I have a wee Meyer Lemon tree in a pot, and it’s been languishing all winter. It’s been on the botanical equivalent of the fainting couch. It turned yellow, and wan, and there were no flowers this year. It has been a Very Very Sad Lemon Tree.
But in the past few weeks, it’s been rallying. A little Miracle Go (I know, not organic, but easy, available, blue!) and it started to perk up. Then I put it in the back hall with a grow light, and started taking it outside into the greenhouse shed in the afternoons when it gets sunny. I’ve been babying it in a way that goes against my nature. I’m mean to my plants — thrive or die is sort of how I roll (oh God, I am turning into my grandmother as I age).
But a little TLC, and the Meyer Lemon is throwing out tiny shoots. Little green leaves. New sprouts on branches where the leaves turned yellow and fell off.
One of the things I’ve been working on for the last year, ever since Helen MacDonald took the top of my head off with H is for Hawk, is trying to figure out why there’s been this vibrant resurgence of nature writing in the UK, but not here.
I came out of the US nature writing wave of the 1980s-1990s — I was the grad school factotum for the first two years of the Art of the Wild writer’s workshop at Squaw Valley, and that group of writers — Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Gretel Erhlich, Ted Hoagland, Louis Owens, Jim Welch, Barry Lopez and so many others — it was that group who encouraged me, and took me in the summer I was ready to give up at the University of Utah. Terry Tempest Williams was an early champion of my novel, and helped enormously when I was looking for an agent and a publisher. That was my core community.
And yet, when I left academic life, and then after I moved to Livingston and Patrick died, I lost sight of the nature writing community. I was alternatively working on a straight novel about the world of my childhood, a mystery novel, and this memoir-thing I’ve been wrestling with through three incarnations now? four? I was no longer thinking of myself as a “nature” writer. If I took the mantle of any category it was probably food writer — via this blog and my years as the cookbook editor at Bookslut.
And then Helen Macdonald took the top of my head off with H is for Hawk. Even though it made me INSANE at times, because as Macdonald told me herself in an email interview, the book is about anthropomorphism as much as it’s about grief or about falconry — something no American reviewer seems to have figured out. Which made me a little crazy, but in a good way. In the way that makes you walk around the house waving the book at your partner and talking out loud until you figure out just what it is that you so love, and what is making you so crazy. It was the first book in years that had done that to me.
And that’s when I noticed that the air had entirely gone out of the US nature writing scene. Where had they all gone? The old guard are still there but where are the new interesting nature writers? Where is the nature book that we’re all talking about the way we’re talking about Lidia Yuknavich or Eula Biss or Roxane Gay? I’ve been asking for a year — asking every writer I know who is nature adjacent, and while everyone has a writer they know or love, a newer writer on the scene, those writers are scattered across a number of genres: memoir, war literature, farming, even food writing. But “nature writing”? It seems to have stalled out …
I think there are a couple of things going on — much of the vitality on the UK side seems to be coming from writers who are interested in exploring the nature without being hung up on wilderness — they’re writing about life on sheep farms or tracing a river from sea to source or exploring the adventures available to them in a Welsh estuary.
Meanwhile, in the US, writing about the natural world seems to have become caught in a net of argument over the Anthropocene. Does it exist or is it a term made up by nefarious forces who want to erode what little wild nature we have? Do we “believe” in the anthropocene? Part of this problem is the way that the neo-liberal right wing of the green movement, led by the Nature Conservancy, has camped out on the term anthropocene as a justification for their movement to privatize wild nature and manage it according to free-market profit principles. Another part of the problem is that there is still a rear guard of the old eco-warrior class who not only reject the anthropocene as a term, but who reject postmodernism. And then, there’s the romantic appeal of wilderness, the dream of lighting out for the territories, and a certain horror of domestication that has always driven those who seek to live their lives in wild places.
Most Americans who are drawn to wilderness experience are not fleeing a pastoral or agricultural way of life, but are fleeing suburban and urban ways of life. Hence, the community tends to pose pastoral and agricultural ways of life as in opposition to, or a threat to wilderness (absolutely true for industrial agriculture, not so much for small-scale). And so, they have no fluency in the domestic relationships that characterize non-industrial agricultural life, which is also a way of life that is nearly gone. Farming as it was done prior to WW2 was a deeply relational way of being — you were in relation not only with your family members with whom you worked, but with the animals and the land that you worked. Now, sometimes those relationships were brutal — hence the speed with which people fled that difficult life, but when done right, agriculture can be, as writers from Virgil to Wendell Berry have described, a way of deeply knowing a place and its inhabitants. I’d argue this is part of the allure for young people, many of whom are using all their creativity to find ways to make a living growing good clean food.
And might also be why much of the most vibrant writing about the material world right now is about food, food systems, and returning to small-scale farming as a way of finding a creative livelihood.
And so, I think it’s time that those of us for whom wildness, wild nature and wild places are crucial to lay down our anti-pastoralist arms. We should not stop fighting against the true damage being done by industrial practices applied to agriculture, especially livestock agriculture, but we should rather, begin looking to those new pastoralists who are looking to restore agricultural practices, their community relations, and relationships between people and their food. There are lessons to be learned here, bridges to be built — for I think that what we have in common is bigger than what we don’t.
Lighting out for the territories. It’s one of the core stories of our national identity, and especially among those of us who did leave the places where we grew up, who ran off to be ski bums and raft guides and lead groups of kids on wilderness trips. It wasn’t just an adventure we were after — we were going to completely reinvent how to live. We’d show them! All those people we left behind in those suburbs with the office jobs. We were going to be authentic. Real. We were Huck and Jim, deciding not to go home, but to go out. Out There.
And yet, the problem with the myth of lighting out for the territories is that it gives the impression that we can we can leave all our damage behind. That we can start fresh. That no matter what damage we’ve caused, we can go someplace else, someplace new and pristine and better, and we can start all over again.
One of the central sorrows we must face in order to cope with the anthropocene is that there are no more territories to light out to.
This is not to say that there are not still vast wilderness areas on earth where a person can go to have a big adventure — there is still Chile, and Argentina, and the Himalaya, and the Brooks Range and the Canadian and Siberian arctics. There are still wild places, but those wild places are now islands. And with the advent of the adventure travel industry, your chances of running into other people are pretty high.
Or perhaps that’s what you want? To fly a small plane to a remote lodge, where you will sleep in high-thread-count sheets, and eat delicious meals prepared by a talented cook, and be taken on carefully curated trips to see wild animals and beautiful scenery.
And what’s wrong with that? I can hear some of my fellow Montanans asking. We are, after all a state that depends largely on travel and tourism — it’s now the second largest industry in the state behind agriculture. As a family, we rely on travel and tourism, since Himself has a vacation cabin, the income from which he’s planning on for his retirement. High-end tourism like the one I just described allows people who really love a place to live there, and to make a living.
True, but it also continues to normalize the same consumerism as a means of experiencing the natural world and wild places that is endangering them.
So if there’s no longer an “out there” to which one can flee, what are we to do with our ruined world?
If it is true that human beings have now colonized all corners of the globe, if it is true that wild places only continue to exist because the human beings who love and value them fight to preserve and expand them, if it is true that we can no longer escape the damage we have wrought by lighting out for the territories, then what?
It is a truism of wilderness studies, that the pastoral and the wild must be in opposition to one another, that it is the pastoral impulse to control nature, to suborinate it to human control (usually via agriculture) that has driven wild things and the wild into extinction. There’s also a strong prejudice against the very idea of the domestic that runs through the literature of wildness as we know it — a masculinist prejudice, since most of that literature was written by men, and specifically men running from the relationships that characterize domestic life — relationships with wives and children as well as the relationships that characterize pastoral life — relationships with one’s livestock, one’s land, one’s crops.
I would like to argue for a new domesticity — I would like to argue that it is precisely in the relationships of care that define domestic life that we might find a way to save our world, and by extension ourselves.
I was in a bar after a reading a few weeks ago, and when I told the woman I was speaking to that I’d been doing a lot of research on the anthropocene, she was horrified. “You mean making everything a garden?” she said. You have to remember where we live. We live in the Paradise Valley, we live on the shores of the Yellowstone river, in between three mountain ranges, much of which territory is wilderness populated by apex predators like the grizzly bear. People who move here do so because of the stunning beauty of the place, and because they like being in this kind of proximity to wild nature.
To accept the notion of the anthropocene is not to cede the field to those who, as my horrified companion feared, would seek to manage the wildness out of our wilderness areas, but it is to acknowledge that if a wilderness area only exists because we have named it, and protected it’s borders from violation, then yes, we are living in the anthropocene.
What I am proposing is that we expand the notion of domesticity and stewardship to one big enough to encompass the preservation and care of our remaining wild areas.
A new little series of mostly-unedited thoughts, the publication of which is inspired by my old friend and mentor Louis B. Jones’ Diaries that he’s been publishing, intermittently, for ages. A couple of new sets just dropped, and I thought, maybe I’d be brave enough to throw out these unfinished ideas I’m working on as I walk Hank every morning, along this mile or so of creek just that feeds into the Yellowstone.
Because my day job has gotten busy again, I’ve taken to dictating into the Notes app on my iPhone using the little microphone icon. The voice-to-text is surprisingly good, and I’m finding it’s a good way to capture what I’m thinking about. There are a couple of essays I’m percolating, as well as the latest reincarnation of the nonfiction book.
Here’s the first entry: Dog Walk Notes, 1/4/16:
Listening to The Wild Ones on audiobook, Jon Mooallem makes the point that wild animals become worthy of preservation only after we have essentially unwilded them, that is, they are no longer frightening because they are no longer a threat to human beings.
His example is the mountain lion in Southern California which was a symbol of wildness until it started eating people’s pets in their backyards. Then it became a terrifying predator. Also as Himeself and I have discussed ad infinitum — the issue of wolves in Yellowstone and the creepy way the “wolf watchers” personalize them, and make up narratives about them.
Mooalem also had an interesting discussion of how folks in Churchhill who actually live with the polar bears have a larger faith in polar bear survival in light of climate change than the scientists do. Scientists are crunching the numbers and looking at calorie counts where folks in Churchill are looking at resilient bears they know and in whom they have confidence.
Thinking of the wilderness edge, places like Himself’s cabin, like htis road, as neighborhoods — there’s a feminist critique to be made of the way wilderness is validated above all other forms of nature in the American nature writing tradition.
There’s all this pushback against the concept of the Anthropocene inlarge part because we refuse, in order to avoid grieving, we refuse to to acknowledge that even though we have managed to preserve some chunks of wild country and some wild populations of animals and plants, the larger earth has been pretty definitively overrun.
And so for those many of us who for whom wilderness was the Holy Grail – it was the dream — it was the thing we ran toward — it was the place where we parked all of our ideas of freedom and authenticity and being able to get away from the corrupting influences of civilization — for all of those people who spent their lifetimes fighting for wilderness — it’s completely understandable that the idea of the anthropocene is horrifying and that there’s pushback. However if there’s one thing I learned from the loss of not just Patrick but both my brothers — is that the only way through greif is to accept it.
In order for us to actually be able to preserve anything we are going to have to radically rethink our definitions of wildness and wilderness
A few days after my last post I had one of those moments where you slap yourself on the forehead with a big old Homer Simpson “Doh!” — I’d forgotten to take into account the gender and class issues inherent to my anti-ambition/anti-career screed.
Staying home is a totally different issue if you haven’t had, or haven’t felt you’ve had, the opportunity to go out into the world, to become what you want to become, and to throw yourself whole-heartedly into the thrill of building a career.
At the Montana Book Festival this summer, Kate Bolick and Sarah Hepola gave a terrific talk about their respective books, Spinster and Blackout. On the surface they might not seem to have that much in common — but both books are, at their cores, portraits of the fight it takes to become an authentically adult woman while struggling with the external scripts that are laid upon us — the wife & mother script, the carefree single-chick script, the woman writer script — and all the others we feel coming at us from the outside.
I’m at least a decade older than both of them, and as someone who has really come into her own since turning fifty, who feels absolutely liberated from so many things including the questions of who and if I’ll marry (no, but I have my Himself and we’re very happy), whether I’ll have kids (no, but I have my tribe of borrowed children) and just What Will Become of Me? hearing the two of them was an interesting reminder of how terrifying those decades of early adulthood were. I didn’t marry right out of college as girls of my social class and home town did, nor did I go to law or business school and go make a fortune (as those who didn’t marry early did). I was broke and flailing for years, just as I was single single single for years. I went nearly a decade without so much as a second date. A decade during which all I really had was my nascent literary career, and my nice little high-tech career which has supported me, paid for my house, and allowed me the modicum of financial success I’ve had. I am deeply grateful for my day job, and not only for the paycheck — I love that I’ve worked with people from all corners of the globe, that I’ve been a part of this technological revolution, and that I have a thorough working knowledge of what it means to work in a corporate environment. Those are not experiences I would have had if I’d been single-minded about my literary career, or had I stayed in academia.
But I also remember well the heady thrill of being young and running work errands in Midtown Manhattan on a weekday afternoon. The thrum of business and commerce, that sense that you were at the center of the world, the sheer energy swirling around, remains one of the peak experiences of my adult life. It wasn’t ultimately an environment I wanted to live in, but the key is that I had the choice. I went to New York right out of college, and with a tiny bit of help from my father, and another tiny bit of help from the boyfriend I was breaking up with, and with a few family and college connections I managed to get myself a job in publishing, one that led to an offer at a major magazine a couple of years later. I ultimately turned it down because it wasn’t going to lead where I wanted to go, and because I couldn’t see New York working for me in the long term, but the key here is that I had that choice. I went to New York. I had the kind of social background and college degree from a nice liberal arts school that meant I got the first job at all, and that a couple of years later, I saw the next rung on the ladder open up to me. I saw what that life could have/would have been. I don’t have to wonder what if about that part of my life.
I suppose what I meant to rail against is the sort of mindless careerism that values hours in the office over actual work accomplished, that expects round-the-clock connectivity, that feeds the narcissistic impulse in all of us to believe we are Very Important and that we have Urgent Things To Do. I stand by my belief that a more humane society would drop the dog-eat-dog competitive model for one that is more flexible, more inclusive, more thoughtful about what roles people in organizations can and should play and that allows those roles to shift and change over time. We’re currently mired in such black and white thinking about work — that working more is always better, that more money is always better than less, that faster is better than slower, that a person’s worth is determined by their productivity (a metric originally developed by Southern Plantation owners to determine the economic worth of slaves).
I go on and on about staying home — it’s there in my tag line for goodness sake — but what I’m trying to articulate is a vision of the world where more of us have the social and economic capital to make actual choices about our lives. Where we can choose, despite gender or social class, to pursue work ambition with all the energy we have, or to choose to put our energies into alternative venues — including the domestic sphere. What I keep groping for is a world in which social and economic inequality has been equalized to the extent that people have actual choices about their lives. Because as it stands, too many do not. It shouldn’t be a luxury to choose to live smaller.
I was in the car doing errands yesterday when an interview came on the radio. David Holbrooke was talking about Diplomat the movie he’s just done about his father, Richard Holbrooke. The interviewer was giving a capsule account of Richard Holbrooke’s life and when he got to his untimely death, he said Holbrooke’s death “cut off an astonishing career.” Not cut off his life, but his career.
When did “career” become synonymous with “life”?
I’ve worked since I was 14, often more than one job at a time, but I never felt that any of those jobs, not even teaching, represented who I was (well, maybe raft guide, that one felt kind of definitive, but more because it made me part of a tribe than because of the job itself). Who I was was never my job — the trick was always trying to find a job that would pay enough to so I could buy more time off — time to read and write, or to hike, or hunt mushrooms, or cook and garden, or in recent years to sew, or knit. What I always wanted was a good life, not a good career.
As I try to articulate what I’ve been building here in Livingston this past decade or so, I’ve been turning back not only to Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, but to Scott and Helen Nearing, the radical leftists who wrote the book on the subject in 1957: The Good Life (and Continuing the Good Life). The Nearings believed each 8 hour workday should be evenly divided between 4 hours of “bread labor” — work to keep the homestead afloat, to keep bread on the table — and 4 hours of creative and mental work. They built their own homesteads (two of them, including a second one started when Scott was in his 80s), wrote and published nearly 50 books and pamphlets, pioneered organic farming in cold climates and passed their knowledge along to Eliot Coleman, who carries the torch today. They got so much done because they were not interested in working for money, but in working for time. They paid cash for everything, built it themselves, didn’t eat meat, grew most of their own food, and spent their lifetimes turning their considerable intelligences to ways to keep body and soul together without participating in the corporate and political systems they could see even then were consolidating power.
The whole of their project fascinates me, but it’s the organization of hours that most interests me these days. One reason that jobs have become such a nightmare is that there truly aren’t enough of them to go around, especially the traditional 40 hour a week job with benefits. Back in the 1930s, when the Nearings were beginning to homestead in Vermont, John Maynard Keynes predicted that the workweek would eventually shrink to 15 hours a week as capital accrued, thereby freeing us all up for creative pursuits. But that hasn’t happened, instead we’ve seen the rise of a rapacious consumer capitalism, one determined to convince us all we don’t have enough, we’ll never have enough, someone else will take what we have, that we’re never good enough or pretty enough or thin enough or enough enough — all to keep selling us goods we don’t need to feed an economy that demands growth at any cost. And corporations have used the shrinking need for workers to flog those still on board even harder — we’re told we should consider ourselves lucky just to have a job at all even if that job means we’re checking emails on our phones before going to sleep and taking meetings with people on the other side of the globe in the middle of the night.
Sometimes I feel bad about stepping off the monkey wheel. I go back to the upscale suburb where I was raised and comparisons arise. I live in a small house, heated largely by one woodstove. I drive a 12 year old car. I make most of my own clothes. My house is just about paid off and I’ve gotten my workweek down to about 30 hours. I’m not rushing around, taking meetings from the driveway or answering emails while I’m there — these days I’m usually hanging out with old people. Old people who have known me my whole life and who, the last time I was home seemed enormously pleased that I’m finally happy, and at ease in my skin, and have a nice partner and a bunch of kids I’m helping to raise and that I’ve finally landed in a solid place.
And I have to say, if I’d had kids, I don’t know that I could have pulled this off. I would have liked to have kids, but I never wanted to do it alone, and the right person didn’t come along until we were both too old (and he never wanted any). While it wasn’t the plan, not having kids has freed me up to be creative in all these other ways. What was in the plan is just what I’ve done — to buy a small, cheap house in an interesting place, to get it paid off as soon as I could, to build a garden and see how much of my own food I can produce and preserve. To buy myself time to write, and to read and to spend my days as the Nearings advised, making and thinking and doing.
Now what we need to do is demand the same for everyone. We could all have jobs if we shared them. Despite the avalanche of articles mocking the Swedes for instituting a 6-hour workday, evidence shows that nations with solid social support networks (universal health care, day care, elder care, free university tuition) and shorter work weeks have consistently higher scores on every happiness index. It’s completely possible to do this, but it will take all of us working together. The 8 hour work week didn’t just come about, people fought for it. We’re going to need to revisit the heroes of the original labor movements, people like the Nearings, if we’re to make any headway at all against the powerful forces of greed that have riven our country into such stark categories of have and have not.
Because the choice should not be between working oneself to death and starving to death. But in a culture which pushes narratives of more more more more more, it can be very difficult to say no thank you, to get off the wheel, to say I have enough.
We are having the most astonishing fall — and I am back to talk about Making Things.
I finally seem to be in a creative space again, and have established a routine that I think is going to get me over the hump with the Book That Refuses To Be Written. I’ve been entirely stuck on a couple of topics, and with a 4 days at work/3 days to write schedule, I find that it’s late Sunday before I’m making any headway again. It’s been a problem.
One of my recent discoveries is the absolutely delightful Felicity Ford at the Domestic Soundscape and the Knitsonik podcast. I’ve been gorging on the podcasts. I ordered her book. I’m on the verge of cyber-stalking her because she is SO delightful, and because her combination of thoughts on domestic life, attention to sound, and the notion that we can translate the landscapes in which we live into knitted objects has blown my mind these past couple of weeks. It’s feels like this combination of ideas has blasted open the stuck door of everything I’ve been stymied by on this book of mine.
Those of you who are still here have not only my undying gratitude, but are probably the 12 people on earth who understand that all the making — all the cooking and canning and learning to sew again and my clumsy-but-earnest knitting — all those practices are what have saved me in the wake of Patrick’s death.
The anniversary of which was a couple of weeks ago. It’s been twelve years. Which seems astonishing to me. It seems like always, and yesterday at the same time. I have this loopy and probably romanticized idea about string theory — I think it’s my substitution for the idea of heaven, with which I really have no truck — but I like the idea of string theory. That Patrick’s still out there — he’s just on a different plane, a different time and space string. At any rate, twelve years. My Lily, who I carried around on my hip as a toddler in fairy wings at the wake, is now tall enough to rest her chin on my head, and is cooking in a restaurant in LA. A lifetime.
When Patrick died, my biggest terror was being caught in the whirlpool of depression that I believe was largely the cause of his death, and the death of my beloved Aunt Lynn, and has done such damage to my mother over the decades. I started making things because that first spring, as I was starting seedlings in my mud room, I thought “depressed people don’t start gardens.” I make things because it brings order to my world, and joy, and because I love the things I make. I love wearing my own clothes — clothes that fit, and that make me feel happy in my skin. I keep a garden and chickens because these are activities that keep me connected to the earth and the weather and the seasons, and that provide me with food through our long cold Montana winters and cushion the blow when corporate layoffs blow through my world.
Hank and I have been walking this stretch of spring creek along the Yellowstone mornings, and most evenings for the better part of the year. We’ve watched it go from snowy, to greening up last spring, to this fall moving through the entire color spectrum of green to yellow to gold to russet — all with blue sky and water to frame it. It is unutterably beautiful. More than once we’ve gotten back to the car, which is parked on a little pullout from the main highway, only to find another car or truck pulled over, the driver taking photos, or just gazing at the view. It has been stupendous.
And I am now waiting with toe-tapping impatience for Felicity’s book to arrive from the UK, so I can begin figuring out how to match colors, and knit up a swatch, and perhaps make myself a garment that I can wear that will represent the joy this riverbottom, and by extension the Paradise Valley, and by further extension, this life I’ve built here in the wake of a disaster I could not envision surviving have brought me. Because my life is joyful these days. Even if I haven’t had a book in 15 years, what I have had is a life.
The discovery of this group of artists out there, working in domestic crafts and landscape, and place has me more excited than anything else I can remember. This is what I’m trying to do in this book I keep wrestling with — to link the landscape and the people and the things we make to the task of right livelihood — which is not a consumerist one of simply curating a lifestyle — but rather is a bigger, richer project of creating art and community — and of surviving the inevitable losses that come with any life. Losing Patrick nearly killed me, but with any luck, we’re all going to have to survive the loss of our beloved ones (I’d still rather be the bereaved than the dead). It’s one of the core tasks of adulthood, and the entire firehose of contemporary consumer culture is designed to distract us from the task of experiencing it. One reason I value craft so much is that it forces you to slow the fuck down. Sewing, knitting, cooking, gardening — they all force us to attend to the physical realities around us, to pay attention.
And so, I’ll be back, blogging some about these ideas I’m trying to put into a bigger context, thinking out loud over here in my tiny corner of the intertubes.
And to celebrate, here’s one more gorgeous dog walk photo:
One of the reasons I stopped blogging on a regular basis was that I felt that the original premise of this blog, which was to make a radical experiment out of my life, had somehow gotten completely lost amidst the recipes and photos and dog stories. All those things are lovely, but what I set out to do when I moved here was to take a stand against the soul-less mall-and-freeway culture of larger America, to escape the housing developments eating up the hillsides of the Bay Area, and to find a place where I could live as self-sufficiently as possible, where I could cut my carbon impact to the minimum, and where I could build a life entwined in community. All of that got lost in the internet tsunami that became “lifestyle blogging.”
My itchiness about this issue came to a head a few months ago when I was approached to write for a new online Montana food and travel publication. It was very lifestyle-y. I was horrified. It seemed to me to be all about selling Montana, selling an idealized Montana, which appeared to be a state populated by young white pretty people making the kind of artisinal products that have come to represent what? The hipster ideal?
But my horror made me feel like a snob. Why was this so bad? People are just trying to make a living in a place they love and where jobs are scarce on the ground (something my long-distance high tech job frees me from). And yet, it all seemed so staged. There’s a substantial class divide in Montana, with plenty of people who move here with the means to start little, specialized businesses that won’t support them. Every town has one of those stores, that are so artfully appointed, and contain 15 carefully curated objects, and which can’t possibly support the person running it. One grows tired of the pretense that this is authentic, or artisanal or that it has some kind of meaning other than the horrific hollow ring of “aspirational” marketing.
It was the opposite of what I thought I’d been up to in this space for all those years. If that was what writing about living small had become, then I couldn’t continue, wouldn’t continue. I wasn’t in this for the Instagram shots, I’d been trying, this past decade or so (especially since Patrick died) to dig myself into a place, to build a garden and a community and a way of living that can sustain a person, and especially that can sustain a person through hard times.
And so, I’ve went back to the sources. Back to my foundational texts, — Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Joan Grussow, Thoreau. I’ve also been catching up with environmental thinkers who have been working in the 15 years since I left academia.
Their correspondence begins while Berry was working on “my farming book” (Unsettling of America) and continues through to the present day. The letters are marvelous in the same way that I love the letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy collected in Between Friends — they cover the whole range of friendship, from personal matters (Snyder’s letter to Berry explaining that he and Masa were splitting up is heartbreakingly tender), to critiques of one another’s work, to that most wonderful of all shared intellectual tasks, thinking through complicated ideas about the nature of the world.
They didn’t just retire to their farms to pose for the New York Times magazine artfully holding pitchforks. They took a stand. They are each opposed to the rapacious form of capitalism that is currently eating us alive, and they wrote and managed their land and worked with other like-minded folks to try to do what they could to bump that ravening machine off course.
And so, now it seems time that I reclaim the radical portion of this experiment. The part that wasn’t just about buying an old house and fixing it up, but that was about living within my means as an act of rebellion against a society that relies on consumer debt as fuel, about paying off my house and my student loan debts, about buying my freedom by getting off the wheel of consumerism, and then doing something with that freedom.
Great-great grandparents sounds so remote, but it’s really not. My grandmother’s grandparents, Charles Ambrose and Mary Mackin Plamondon were killed when the Lusitania was torpedoed 100 years ago this week. It was their wedding anniversary that week, one that by all accounts they celebrated with great tenderness.
My mother was enormously close to her grandmother, Charlotte Plamondon Ripley, and these were her parents. Lolo, as we called her, was 32 when her parents died, a young mother. Her sister Marie was 34, Blanche was 29, Charles was 25 and Harold was only 23.
Here’s a photo of Mary. She looks like the kind of mother a person could rely on, the kind of mother you’d really miss. They were both missed, enormously. I have a big diamond ring that originally belonged to Charles Ambrose, and that was passed back and forth between a couple of branches of the family. My grandmother gave it to me when I turned 40, and I love wearing it since it’s odd and distinctive and has a great story.
Mary’s parents met on the boat over from Ireland. She was born in New York state, and eventually the family made it to Chicago, and then out to Leland, following the railroad. When Mary’s parents died, a group of the Irish relatives sued for the property, claiming that the oldest male relative should inherit. Mary and her sister Sarah wound up in court for years, and eventually took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court and where they established that women in this new nation, unlike women in Ireland, could indeed inherit property.
Charles’ family had immigrated from Canada, and had a foundry business out of Ottawa, near the Mackin farm that is still in the family. They were a big and merry bunch, who from all accounts spent a lot of time in and out of one anothers’ houses, cousins being raised, as we were in my generation, like a big pack of siblings. My cousin Elizabeth Plamondon (Cutler), descends from one of Charles’s siblings, and yet, even as distantly related as we are, we were raised close, and then spent much of our 20s together in Telluride.
Charles Ambrose and his siblings still had the foundry started by their father, and he had built a gear company — they did the gears for the big ferris wheel at the Columbian Exposition, as well as for the first elevators in the Eiffel Tower. They’d been on the Lusitania because they were going to Dublin to sell a pneumatic malting system to the Guinness factory (which led to a contract dispute arbitrated as part of the reparations settlement by the international courts after World War l), and it was the Swift family who brought them, and the other Chicago victims, home in their newly-invented refrigerated cars (Maria Swift and I grew up together — we share a birthday, same year, same day).
I don’t have an image of it, but there’s a heartbreaking letter in the family archive — Charles and Mary and their children used to come out to Yellowstone, on the railroad, the one that comes right through Livingston where I now live. They travelled like the Edwardian rich people they were — staying in big canvas tents and eating off real china with table linens etc. But they came back, year after year, and there’s a condolence letter from the people who ran the outfitting company, who were based out of Helena. They’d seen the news in the paper and wrote a letter so touching that nearly 100 years later, going through that box with my grandmother, it brought me to tears.
The funeral was at Holy Name Cathedral, and was a big public event. Here’s the photo of the crowds being held back, and there’s another one that’s difficult to see that shows people lined up all down the sidewalk. They were prominent in Chicago, and of course, they’d died in a huge public event, akin to the 9/11 of their day, so it was also an occasion for patriotic display.
A century on, it’s tricky to pinpoint the personal ripples in the family from their deaths. The family fortunes began their long slow decline, and who knows, perhaps with a vigorous patriarch (or matriarch, knowing our family) the following generations might have had both the encouragement and the capital they needed to grow the small fortunes they were left with. Or perhaps not. They were still a fascinating bunch, who built settlement houses and ran the logistics for the liberation of Italy during World War 2 and played polo and foxhunted and had a pretty grand old time. That my mother’s generation seemed eager to spend the last of the capital, rather than build anything out of it, might just be one of those things. Life is funny, and you never really know how people will turn out.
The big mausoleum is still there. My brother Michael was the last one buried there, in 1972, after he died from childhood cancer. And as eager as I was to flee Chicago, where I felt suffocated by the way all our families are all still so entwined, I also find it a comfort that I found a Mackin relative out here (a fellow North Shore expat). People are always sort of shocked that Dan and I discovered we’re cousins, but as I like to say, if you’re Catholic, and Irish, and your people were well off in Chicago at the turn of the last century, well, we’ve all intermarried in the meanwhile, so chances are we’re cousins somewhere along the line. I like to tease Dan about trying to steal our farm, since he comes from those other Mackins, the ones none of us even knew existed until some Plamondon relative from the Michigan side (descendents of Blanche, the third Plamondon sister) came out to the farm to talk to my grandmother in her old age. They had scrapbooks filled with clippings about the case. . And all these years later, Dan and I are both living out here where he and his wife run a restaurant and catering business, and I have my weird little high-tech job and try to write books. The American saga, migration, reinvention, and in the case of Irish families like ours, lots and lots of storytelling.
This is Hank, with the deer leg he’s been carrying and hiding on our morning dog walk for the past couple of weeks. I posted it to Twitter, and was slightly shocked by a couple of people who were grossed out.
It’s one of the things about living out here where people hunt (and illegally dump hides and bones) and where there are non-human predators who hunt as well. The woods are littered with bones.
Bones of deer and elk and sometimes cattle who just died out there, or who were killed by something — a bear, a mountain lion, a coyote, a wolf. A couple of years ago, Himself and I were hiking in Yellowstone, up on the Blacktail plateau where the wolves roam and we found a rocky cove, a kind of a gully that the wolves had been using as an abbatoir. Looked like they’d been driving ungulates up in there for years, then killing them when they couldn’t get out. The bone pile was impressive.
Our morning walk isn’t particularly wild. There’s a road with a steep hillside to the west and a swamp to the east. On the far side of the swamp is the highway. It’s a spur of the old road, mostly quiet although with enough traffic that we’ve had to do a remedial course in “do not herd the vehicles”. Upstream from the swampiest part are a couple of fields with a very small herd of cattle.
A few weeks ago, one of the cattle died. It was a weird sight, the cow lying on it’s side, dead. Dead does not look like sleeping, although one sort of hoped, but when we came back twenty minutes later and the cow was still there, still with the raven perched atop, it was pretty clear. Dead cow.
Things die. That was an old cow, or perhaps a bull, it was fairly far away and my eyesight is not so terrific. It was there for a day or two, then the rancher hauled it away, I think just deeper into the woods where the bears and the coyotes and the birds will eat it.
And there’s Hank every morning, my bright and shining new boy, so pleased with his deer leg, bounding up the road eager to see what other treats might be waiting. I like it, that it’s all here mixed up together. Deer leg and new dog. Dead cow and new baby calves. Sandhill cranes singing their weird clacking breeding songs and Canadian geese squawking at us, and redwing blackbirds calling from the cattails below. It’s all the same.