal of reproducing a healthy natural ecosystem, the sheep and cattle that we raise are moved from pasture to pasture on a rotating basis, just as herbivores in the wild would move on before munching the grass down to its roots. Meanwhile, their manure is a natural fertilizer that encourages grass to grow. The meat chickens or laying hens who come onto the pasture later peck at worms and insects in imitation of wild birds that would follow in the wake of animals such as bison. And so it goes with everything on the farm. The Berkshire pigs are kept in shady, wooded areas outdoors, where they can wallow in mud and forage for acorns that supplement their feed. The piglets live with their mothers and are kept separate from the large boors, like Don Juan, who has a prime spot all to himself. Heritage breed turkeys are moved in small flocks from pasture to pasture and brought in at night to keep them safe from predators. The key to this kind of farming is the use of portable electric fences that roll up in bundles and can be moved easily from place to place. In a matter of minutes a new fenced pasture can be created, and sheep or chickens can be moved to fresh grass. It’s a labor-intensive process and in many ways an inefficient one that sacrifices cost-cutting efficiency for sustainable use of resources and humane care of animals.
One Tuesday, I help Dan slaughter the chickens. This is a task that I have been approaching with anticipation and a small amount of dread. On a practical level it’s a skill I would like to have, although I don’t believe the day will come when I’m forced to feed my family from animals we raise in the backyard. But on a deeper level, I’ve come to believe that those of us who eat meat should be willing to do the work of slaughtering and processing the animals we eat, to face the fact of animal death, to bear some of the karmic burden that killing animals for food surely entails. This is hard work, both emotionally and physically, and it’s no coincidence that in the industrial model of farming we have pawned off most of this kind of work on an underpaid and exploited immigrant labor force.
Dan Carr, who still looks like the college football player that he recently was, is a gentle soul who speaks softly, keeps bees, and will soon be going to Africa to teach bee-keeping techniques. Raised in Montana, he seems born to this kind of work. We begin by putting the chickens in crates, and
As we bring the crates into the slaughter room, I note how he keeps the chickens out of the sun and positions them so that they can’t see what is happening in the slaughter area. This consists of seven or eight metal cones lined up along a wall over a metal trough. Beside this is a machine, a scalder, that moves freshly-killed birds through a tub of hot water to loosen their feathers, and another that whirls the birds through rubber “fingers” that strip their feathers in seconds and deposit them into the next room, where they are quickly processed into what look like the product you would find in the supermarket—only far more delicious.
for what is probably ten seconds—but seems a lot longer. And then they are motionless, limp, and obviously dead. There’s no getting around it—it’s messy and bloody. And though Dan has taken every care to minimize it, the birds obviously have at least a moment of stress.
I take the freshly killed birds and put them into the scalder, then into the plucker, which whisks them through a small door into the adjoining room, where they are quickly processed by other farmers. Everyone in the livestock operation at Stone Barns participates in this process, breaking down the layers of specialization that would occur in industrial farming. Christie cuts off the head and feet (the feet go into a clean container for a special customer who “likes chicken feet”—I don’t ask what for); Craig and Adrian quickly and expertly eviscerate them. They are cooled immediately and taken into an immaculately clean, refrigerated room where others vacuum seal them in plastic bags as whole chickens or chicken parts and then immediately refrigerate or freeze the bags. The birds go from chickens to “chicken” in less than an hour. Their lives in the pasture, their high-quality organic feed, their humane manner of death, and their careful handling make these chickens both sustainable and delicious. At the farm stand, I have heard customers rhapsodize these chickens, in hushed tones, as the best they have ever eaten.
“Good job,” Dan tells me. “That was just right. Now keep going, because we have a long way to go.”
He’s right. Once the process begins, it’s crucial to keep going. Soon, I’m into a rhythm, and the two of us efficiently take turns slaughtering birds and moving them into the scalder and plucker. It feels efficient but never mechanized, and I can honestly say that the birds experience very minimal distress. Sooner than I would have thought, the crates are empty and the last plucked chicken has gone through the door into the processing room. As we clean up—a big job, and again, one that is scrupulously done—I have time to reflect. Do I feel a sense of remorse? I do—but only a little. I think that there should be some psychic cost to meat eating. But more than that, I feel that I have really participated for the first time in this process that has sustained me for over 40 years.
And indeed there is a cost to eating anything, from wildlife habitat lost to fields of soy and grain, to energy used to transport produce from grower to consumer. Like any other animal, we cannot subsist without taking other plant and animal life. We can only try to do so in a way that it is as humane and sustainable as possible—while also respecting and valuing human cultural customs around sharing food and allowing farmers to make a decent and honorable living.
By the end of the summer, I catalogue the various experiences that I’ve taken part in, none of which I had ever
imagined myself doing—or even, as a consumer of food, given much thought to. Beside the continuous feeding, watering, and moving of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese, I’ve run across a dewy pasture with a bucket of alfalfa and 40 sheep and lambs running behind;
repaired electric fences; line-trimmed and staked out new pastures with electric fencing; caught and sorted a barnful of heritage Bourbon turkeys; scraped sheep hides all afternoon to prepare for tanning; ran an egg washing and packaging line; processed chickens from whole chicken to shrink-wrapped parts; and helped inoculate sheep, jar fresh honey,
Craig Haney, Stone Barns’s thoughtful—even cerebral—livestock manager, told me, when I asked about working on the farm, that volunteers “have to understand that it’s less about taking care of the animals than about tending to their environment.” He told me this mainly because his experience with past volunteers was that some don’t understand how
much physical labor is involved. It’s more about moving fences, filling watering troughs, and collecting eggs than direct contact with the farm animals, who are mostly not that interested in contact with human beings—with the exception of Stanley and Stella, the two sweet Italian Meremma sheepdogs who watch over the sheep. But his phrase “tending to their environment” stuck with me. Because this of course is what farmers do—they tend to an environment, shaping it in conscious ways for the health of the animals, human and otherwise, who depend on it.
More and more this is what we are called upon to do as a species in the time of climate change—just at the historical moment when most of us are doing it less and less. When my grandfather farmed in the 1940s, nearly twenty percent of American workers worked on farms; now, fewer than two per cent do. Where farming does exist on a large scale in the US, giant combines make the it possible for a few farmers to manage thousands of acres of land planted fencerow to fencerow—or, in the case of factory-farmed livestock, for a few farmers to raise thousands of chickens or pigs in confined spaces. And where large-scale farming does still involve copious labor—in the harvesting of produce—the work is done almost entirely by migrant workers, whose value to the society in doing this often brutal work is severely underestimated and whose plight is largely ignored, sadly even by those who are looking for more sustainable food. In places like Westchester County, which was still largely agricultural almost until the 20th century, farmlands have reverted to forest, which many people think of as a more “natural” or “environmental” form of landscape, forgetting that even the Algonquin peoples who lived here before the colonial farmers “tended to their environment”—by clearing land for their crops of squash and corn and improving the habitat for deer.
Feeding Maine: Growing Access To Good Food
When you see the phrase “food insecurity,” you might picture scenes from distant places hit by the global food crisis: barren fields marked by drought, families fleeing wars, or people waiting in long ration lines.
You might not picture Maine.
Yet more than 200,000 Mainers are food insecure. The term encompasses hunger and scarcity, as well as lack of access to food that’s fresh and healthy. Meeting this need for good food is where Maine’s farmers, workers, and volunteers come in. We are fortunate to have at hand everything required to feed our state: abundant farmland, skilled farmers, and people invested in forging ties between farms and low-income Mainers.
In making fresh ingredients accessible to those who need them most, the projects featured here are also forging new opportunities for Maine farms by opening up markets, diverting waste through farm donations and gleaning, and creating new customers who seek fresh, local food.
This series is a collaboration between Maine Farmland Trust and Good Shepherd Food Bank. It seeks to document some of the many people working for change in our communities across the state, with the hope that these efforts will continue to grow into a resilient food system that serves all Mainers. Images by Brendan Bullock, text by Annie Murphy.
Jeffrey Myers is Professor of English at Manhattan College and the author of Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature, as well as essays in African American Review, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and several anthologies. As both a scholar and creative writer, he focuses on race and the environment in literature and culture, with particular attention to the implications for environmental justice.
Brendan Bullock is a freelance photographer and photographic educator based in Bowdoinham ME. His work has been published in a number of publications including the New York Times and Virginia Quarterly Review, and exhibited in numerous exhibitions nationwide.
Allen Kenneth Schaidle
For many climbers,
climbing becomes spiritual,
Not for me.
It’s just climbing rocks,
Big and small.
Finding beauty in the simplicity.
Life is complicated,
work is difficult,
and school is dense.
Sometimes even climbs can be, well, complicated too.
There’s anticipating travel logistics,
I want climbing to be transparent.
No grander meaning,
I’m already overwhelmed with life’s meanings.
I don’t want a relationship with because then I’ll take, take, take and never give enough.
I’m struggling with this.
Just leave it as it is.
“leave no trace.”
And climbing certainty isn’t art
because then it can be judged
and that causes rivalry.
I want climbing just as climbing rocks.
Just climbing rocks.
Allen Kenneth Schaidle is a diehard Midwestern, educator, and activist. He holds degrees from the University of Kansas, Columbia University, and the University of Oxford. A native of Metamora, Illinois, Allen considers the creeks and forests of central Illinois his boyhood home as he continues forward in his life.
Jesse May grew up on a small farm in the mountains of Virginia where his explorations of the farm and the surrounding woods were a constant. A large part of his exploration as a kid were supported by his Mom, who still supports his adventures to this very day. Recently, Jesse has been exploring South America, Northern California, Utah, and South Dakota with his camera, all while camping and still enjoying the outdoors as much as he did when he was growing up. It’s been a fun couple of years adventuring for Jesse, and he looks forward to at least a few more good years of seeing cool things. Jesse is a 2015 graduate of Unity College. You can follow him on Instagram.
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.
~ 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.
¹ Plato. Phaedo, 117e-118a. In Plato, with an English translation by H.N.Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.
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.
You’ll never understand how
the knowledge comes to you—
the children naming animal tracks
at the river’s edge, the cribbage board
on the cooler—that you’ve come to love
someone who isn’t in the opposite chair
sipping their beer, their sunglasses
reflecting a mate who has been pulled
toward a different light, another coast.
Summer flows and dies around you.
A west wind summons a dust devil,
brings the smell of a distant wildfire.
The mews gulls and owls have fledged,
and autumn will bring darkness soon.
You play your cards, peg your points,
and yet the hands you use feel lighter,
filled with some strange gas, not bone,
and in your chest a foreign sun
burns fiercely with joy and despair.
The coming nova will swallow the orbits
of all the planets around you now,
the cards, the board, the river, the tracks.
Unthinkable. How do you participate
in what you never wanted to be real?
the one road heading north
deadends in Deadhorse
night spills into the next day,
there should be an end
Santa Claus stops at Deadhorse, too,
leaves eleven months later, full of schnapps
you tell me your mother walked out
you say you were too young
to pay attention, to notice your father
had taken to drinking
out of an old Christmas glass
three wise men, a baby,
and a star
you add these
to the list of places you can’t go back to
James Engelhardt’s poems have appeared in the North American Review, Hawk and Handsaw, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Terrain.org, Painted Bride Quarterly, Cirque, Ice Floe, and many others. His ecopoetry manifesto can be found at octopusmagazine.com. He is an acquisitions editor at the University of Illinois Press.
Linden Frederick is a full-time painter residing in the Belfast area of Maine since 1989. His subject matter is the American landscape at dusk or night, but with a cultural emphasis. For example, his 2004 one-person show MEMOIR was inspired by the small town where he grew up in upstate New York, and NIGHT NEIGHBORS (2010) by Belfast. A larger geography and therefore, different American sub-cultures, were explored in the shows AMERICAN NIGHTS (2002) and AMERICAN STUDIES (2008). Other recent one-person shows were NIGHT LIFE (2014) and PAINTING NOIR (2006). He has been invited to guest lecture and/or teach master classes at educational institutions. He is represented by Forum Gallery, NYC.
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.
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; This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.