When I was in college in Santa Fe for one odd semester I tried to sell a stereo receiver on consignment at a store called something like West Coast Audio. When I saw the name it was the first time I realized I was in a place oriented in a different direction from where I’d grown up. I’d been thinking of myself as let out on a long lead from the east coast, far from what I knew but still on the line, ready to be reeled in. But maybe I was thinking wrong: maybe I was a west-coaster now. My ocean gathered the sun in at night, my mountains were craggy and unyielding.
I got to talking to the salesman at that store who had also grown up on the east coast. But he was a committed New Mexican now. He didn’t even like going back east–after spending years in the ochre and sand of the high desert the east seemed strangled with green, so much green, everything everywhere was green and he couldn’t stand it.
Santa Fe is where I saw my first shooting star, too, and felt a dry heat for the first time, a heat that spirited sweat from your skin before you even noticed you were sweating, a heat that vanished as quickly as you could step into a shadow, a scorching heat with no power to cling or linger. It got cold at night, colder than I’d ever remembered being. One night after I’d had dinner on the roof of a classmate’s adobe apartment–I remember very badly made sourdough and shaggy hand-rolled cigarettes–I was walking uphill toward the school and a star dropped from straight overhead to almost the horizon, a fat bright ember drifting earthward as though there were no atmosphere between us.
I lost my head in Santa Fe. Humidity is a stifling but familiar breath, a way of letting you know you are here. Green can choke you but it holds you in place.
As the Stars in the Sky over the Western Desert, so the Birds in the Pastures and Hills of the Northeast
I watched a documentary about meat last night at the Food Film Festival in New York. The film is full of interesting stories and raises many interesting questions, but far and away the most gripping scene shows a pig being slaughtered. In a cool upstate rain, surrounded by eager helpers, a tall German butcher wearing a long apron and an overcoat tests a rifle by shooting it into the ground. Then he steps into the back of a trailer and fires one shot into the head of a beautiful brown and black pig. A team of butchers instantly wraps a chain around the pig’s ankle and drags it from the trailer onto the wet ground. The pig is dunked in a vat of scalding water, shaved, hung from a tree, flayed, cleaned, and butchered.
Once the hair had been removed it was easy to see the animal as meat—the transition from pig to pork, as the Applestones put it, was complete right there. But when it was dropping heavily from the edge of the trailer to the ground, its body still so warm and soft you could almost feel it in the theater; when thick bright blood wreathed its head, when its body shuddered and its feet were trembling and curling up under it—then, I admit, it was hard to watch. I couldn’t help thinking of my dog.
But I also thought of all the animals I killed as a kid. They were fish, mostly, because I spent my summers on a beach trying to catch pigfish and croakers and as soon as I was old enough to swim I was killing and gutting them on my grandmother’s dock. That’s where I learned to knock a big fish hard on the head to kill it, or how to hold a fish still while you cut it up the belly to clean it. It’s where I learned that animals keep moving after their throats have been slit, and where I was taught that those movements are “just nerves.”
It’s also where I learned how to be cruel—to take revenge on the hideous toadfish who’d swallow my hook, for instance. A fish like that could ruin your day. It was impossible to get a hook out of them cleanly, and they seemed to leer up at me, taunting me with this ethical dilemma. There was no point in keeping them—you couldn’t eat them—but there was no way of putting them back in the water without mauling them, yanking their guts out to extricate the hook, or cutting the line and pushing them back into the water with the hook set in their stomachs, where it was sure to kill them.
The impossibility of it made me angry, and their gaping grins made me all the angrier, so I’d just let them sit on the dock in the sun, gulping in the dry air, cursing them with a 10-year-old’s battery of insults, until I’d mustered the anger to hold them in place with my foot while I yanked on the line until my hook was free and the fish was dead, or close to it. I’d push their bodies back into the water and watch the blood trail away in the current, wishing indignities on their corpses—that they’d be swarmed by minnows, dissolved in the tentacles of jellyfish.
These different experiences of killing—killing cleanly versus killing in anger, with sadistic relish—left me with different feelings and taught me another lesson. Death isn’t just the dropping of a curtain but an experience with a thousand moral shades and wrinkles. I didn’t like the way I felt after I’d made a fish’s life end badly—I won’t pretend that it kept me up at night, but I knew when I’d gone too far, when I’d tried on a version of myself that didn’t fit right, and it made me less likely to go that far again.
Watching the pig get killed in the movie last night I wondered how it looked to people who hadn’t grown up with that experience of killing, who’d never seen the eerie way that animals twitch and shudder after they’ve been killed, who’ve never wrestled with that moment when you pull a trigger or flash a knife blade and take a life. It was hard for me to watch, but I’d seen a version of it before. I wonder how I’d have seen it if I’d grown up in the city, like my daughters will, or if I hadn’t had parents who thought it was a useful moral exercise for me to shoot an injured possum in our yard “to put it out of its misery” or to visit a slaughterhouse to pick up a side of beef for our freezer. I wonder how I’d see that beautiful pig then.
There was a stretch of time a decade or so ago, after cable had exploded into a thousand channels but before the internet had vacuumed up all our idle time, when the timesuck of choice among most people I knew was to sit around blank-faced watching the Weather Channel. It looked like the low-water mark of intelligent culture, and it may have been. It still depresses me to think about Saturday afternoons I spent lying on a friend’s sofa watching update after update on the weather along the Florida panhandle, the tornado watch outside Salina, the dry spell in Hibbing. But it occurs to me now that our obsession with weather was perhaps not as arbitrary as it seemed at the time (like, why weren’t we watching NASCAR instead? or poker?)
There’s something compelling about weather: it’s one of the few things about the world that we haven’t taken under management. We decide just about everything that goes on on this planet, from where the “wild” animals roam to how much of a river’s water reaches the sea. One thing we can’t manage, and don’t seem likely to be able to manage, is the weather. Even with our most sophisticated technology, our predictions are inaccurate to a degree that we wouldn’t accept in any other discipline–just think back to the suprises that Hurricane Irene delivered.
Given that even “wilderness” is wilderness only because we designate it to be so, and it remains wilderness only as long as we decide to allow it to be, the fact that we can’t have our way with the weather is profoundly interesting. When I stepped out of my apartment the other morning and saw a discarded Christmas tree caroming off the walls of the building next door and the wind sucked the breath right out of my lungs, I was in the presence of the wildest thing we ever encounter anymore, the one thing we can’t fully prepare for or protect ourselves from. And it’s a wilderness that reaches us no matter where we are. If there’s an opposite to “nature” in the minds of most people New York City is it, yet we’re just as exposed to the whims of weather as someone sitting alone on a cliff edge in Glacier National Park.
It’s part of what makes farming such an interesting challenge: on the one hand–even at its simplest–it’s the essence of engineering. You buy X seeds for Y feet of croprow and expect a yield of Z bushels. On the other hand, it’s hopelessly unpredictable, and even all the brainpower and dark science of Monsanto and John Deere and the Department of Agriculture combined can’t outwit the weather. Every season, the work of farmers recapitulates in miniature the moment in history when humans carved a pocket of civilization out of an undifferentiated wilderness, and every summer we watch the clouds roll over the hills to the west and wonder what will become of our tomatoes, our seedlings, our ponds.
This morning, I read this article on Michael Fay, a loner conservationist who’s decided to hole up in a pair of cabins in Alaska to study wilderness there. He works alone, for months at a time, holding thoughts of civilization at bay by spending his days hiking, exploring, hunting.
For a long stretch of my life that was what I imagined adulthood would mean for me, and I couldn’t wait to do it. At first, when I was 10 or so, it meant circumnavigating the globe solo in a sailboat and flying bush planes in Alaska to provide medical care to people isolated in the backcountry. When I got older I figured I’d get a job teaching English at a college close enough to a wilderness area that I could live out of a tent and commute to the school on bike or by foot. I envisioned grading essays by lantern light, keeping only the books I needed and relying on the library for everything else, stacking up papers neatly to store in a plastic bag so they’d make it back to school dry even if the skies opened overnight. I didn’t see any reason this fantasy couldn’t work, as long as I was happy being single (I wasn’t and couldn’t imagine being so, but I didn’t let that get in the way of the fantasy).
I started camping in high school and chose my first college based on this prospect: studying ancient Greek and reading Thucydides on weekdays, hiking arroyos and camping on mountaintops nights and weekends. For months when I was between schools I slept on my parents’ lawn rather than in the perfectly good bedroom they had for me because I wanted to wake up outside and feel the contrast between the warmth inside my sleeping bag and the cold dew-soaked air on the outside.
The longer I spent in school, though, the less accessible these fantasies, and these ways of living, seemed. I never shared them with my friends or my family because every hint of it that I dropped in front of the people I wanted most to impress–my advisor, my smartest friends–caused eyes to roll. I began to see them as childish dreams that needed outgrowing, a course through life navigated only by hippies whose ultimate destiny was a claustrophobic cul-de-sac of handmade moccasins and irrelevance. By the time I graduated from college and managed to spend a few blissful months camping and vagabonding around the northwest with my girlfriend, I’d become sophisticated enough to make fun of myself every time I got too excited about spending the night on a cliff’s edge or sleeping in the back of the car by the ocean.
And then I got to graduate school in the eminently civilized city of Boston, where I was studying poetry in the storied and civilized program at Boston University. In one sense I felt I’d made it: I was studying with Nobel laureates, great writers and thinkers who were clearly enriching and extending a literary tradition that went back hundreds of years and shot right through the very room we sat in for our seminars. But I’d made it, I felt, by eschewing any thought of living alone under a tarp in the woods. I still allowed myself to enjoy the outdoors, but it helped my enjoyment immensely if I found it in some culturally saturated place: swimming across Walden Pond, where words dripped from my hands as plainly as water.
It was at B.U. that I came across this poem by Philip Larkin, which I thought of this morning when I was reading the article on Michael Fay. I read the poem now and I can’t quite make out Larkin’s attitude: resignation? irony? mockery? self-loathing? I think when I first read it what I thought was, right, the notion that life is elsewhere–that you could find happiness, or at least something happier, if you just “cleared off”–that’s a fantasy of the soft-headed. An adult who understands that life is a series of choices also understands that any life he leads is necessarily provisional and limited–one choice made among many–and he makes the best of the one he’s chosen (intentionally or not) without pining for another life.
And so I tried to outgrow the fantasy of a life in the woods. To some extent I measured my maturity by the distance I travelled from that fantasy, and I treated any longing for a night under the stars or a month in the mountains as a warning sign of relapse. I took some comfort in movies like Grizzly Man and Into the Wild that seemed to confirm the notion that wilderness lovers are intellectually undeveloped and socially stunted. And the Larkin poem felt like a strong vaccination against developing wilderlust.
But I still can’t give up on the idea. Almost daily I work consciously to adapt to the life in front of me, and almost daily I’m tempted by the thought of retreating to a remote cabin in the woods to be alone and away from people (or most of them). Maybe the struggle makes me better: I’m aware that my life in the city is a choice I’ve made, something I’ve intended; I don’t take it for granted. And on the rare occasions I’m able to get out and away from roads and jets and trail signs, I see with the stunned vision of someone who’s been waiting endlessly for his reward and finally receives it. Or maybe the struggle is a kind of disorder–a dangerous romantic yearning that leads us away from engaging here and now. Maybe it’s something I should continue to struggle to overcome.
There’s a lot I want to say about this, and I want to keep thinking it through. I also want to say some of it in public. The changes we’re trying to make in the food system often rely for their emotional force on the image of a rural life less complicated than life in the city, and the language we use to talk about that rural life is almost always the language of time travel: a return to a simpler time, and so on. But on that chronology wildness stands even further back, and in comparison to it agriculture looks like Babylon.
Here’s the poem:
Poetry of Departures
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand, as epitaph: He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
and always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
Its specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said
He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard.
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I’d go today,
Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo’c’sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren’t so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life