A Spinster Considers Gender

A Spinster Considers Gender

Marie Plamondon in her WW1 Auxiliary uniform

This is my great-great aunt, Marie Plamondon in her WW1 Women’s Auxiliary uniform. For a while, I used her as my Twitter avatar, from this photo. She grew up in Chicago, in a Catholic family of some wealth, with two sisters and two brothers. Her parents were industrialists who died on the Lusitania when she was in her twenties, a death that rocked the entire family. They were close. They loved one another, and Marie and Charlotte, my great-grandmother and namesake, were close companions their entire life. Years later, when the settlement came through from the German government, Marie inherited more than her siblings because she was a spinster, who would have relied more heavily than they did on her parents support.

As you can see, Marie was not exactly gender conforming. Although she “came out” to society (no not came out like that) as did her two sisters, she was one of those women who usually dressed in menswear on the top, with a skirt and heavy brogues on the bottom. I’m sure they were tailored. She was wealthy, and although I don’t remember her, I do remember her chauffeur, Doc. He was a very tall, very elegant black man. There was a reason she was known not just to us, but around Chicago as “The Duchess.”

Along with her cousin Mary Agnes Amberg, she started The Madonna Center on the southwest side. It was a settlement house along the lines of Hull House, but specifically aimed at the Catholic immigrant communities that were coming into the city at that time. The Catholic Church was worried that Hull House would make Protestants out of people by helping them, so they stepped up. Marie and Mary Agnes spent nearly fifty years together, and although they were proper Catholic religious spinsters, it was pretty clear to everyone that they were also a couple.

I’m always cautious about ascribing contemporary definitions of sexuality to those who came before us, but my aunt Molly who remembers them well is very clear that they loved one another deeply. And that yes, it did not appear to be a platonic love.

The Duchess was a beloved member of the family, as was her brother The Colonel (they had a thing for titles, that generation). The Colonel was a lifelong bachelor, an actual colonel, and my grandmother’s favorite person in the world. There are stacks of letters between them from her earliest childhood when he was in WW1 all the way through to his death. He taught her to ride, let her play polo with his cavalry units, and they adored one another. We were going through pictures when she was quite old, and it was clear to those of us who are younger that the Colonel was not unlucky in love, he was a very handsome man who appeared to have had a number of deeply loved male companions in life. “He had terrible psoriasis,” my grandmother said, to explain his bachelorhood. My aunt and I burst out laughing.

I’ve been thinking about them a lot these past weeks as people have been yammering on about trans kids, and trying to pass laws about gender conformity. The North Carolina law seems particularly insidious to me because it demands that those who work with children police them for “symptoms of gender dysphoria, gender nonconformity, or otherwise demonstrates a desire to be treated in a manner incongruent with the minor’s sex.” Should they see such symptoms, they are required to notify the child’s parents in writing.

Marie Plamondon fixing her own car, Leland, Illinois. Probably sometime around 1910?

Here’s another picture of The Duchess. One of my favorites. This is The Duchess up to her elbows in her own Model A. She and her sister, my great-grandmother, were two of the first women to get driving licenses. Their mother and her sister Kate also sued a pile of male relatives their father had brought over from Ireland, including a priest, for the right to inherit their own farm. They’re two of the women who established that in the State of Illinois, unlike back in the old country, women could inherit property. And they were the ones who wore lovely clothes. Mary caught a rich husband when her sister didn’t want to go up to Chicago on the train, and sent Mary instead. Mary and Charles had just celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary when the Lusitania went down with them onboard.

Mary Mackin Plamondon, Marie’s mother. Clearly gender-conforming, but also kind, and smart, and no pushover.

My grandmother was born in 1911, when children were sort of considered their own gender until say 7, the age of reason, when you got a first communion. And because she was frustrated all her life by the things she couldn’t do because of her gender: compete at polo when it was a huge public sport, take that position Northwestern offered in the medical school, take over her father’s company when her only brother was killed in WW2 — she raised me not to be girly, and told me my whole life to go to school, get a profession, have my own money so I wouldn’t have to rely on a man. When I was 40 or so, she gave me a family ring and said “there, now you have a huge diamond and you didn’t even have to marry anyone for it.” I spent the best bits of my childhood on her farm, the only girl running a gang of younger brothers and boy cousins, riding ponies, shooting BB guns, and generally getting in mild versions of trouble. It was a shock at ten or so when I had to start wearing a shirt.

I would have been busted had that North Carolina bill been on the books during my adolescence and college years. I was very much Not Girly. I liked boys clothes, and had a series of thrifted mens jackets I wore for years. I came back from a summer of camping and field biology in the BWCA with furry legs and armpits, wearing a pair of old army pants I loved because I didn’t have to carry a bag, I could put everything in the pockets. I was terrible at flirting, and when I did wear something girly I usually wore it as a kind of costume.

We were the “Free to Be You and Me” generation. The ones whose parents dressed us in gender-neutral primary colors. The ones who played with gender neutral toys. The ones set loose in the woods to go amuse ourselves until dinner.

I thought the whole point was that we were supposed to get past all that gender nonsense. We were supposed to be able to meet one another as equals. I remember being so upset by one of my dear guy friends in college, someone I loved dearly, and always kind of hoped would like me “that way” but who didn’t, when he fell for a girl from my hometown who was dumb, and blonde, and had big boobs, and who ticked off all the boxes of wealthy preppy girldom at that time. I was so disappointed in him. How could he? With someone like that?

It’s no surprise I was single until halfway through my forties. The family thought of me as the spinster. In a lot of Irish Catholic families it’s sort of understood that one daughter will not marry, will take care of her parents and everyone else. My mother both wanted me to be this spinster (she said, not long ago “I’m so glad you didn’t have children, so you have more time for me.”), and resented the qualities in me that make one a spinster: bossiness, ability to take charge, not really caring that much what other people think. Alarmingly, I also recently saw this list as often-overlooked symptoms of autism in women. Which brings up all kinds of ideas about how the world thinks about both gender and disability, if one definition of disability is not caring much about gender. But I digress. By the time I entered my early 40s, still single, clearly not destined for motherhood, I was reconciling myself with spinsterhood. I had a house I was on the way to owning. My best friend had 5 kids, including a set of twins, so there were always kids who needed tending. I had friends and a community. I had my own money. I was lonely, but pretty much okay.

I would probably still be single, and an official spinster, had I not met Himself, a guy who loves smart mouthy women, who isn’t interested at all in girliness, and whose ex-wife was bisexual. (I knew her first, and she’s so cool it’s one reason I pursued him.) I’m, as the kids would say, cis het — but for at least a decade I’m pretty sure the older ladies in my family thought I must have a secret girlfriend hidden away somewhere. I was single for so long I was waiting for one of them to bring it up, tell me it was okay, I could bring her home. Sadly, there was no secret girlfriend, or boyfriend — just long years of being single, dating unavailable men or living with my brother. And then he died and I was left in the howling wasteland of being alone, and had to consciously go looking for a partner. I was lucky to be in Livingston, where as one of my exes likes to say “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” I wasn’t good at being alone. I’m grateful every day that I found someone who not only loves me, but who doesn’t want to live in my house, and who is dedicated and reliable but doesn’t want to get married. We’re one of those side-by-side couples.

That we’ve come to a place as a society where gender is being reinscribed in these proscriptive ways hurts my ancient feminist heart. I’m one of the people who had hoped the gay rights movement would free us ALL from marriage, would crack society open to new ways of building families, of building relationships, of building communities.

And that the larger world is piling on these kids who are so vulnerable, it kills me. I remember in the 80s when I had guy friends in college who really really didn’t want to be gay. They thought that meant they’d never have a family, or a stable life. One of my students, who was struggling with transition last spring, got impatient with me when I was talking about it. “But being gay is normal,” they said. “Being trans isn’t!”

How far we’ve come and yet how we have not. Coming out in the 80s was terrifying. My circle of friends were nerdy good students, ambitious kids who were not rebels, who hadn’t done drugs in high school and who just wanted what everyone else wanted — a profession, a reasonably successful grownup life — but who had to go home and tell their parents they were gay. As AIDS was emerging? Before anyone ever thought gay people would wind up with marriages, kids, houses in the suburbs. It meant breaking your parents’ hearts.

I hate gender policing of even the mildest kind. I have no proscriptions here, nothing to say other than we’re all fucking weird in our own ways. Imposing conformity has never worked — and I suspect that’s the point. It’s not supposed to “work” — it’s not supposed to bring anyone back into the fold — it’s supposed to scapegoat, and alienate, and bring together a group of people by uniting them in their hatred of someone different. Someone they can expel from the community and thereby think they’ve gotten their purity back.

So if there’s any point to outing my long-dead family members, it’s just to point out that the non-gender-conforming have always been with us. They’re part of us. They’re people we love. If you or your kids or someone you love is not gender conforming, or someone is telling them they don’t exist, or they’re just looking for attention, or whatever bullshit people are on about them with, you are free to wield Marie’s WW1 uniform picture at them. Sexuality and gender have always existed on a spectrum, and during times like these, those of us who are not under direct attack need to circle the wagons around our vulnerable loved ones, remind them they’re loved, and fight back against anyone who’d suggest they’re not.

I leave you with The Duchess, at Christmas with the whole family in probably 1964. She’s in the foreground. What I love about this photo is how ordinary it is. Everyone is hanging out. Together. On Christmas. Including our odd but loved Aunt, in her men’s suit, short hair, and clunky shoes, who is no doubt, bossing people around because that is her nature.

The Duchess, looking askance at something. Christmas 1964?
The Homemade Freak Flags of the Resistance

The Homemade Freak Flags of the Resistance

Three tunic tops on a clothesline. From left to right, they're white, pink, and green.

Himself has a stupendous collection of garage sale art. He grew up in an antique-y family, his mother had booths in group shops for years, and he remembers childhood weekends spent in the back of the station wagon, way too early in the morning, heading off to find treasure. The art collection has themes. For example, one room in the detached motel bungalow at the cabin is birds, and the other is vintage western travel swag. The main room at the cabin has a collection of three-legged ungulates, mostly elk, including a needlepointed scene I found at our now-closed Senior Center thrift shop. They had a rule, he and his ex-wife — they couldn’t spend more than a buck for unframed paintings, five bucks for framed ones. The needlepoint cost me ten bucks, but you know, inflation. They weren’t “collecting outsider art” — they were finding cool things to put on their walls.

For decades, he’s done construction work, mostly renovations, and for a long time he sort of specialized in modernizing old cabins. “Why,” he keeps asking me, as the person who grew up among the wealthy, “why do rich people all want exactly the same house?”

You know what he means — out here, the standard-issue second home or retirement home is usually log, dyed that weird orange color, with a green metal roof. There’s a pointy “great room” window, a deck, and usually something that looks like a barn but actually houses an RV, various 4-wheelers, and at least 2 SUVs. Inside the place will be furnished with oversized peeled-log furniture upholstered in fake Pendleton blanket textiles. Often there are chandeliers made from antlers.

You see the same thing with people dressing alike — the Instagram blonde mommies with a naked toddler on a hip, wearing that flat brim hat and photographed wearing a skirt and boots and feeding the chickens. The fly fishermen who all wear exactly the same shirt. The sporty Bozeman yuppies who pay too much money for the Patagonia jacket of the year because that’s what their people wear.

I really noticed this a few years ago when I started making my own clothes. I loved the clothes I was making, and for the first time felt comfortable in my skin. I’m short, have never been skinny, and most ready-to-wear never fit me right. I have a core set of 5 or 6 patterns I turn to for everyday, although I’m feeling like this summer I might shake a few of them up. They’re shapes that look good on me, that are comfortable, and that allow me to do all the things I want to do every day: go for a walk, work in the garden, curl up in a chair and read a book, sit at my desk and do my day job, ride a bike. Even, for those couple of years I was at MSU, teach.

I started sewing again in my late 40s because I kept seeing simple clothes in nice fabrics in fancy stores that were wildly too expensive for me. And so I started making them. I found some good fabric sources online. I bought a nice basic Singer that does zigzag and buttonholes. As I sewed more regularly, I got better at it, and figured out how to modify a pattern, learned how to keep pockets from gapping, learned how to re-cut a garment that didn’t work like I wanted it to.

I learned how to take charge of my own clothes. As Karie Westermann, the knitting designer likes to say: Making stuff is powerful. Making stuff gives you agency. Making stuff transforms. Making stuff makes something out of nothing. Go make stuff.

Himself has a saying: “that’s just lifestyle stuff.” Meaning, that’s just something someone else told you you should want and so you’re chasing it to make yourself look hip, or important, or wealthy, or whatever. The someone else is the giant machine of consumer capitalism, one that’s infiltrated every part of our lives, and like all good structural systems, made itself largely invisible. Consumer capitalism needs for us to keep chasing the hit, over and over and over. Buying stuff then throwing it out to buy different stuff because styles have changed. And styles have changed so you’ll buy new stuff. And go into debt to do it.

In order to keep doing this, capitalism needs to convince us we’re helpless. That we’re helpless even at the level of what we want. Hence the army of “influencers” to tell us what the color of the year is, or the 10 hottest trends in interior design or what your outdoor patio “room” should look like.

Capitalism needs to convince us that we can’t do it ourselves. That cooking is too hard, so we should buy prepared food or order out. That sewing simple clothing or curtains or throw pillows is some mysterious process that won’t work and you’ll look weird and you can’t do it yourself. When you can. When you can actually make something you’d like, and enjoy making it, and then wear it for years. That you can’t pull together a room from things you found at garage sales or inherited from your grandparents or found at junk shops because that won’t be a “look”.

One of my hopes as we come out of the pandemic is that people discover they’re capable of figuring out what they actually like. I love my living room, but it’s a cobbled together collection of furniture, about half of which is hand-me-downs, and family stuff, and piles of books, and some nice pieces of art, and some funny framed things that Himself has given me over the years. It’s warm and cozy and a tiny bit cluttered and it’s exactly how I want it.

Or take my backyard. Now that we’re coming out of pandemic, I’m occasionally having people over, and we’re at that stage of the year where the backyard looks terrible. I mulched the beds in straw over the winter, and it looks very messy right now. The chickens are churning it up, and while there’s a few daffodils poking through, mostly its a lot of straw and my raised-bed veg garden that doesn’t have anything growing in it yet. My apple trees got hit hard by fireblight a few years ago and I didn’t cut them down and start over. One tree has a big dead section, but is regenerating just like one did on the other side of the yard. One tree is dead, with suckers. I grafted a varietal I like better onto a couple of the suckers. We’ll just have to wait and see whether they turn into a real tree. For now, the dead skeleton holds up the twinkle lights I like in the evening when I want to sit out there and read.

Livingston has shifted from being the town full of aging hippies and artists it was when I moved here 20 years ago (there has also always been about half the town made up of conservative ranchers and church people. I’ve heard stories of the epic fights that would break out between the hippie bar and the rancher bar back in the day) to a town with a much bigger contingent of rich retirees and second home owners. And a couple of people from my past, people with money, people whose aesthetic is still very much based on what Himself would call lifestyle have moved here. It has me feeling preemptively defensive about my “messy” garden and my “weird” clothes. I fled that world a long time ago, but the critical voice of the snob is one I can hear in my head without having to try very hard.

Resistance can be tricky. I forget that most people haven’t spent their adult life trying to resist, trying to escape the constraints of corporate jobs and culture. I’ve worked corporate jobs for 20 years, but as a kind of corner case. I’ve worked at home full time. I’ve been a contractor for most of it. I’ve gotten laid off because I had no interest in management or climbing a ladder. I just wanted enough money to pay off my debts, put something away so I don’t starve as an old woman, and have enough to get by day to day. I kept hoping I’d find a clear patch where I could get some traction on the writing, find a way to make it a career. That part didn’t work out, but I did get a house and a garden and a life and a nice partner and some chickens and a dog. I’m getting to where there’s a clear space for the writing. It’s all good.

What I didn’t get, because I did not want it, and never wanted to chase it, was the kind of wealth I grew up around. The kind of wealth that is deeply invested in having the right kind of house in the right kind of place with the right kind of decoration and then showing it off with that slightly hysterical tinge, see? See? Look at our fabulous life?! That some of those folks are showing up here, and bringing that energy with them, is … problematic.

The culture wants us to be consumers, not participants. I love my space, and my odd clothes, but the imposed conformity of capitalism, and the way it seeks to divide and label us by the things we wear and have and drive can leave a person feeling a tiny bit exposed. If I have a utopian dream, it’s a world where we can all be our inner weirdos all the time. That they don’t have to be hidden inner weirdos anymore. Where it’s the ones who don’t have a freak flag to fly who are considered odd.

We’re still on the tippy edge of fascism here as a nation, and conformity is a huge part of that. I think it’s why it bothers me so much that the people who can now afford to move here are the ones who want the same houses. Who want their house to look like everyone else’s, who want to wear the uniform, whether it’s jeans with a crease, boots and a cowboy hat, or the fly fisherman’s shirt, or the blonde girls with the flat-brim hat, tow-headed baby and the boots/skirt combo. There’s such an urge to conform, to choose a lifestyle, and for so many people those lifestyles are connected to a brand. “I just love that Patagonia lifestyle” someone commented on an instagram post my cousin put up for Father’s Day, talking about what a great dad her husband is. He had a Patagonia hat on. Talk about missing the point.

One thing I’m working toward in this longer collection I’m trying to pull together is to articulate why I believe that making things is an act of resistance. All those paintings Himself collected, none of those people thought they were going to be great artists, but you can feel the joy in making something in their work. My garden doesn’t look like one of those English garden shows, and for much of the year it’s really kind of a mess, but for a couple of months in the middle of the summer there are roses and fruit trees and a vegetable garden and hollyhocks and it’s glorious. There’s so much creative energy in the world that’s just gotten channeled into shopping these past few decades, and among the things we’re going to have to do to save ourselves from drowning in our own filth on this planet is to learn to stop fucking shopping. One way to do that is to learn how to make something. Learn to take joy in the process. Learn to like being terrible at something again. Make a painting or a cake or plant some peas or knit a pair of mittens. Take something you already have and reuse it. And if you know how to do something, teach someone else.

Of all the joyful things that have happened in the years I’ve lived here, maybe the best is all those holidays my nieces came over here to cook with me. We’d figure out a project, and hang out, and talk about their lives, and it’s one reason we have real relationships now that they’re starting to be adults. One texted me yesterday, about Easter desserts. We talked about desserts we’ve made over the years, brainstormed what she wanted to cook for her group of folks in LA, talked about a short story she’d written, and what she wanted to do about school next year. Maybe people bond like that over shopping, but I don’t, and that our relationship is built on making stuff is one of the great joys of my childless middle age. So let your freak flag fly, and let it fly on a clothesline, and let’s all try to come out of this pandemic a little smarter than when we went into it.

Lichens, All of Us

Lichens, All of Us

Blue and white plate with two spring onions, and an egg, on a red tablecloth.

The spring onions have come in, the chickens are laying again and I’ve been thinking about bodies. My yard is full of bodies — chickens and cats and the dog and myself. Himself, my love, likes the cats, puts up with the dog, but really does not like the chickens at all. Mostly because they shit in the yard. I clean up after them, but chickenshit is a factor in this space. It doesn’t bother me, but I grew up in horse barns, and mucking out was one of my first childhood chores.

The neighborhood is full of bodies too — the weather has warmed up and all the little kids are OUTSIDE and they are YELLING. After a long hiatus in which we didn’t have any littles in the neighborhood, we now have Roman and Ruby next door who are 7 and 4, and Addison and Emerson who are older, 10 & 12 maybe? and who are here on and off when they’re with their dad. There are twins at each end of the alley — one set who are about 8 and one set who are about 2. Across the street there’s 2 houses full of little people. The neighborhood is alive in the afternoons and early evenings with pent up kids playing, and sometimes, a wee witching hour meltdown. More bodies. The 2 year old twins are in love with my prodigal cat, and after a year in lockdown, helping his mom by carrying a sleepy toddler back down the alley was an endorphin hit that nearly knocked me over.

I keep chickens because I like the eggs, and I like their company. I’d rather have chickens than a lawn (they’re hell on grass). They cluck around out there, they dig up bugs, the dog occasionally runs through and sets them all into a panic and I yell at him for it. There’s a rhythm to our days together, that, along with the two to three eggs they produce, feels like we have a little collective going here. I feed and water them and clean out their coop. I pull the Buff Orpington who goes broody off the nesting box and sometimes I have to put her in chicken jail for a little while so her hormones will cool down and she’ll stop trying to hatch sterile eggs. I bring them treats and they stand on the 2 x 4 in a line and sometimes they want to be petted. They cluck around and talk to me all day long. It’s good. I like them, and I like their little bodies out there, and I like taking care of them.

And the spring onions — those spring onions mean the earth really has turned. They’re a different kind of body altogether. They were here when I bought the house, and for a couple of years I didn’t pay attention to keeping them in the vegetable garden and I nearly lost them altogether. There was just one wee patch left in the perennial bed. The original onions. So I let them grow out, until the cluster of tiny bulbs formed on the top of the sturdiest of the onion greens, then I replanted those in the raised beds. Now, 10 years later, I always have some of these onions in the garden. There are older ones, that get a little woody but they reproduce by splitting off at the bulb, and feathery clusters of new ones coming up where a cluster of bulbils fell last fall. They’re semi-perennial and semi-wild and so pungent that they’ve ruined me for store scallions. That they’ve started to come up through the straw cover, that the chickens are starting to lay again, that the bulbs are coming up, and that we’re starting to get vaccinations has me thinking a lot about bodies.

A year ago, we went into lockdown. It was surprising how quickly it happened. I remember telling my students that even if the university didn’t shut down, we were going remote for the rest of the semester. I remember my tech job shutting down before the university did. I remember people on the department hallway who thought we were coming back from spring break. The lockdown started with people bewildered, and frightened, and so cooped up they started growing scallion bottoms in glasses of water. We got locked down and suddenly having a way to grow some of your own food seemed less like a hobby, and more like something we should know how to do. I remember a conference years ago where I heard Donna Haraway, the feminist scholar discussing “practices of memory” the keeping alive of manual skills that the culture was trying to convince us were no longer needed. As we went into lockdown I was glad of the chickens, and the garden, and knowing how to cook and sew and knit.

Its been a long year of people warring over which bodies count. Once it became clear that black and brown people were dying at higher rates than white people, an entire social and political class of white people decided masks were a hoax, and the virus was a hoax and grew increasingly confrontational and violent towards those who were following the global health guidelines and trying to protect themselves and their loved ones. Which bodies count? Then the murder, on camera, of George Floyd that set off a worldwide uprising to proclaim that yes, Black Lives Matter. Black bodies matter. This shouldn’t be controversial, but this is the United States, a nation founded on not just the genocide of native peoples but the active erasure of that genocide. This is the United States, a nation funded by the work of enslaved peoples, people who only counted as bodies. This is the United States, where working women discovered this year that it is impossible to keep your job while also supervising children who are trying to attend school remotely. Women’s financial security across the board took a gigantic hit this year.

Which bodies count? Which bodies count as people, and which ones don’t?

Even to ask this question is to espouse a belief that we’re not all the same bodies, all the same people. I grew up Catholic, which had its problems, but there’s something useful in attesting each week to being one body in Christ. We were very lefty Catholics, so the “in Christ” part was less of an evangelical call than it was a metaphor. We were all one. We were all the same.

At that same conference a few years back, Donna Haraway gave the keynote along with Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. They gave the keynote together, as a team. Tsing’s book, The Mushroom at the End of the World had just come out. I’d driven over to Moscow, Idaho because Haraway was speaking and her work, particularly the Cyborg Manifesto and theory of situated knowledges were so important to me as I worked through my PhD. She made me feel less crazy then, and even all those years later, long out of academia, I wanted to hear what she had to say. I found my notes the other day, when I was going through old material to try to get a handle on what I’m doing now and this jumped out at me:

We have never been one.

We have never been singular.

We are lichens.

We are compost.

Mornings I go out and collect a couple of eggs, which I usually eat for breakfast. Hank dog often gets one on his kibble. Hank and I and the chickens are all one body in that sense. We’re also one in that we’re breathing in the same biome, one that includes chicken (and dog and cat) shit. The chicken litter gets composted and goes on the vegetable garden, where the onions come back to life as the sun warms up the straw.

I’m not brave about the people who won’t wear masks. I’m afraid of the systems collapsing around us. The whole world shut down for a year, something I never even considered as a possibility. It feels like we’re all the big ship in the Suez canal. Everyone is stuck. The angry fearful white people who won’t or can’t think of themselves as part of a bigger whole are stuck in that position of anger and fear. They scare the hell out of me, which is probably why I’ve been building this tiny ark in the backyard.

We’ve all been humming along like the global container trade. It’s so normalized that no one even thinks about it until a gigantic ship gets caught sideways in a narrow canal and suddenly the shiny marvel of just-in-time supply chains is clogged. We were all humming along taking cruises and travelling all over the world on fossil fuel jets and commuting in individual cars and believing the tech bros who told us our experience of life should be seamless, that we deserved everything we want, right now.

We’re at some sort of pause point, and it remains to be seen which way we go. As for me, I’ll be here in the backyard with my friendly chickens, shoveling shit.

Newsletter News

Newsletter News

I’ve really enjoyed the newsletter format, and being able to send you all a tiny essay once a week or so on some issue I’m thinking through for the book project I’m working on. It’s been enormously useful, and I’ve used a number of these posts as jumping-off points for real essays.

However, Substack has a few issues —

I’ve been writing online since the dark ages, and I’ve always preferred to host my own content. I mean, I’m so old I nearly lost my PhD qualifying exams, which are pretty formative to all my work, in a floppy disk spin-rate mismatch situation when I upgraded a laptop (I printed them out). I’ve self-hosted my LivingSmall blog since at least 2005 (when I came off Typepad or Blogger, can’t remember which one). And so I went looking for ways to self-host my newsletter.

Substack also has a real problem with white supremacist dickheads, to whom it seems to be paying a bunch of money to bring traffic to it’s site.

Mine isn’t really a paying newsletter (although if you’d like to throw some money my way, I did add the Buy Me A Coffee link) … but I just didn’t like being on that platform anymore.

So — here’s my experiment in self-hosted newslettters! If anyone wants the gory details on how and which plugin just drop me a note.

If you were subscribed on Substack, no worries, I just shifted the list over to this new format, so you don’t have to do anything.

If you weren’t subscribed, and would like to be, just click here (or use the form in the sidebar).

If you experience any technical issues — I’d really appreciate it if you’d leave a comment or drop me an email (or twitter, or whatever).

Thanks so much! Here’s to a new platform!

Nowruz in the Garden

Nowruz in the Garden

Four high raised garden beds, two with plastic hoop houses. One long low raised bed in foreground.

I am not Persian, but as a gardener in a northern climate, I’ve taken the Persian New Year holiday to heart because it’s usually when I can start my garden year again. Despite our spell of subzero weather in February, it’s been pretty nice these past couple of weeks. Sunny and 50s during the day, 20s overnight. And so … time to take these tall beds for a test drive.

I didn’t blog about it last year, most of my garden rebuild went on Instagram, but I entirely rebuilt the garden last spring. I panicked as the pandemic hit. The beds I had were okay, but I was having a terrible time with weeds, and I wanted to make sure I could grow food for myself and Himself into my geezer years. So this is my geezer garden. The beds are tall enough that I can toddle out there as an ancient crone using my walker, and still manage.

I didn’t get them in until early June last year, so this is the first year I can see how they do in the spring. The near bed with the hoop house on it has been cooking away for a couple of weeks now. It has lots of cool weather greens seeds that I threw in in January, and then another batch when I hooped it about a month ago. There are also walking onions and some garlic I planted in the fall. There’s a carpet of tiny seedlings coming up under there, and some green onion and garlic shoots. With luck, I should be able to start eating thinnings in a week or two. The next bed I just planted and hooped this afternoon. It has some sprouting broccoli I started indoors about 3 weeks ago that I transplanted out, and a lot of spinach, broccoli rabe, arugula, mustard, and Franchi Italian greens I buy from GrowItalian.com. The next bed down I planted with peas. I’ll have to put some sort of supports in there when they start coming in, but for now, I just planted a bunch of pea varieties, and we’ll see what happens. The near tall bed has herbs in it, and I’m waiting to see which perennials made it through the winter.

Raised garden bed full of straw with onion shoots visible.

This is one of the two long beds I replaced as is when I did the rebuild, and these are my beloved Egyptian Walking Onions. They were here when I bought this house, in feral patches around the yard. They’re always the first thing up in the spring and I adore how pungent they are. Last spring I sliced, vacuum sealed and froze a glut of them, and it got me through the winter. I still bought the occasional bunch of scallions at the store, for the crunch, but the frozen ones were fine to cook with. I also managed to keep myself in home-grown parsley over the winter. I put 4 parsley plants in a planter in the greenhouse room, and they provided me with enough fresh parsley that I never had to buy any. I also froze a lot of parsley at the end of the summer, but the texture isn’t good, so I’ve only used it to cook with. I might have to dig them out and make a batch of Green Soup now, since the parsley I buried in straw for the winter is starting to come back in.

Strawberry plants growing through straw in a raised garden bed.

The strawberries also did really well buried in straw for the winter. I’m experimenting with a kind of no-dig/compost-in-place process in these long low beds. I bought a couple of 40lb bags of alfalfa pellets at the feed store — I think I paid $12 a piece? I read on one of the permaculture sites that alfalfa pellets make good green manure, and since part of my goal was to start heating up this straw so it will break down, I thought I’d try it as a green layer. So far, it’s settling right in, the pellets have melted, and it seems to be helping to break down the straw. We’ll see. My garden motto. It’s all an experiment.

Rhubarb crown beginning to poke up through the straw garden bedding.

And finally, I’ll leave you with this sign of spring. A rhubarb crown, poking up through the straw in the soft fruit bed, where it’s fenced off from the chickens. With any luck in a few weeks we’ll have new rhubarb.

Happy Nowruz! Happy Spring Equinox — I’m off to get a COVID vaccine tomorrow, and here’s to all of us coming out of this year of lockdown, and being able to see one another again.

Garden Ethic?

Garden Ethic?

Originally published on Substack, March 16, 2021

Tomato and pepper seeds planted in recycled lettuce boxes and in flats. On heat mats in a cold frame.

I planted tomato and pepper seeds yesterday and put them out in the cold frame on heat mats to germinate. I have a little greenhouse space, but, um, I’ve turned it into a writing room. This is an experiment this year, putting them out right away. I hung one of the shop light/grow lights from the lid of the cold frame. We’ll see. It’ll either work or it won’t.

Which is sort of my core gardening ethic. It’ll either work or it won’t. I don’t go to enormous lengths to get things to grow — we’re in a harsh climate — our average is 16” of rain per year. I don’t have automatic sprinklers, and I water by hand when I absolutely have to. I use a lot of mulch. Mostly straw because it’s cheap. Winters used to be harder, but even if it’s mostly in the 20s and 30s we’ll still get a spell of subzero weather. We had one in November, and one two weeks ago. Today it’s 60. And sunny. I had to prop open the cold frame so the seeds don’t cook. I’m sure it’ll snow a few more times between now and June 1, when I can put tomatoes in the ground.

I’ve been thinking a lot about something I want to call the Garden Ethic, but I think that nomenclature is going to be a problem. People hear “garden” and they think the garden aisle at the big box stores. All those poisons. All those fertilizers. All those nursery plants they pick up and bring home like any other consumer good. Another aisle of things Capital wants to sell us.

That’s not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is the sense that we’re put here to take care. For me, that’s what gardening is. It’s taking care. It’s looking at what is actually out there in my yard, asking things how they’re doing, doing my best to keep them going. I plant a lot for pollinators. I have fruit bushes and trees. Since the food distribution economy hasn’t entirely collapsed, I leave a lot of the berries for the birds, and it’s birds who eat nearly all my apples, although on a motivated year I’ll take them over to Bozeman to be crushed and then we’ll make hard cider.

There seem to be two approaches to gardening and sadly the prevalent notion is that gardening is all about imposing human will on the landscape. You know, like topiary trees or my dear Posy Krehbeil’s beautiful Camp Rosemary garden with its “garden rooms” and lawn trimmed like a putting green.

Gardens are problematic in the American nature imagination. For the most part, we don’t have gardens, we have lawns, and more and more, those lawns are tended by landscape crews and watered by automated systems that go on at five in the morning. They’re just green background. Like outdoor carpeting. There’s even a word for it: plant blindness. Across most of America, we don’t have gardens, we have landscaping.

Some of that changed this year, with the pandemic. Just as, after the 2008 crash there was also a spike in vegetable gardening. We’ll see whether it takes, but for the most part, it seems that mainstream America thinks gardens are “too much work.”

Which is kind of the point I’m circling around to. For me, the garden’s work is the point. A garden, like pets or livestock, demands that you get out of your own head and tend to something else. Mid-March is when I start seeds because that’s when they need to be started if they’re to go in by June, and throw fruit by September. I’ve got a week or two wiggle room on either side of March 15, and I’ve started tomatoes as late as April, but seasons are determined as much by length-of-day as by temperature, and so that’s when the tomatoes need to get started.

I’ve become fascinated this year by the naturalistic garden movement. Projects like the Tokachi Millennium Forest in Japan, where Dan Pearson and Midori Shintani have been working on a one thousand year timeline. The garden is built on a piece of land that entrepreneur Mitsushige Hayashi bought to offset the carbon footprint of his newspaper business. The Tokachi Millennium Forest project is intended both to provide habitat for wild nature and to provide a safe space in which Japan’s mostly urban population can engage with nature. They’ve built in a number of ways for them to do this: in a forest, in the sculpted berms of the Earth Garden, in the farm and restaurant, or by riding or walking out into the forest itself. One of the things I’ve found most fascinating about this project is how it’s designed to meet people where they are, to draw people who might have very little experience of nature into the natural world, and to build the kind of experiences that will leave them perhaps just a tiny bit less plant blind than they were going in.

In many ways it reminds me of Yellowstone National Park. The vast majority of visitors to the park never leave the road/parking lot/boardwalk environment. They stay on the short loop paths, and rarely venture into the interior of the park. Which is fine. It’s probably one of the only reasons that the animal populations can withstand the impact of four million visitors passing through the park on a given year.

We’re finally coming to consensus in America that defining wilderness as physical landscapes in which people are absent is deeply flawed. Yellowstone, like the pre-Columbian Americas in general, was always inhabited. White people used instruments like the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny to declare that land belonged to those who discovered it in order to impose European capitalist ideas about using and developing it. We all learning about this in school, as though it was a good thing. And hence, these ideas have trickled down into a received sense that the Americas were terra nullis, that there was no one here, and that white people who discovered this empty territory had a divine right to develop it.

As the 20th century enclosed nature into smaller and smaller islands, a group of people who experienced the sublime out in the wild and uninhabited pieces of wild natuer that were left, came home and ignited the first wave of the conservation movement. They accomplished so much, including the establishment of the National Park, Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness systems. However, the movement was, like many social movements, nostalgic for a prelapsarian state that we now know never existed. “The wild” had always been inhabited. The Americas had always been inhabited. Just not in ways that colonizers recognized. To those first conservationists, “the Wild” looked like Eden. It seemed like the natural place from which we had all come, and to which we longed to return. It still does. The entire adventure tourism industry is built on this idea.

All of this is bringing me the long way back around to the idea of a garden ethic. It’s not really mine at all — I think it mostly belongs to Emma Marris, whose groundbreaking 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World challenges the notion that the only nature worth preserving is “pristine” in the sense that it is both devoid of people, and relatively untouched by human action. Marris argues that nature is everywhere — in backyards, city streets, even in places we’ve declared degraded by “invasive” species. She’s particularly good on the Yellowstone Model, upon which the park is relentlessly managed to match the conditions of its founding in 1879. Climate change, among other things, is making this increasingly impossible, and perhaps finally demonstrating that this is a foolish, if well-meaning, way to manage a chunk of land.

It’s hard to overstate how angry Marris’s book made conservationists, including a few here in town. The book came out just as the idea of the anthropocene was coming into the general lexicon, and the outrage that erupted at the very idea that “The Wild” was now, heartbreakingly, bounded by human action and control is hard to overstate. I had a woman ask me when discussing this, late one night in a local bar after a reading, whether I’d spent any time in the backcountry, and whether I even believed in God. For her, The Wild had the same valence as God, something beyond the human, something I think, that we couldn’t ruin.

Sadly, I think we’re all pretty clear that we were wrong about that, the wilderness part at any rate. It’s really difficult to talk about an ethic that incorporates non-wilderness nature out here in our part of Montana where we’re surrounded by gigantic wilderness areas that are always under threat. Always. So much human energy goes into fending off development into the wilderness areas that I think we often forget that wilderness does not equal nature.

Himself and I spend a lot of time in the summers car camping, often near abandoned mines (someone has a thing for amateur prospecting, and I go along for the pretty rocks). There’s a lot of country out here that’s been logged, and mined, and had roads cut through it. However, it’s still nature. In part because our population is so low, and in part because of class prejudices, we often wind up in lovely campsites in the middle of the week, out in the middle of nowhere, with trees and a creek and a fire pit. Sometimes there are RVs, and often the whine of ATVs or dirt bikes is annoying, but there are a lot of people out there actually enjoying the natural world who are not hiking into the backcountry.

I’m with Marris in wanting to develop an ethic of the front country that values non-wilderness nature. If we’ve learned anything this year, it’s the worth of green spaces where people can go outside and go for a walk. Green spaces in cities as well as the big wild places of the West.

For me, developing a garden ethic is not about bending the world to my will (which is why I have mixed emotions about those raised vegetable beds I built last year), but it’s more about learning to take care of things that are not me. A garden ethic, as I’m trying to define it is based on how take care of one another. How we take care of the earth and the animals (especially if that means leaving them alone). A garden ethic would measure the course of a life not by what you buy or what you achieve, but by what you care for. Did you raise good kids? Did you love someone? Did you make a little piece of the world better than you found it? Were you kind to the animals under your care? Did you take care of your employees or the people you work with?

I did my PhD in the early 1990s, when ecocriticism was in its infancy, and I’ve never quite recovered from the professor who explained to me that the pastoral and the wild were in opposition to one another. That it wasn’t a continuum, as I’d always thought, of nature where on the one end you had say that little copse of woods and creek at the end of the condominium development where we kids used to play, and then somewhere in the middle all those slightly unkempt farms like the one my grandmother lived on, and then at the other end you had the sublime heights of the mountain ranges of the West. No, it was a contest. The pastoral was always in conflict with the wild.

Now, this is the legacy of a kind of tedious false competition of ideas that infests so much of academia, but clearly it stuck somehow, because here I am 25 years later still wrestling with this idea.

I hope you’ll all put up with me as I continue to wrangle with this constellation of notions. It’s central to this book project I’m working on, and that I’m finding these newsletters really helpful as a way to grope my way through the thicket of ideas.

A tiny bit of housekeeping: I’ll be cross-posting Substack letters to LivingSmall blog from now on. I’m not crazy about what’s happening at the corporate level with Substack, and I’m looking for a new home for the newsletter. I really like being able to send you something to your inboxes that you can click on and access as a sort of blog/discussion board. So far, I haven’t found another tool that will do that … but I’ll keep looking.

The Secret Friend

The Secret Friend

Originally published at Substack: 2/23/2021

Messy desk with open notebook, pen, box of index cards pencil cup, computer on stand in background.

Hello people of the internets — just a little note to say that I’m finally writing again, I’m even sending things out — anyone who knows me knows that one reason my so-called writing career never really went anywhere, is that I am a giant chicken about sending things out. For too long, it was just too hard.

Writing was the thing I’d always done in secret — ever since my Aunt Lynn gave me a little locking diary the summer I was 8, the summer our funny, adored, 2 year old brother was dying of cancer, the summer I forbade anyone EVER to mention that possibility. Our parents were splitting up too. It was not a good time, and fierce superstitious little creature that I was, I refused to talk about it. I refused even to talk about talking about it. So Lynn invented the Secret Friend, who sometimes hid tiny presents for us around the house. The Secret Friend left me a locking diary, and Lynn told me no one could ever read what I wrote in there. That it was secret. And personal. And safe.

And so for years I was that kid, the one in the corner, either curled up behind the living room curtains or outside up in a tree, with my nose in a book or my pencil in a notebook. My notebooks saw me through a lot.

I wasn’t listened to well as a child, and I was projected on a lot, by both parents. My inner life felt like something precious that I had to guard carefully (except from Patrick. I could tell him anything.) All those years of workshop just felt like more people telling me what to think, how to be, what to say. I liked the academic parts of grad school for the most part, but not workshop so much.

And so, publication was weirdly upsetting. My novel that had been mine, was out there in the world. It wasn’t that people had opinions about the book. That would have been fine. A lot of people hated my “unlikeable” mother character, which I found sort of sad because I loved her in all her brittleness and wild intuition, and which made me happy because it meant I’d written the character I meant to write. That was all fine. What I found weird and upsetting was that people had opinions about me because of the book. The very first question at my very first reading was “So, have you had any tragedies in your own life?” I remember looking at Patrick standing at the back of the room, in a sort of panic, terrified I’d start laughing hysterically. What business is it of yours lady?

And this was all before the internet.

But anyhow, I’m starting to pull these essay chapters I’ve been working on for so long into pieces that can be sent out. I gave myself a goal of one submission per month. I’m applying for fellowships even. Residencies are … trickier. I’d love the excuse to shut out everything else and just work for a bit, but I don’t want to leave home. I have animals and the garden and well, Himself and I, while we don’t share a house we’ve also never gone longer than a week away from one another. We like each other. And I get nervous about everything disappearing if I go away. So I’m not really applying for residencies, even though they’re the kinds of thing that can help a girl get an agent again.

Oy. That part. All of it. I have to start over from scratch and I never liked any of the business part of writing. The selling end. Self-marketing. Readings were okay, but mostly sad — three people off the street. It was a first novel, I didn’t expect anything more. I’m bad at book parties — I hid in the mezzanine at the only one I went to in San Francisco, alarmed by the dudes in porkpie hats, alarmed that I was supposed to go down and schmooze with them. The parties we used to have here, back before the keystone writer dudes all died were fun though. Out on Nina and Elwood’s back porch in the Paradise Valley, packs of half-naked children shrieking and running through the adults holding plates of food and glasses of wine. Those were great, mostly because no one talked much about writing. Gossip about writers, sure, but not much shop talk about actual writing.

But I made a little resolution, so I’m going to keep sending out missives that are longer than a tweet, and we’ll see where they land. Not being glued to CNN and Twitter all day wondering if the government is falling has been a relief. Just being normal-angry at the Democrats has been a relief. There’s enough work to pay the bills, and the light is starting to come back. It’ll be time to plant the tomato starts soon. I might try some early broccoli seeds this weekend. The carnations I started from seed a year ago are about to bloom — we’ll see if the black ones are really black. Maybe I’ll try propagating from cuttings. And the apple scions I ordered should be arriving. Experiments in fruit tree grafting are on the horizon.

And I have another essay to pull together. There’s a March 1st deadline I’m shooting for. It’ll be messier than I’d like, but I’m sending it out anyway …

It Wasn’t Luck

It Wasn’t Luck

Originally published at Substack: 2/14/2021

Icicles from roof to ground, seen from inside the window.

I had a bunch of new project meetings this week, which inevitably lead to that sentence I hear all the time. Montana?! Oh! You’re so lucky to live there!

I am deeply, profoundly grateful for the life I’ve built here in this small town in Montana. But it wasn’t luck that got me here.  It was a combination of claustrophobia and a burning drive to find a house. Some of my women friends describe feeling that drive about having children. I love kids, and nearly melted last week when one of the twin toddlers down the block held up his arms to be carried around my backyard, but I never felt that I had to have a child of my own or I’d die. I did feel that way about finding a house.  And not just any house. A house I could pay off. A house I could fully live in. A house with a garden where I can grow food, and chickens, and fruit. A house in a town where at least some of the people were looking for ways to live outside the homogenized corporate norms. A house in a town with artists, and outdoors people, and in my case, an iconoclastic builder like Himself. 

I went looking for this because I did not believe in the promise of corporate life. I went to California after graduate school in search of a job, but I wasn’t searching for a career. I was still trying to get an agent then, still trying to sell my novel. I thought writing would be my career. It was the mid-90s. We still thought such things were possible then. But even if writing was going to be my career, I knew it was most likely not going to pay the bills. I needed a job

I remember driving up I-80 with Patrick one night, going to dinner with some people, and looking at all those tall buildings with lights left on overnight. There has to be a way into one of those, I thought. How hard can it be? Thousands of people do it every day?

I wanted a corporate job that was interesting enough, and had things like paid vacations and a 401K and health insurance. I had grad school debts to pay off, no one was going to leave me any money, and even as spinsterhood loomed at 35 I knew I had no intention of relying on a husband for money. I’d seen the disaster that had caused in my mother’s life, my Aunt Lynn’s life, my grandmother’s life (until the generation above her died, left her money, and set her free). 

I didn’t want a career, I wanted to be some useful little cog in the machine so I could pay everything off, and find a place to live. A place I could pay off. A place I could hope to set down a tiny stake of self-sufficiency. 

The Bay Area scared me silly. It’s lovely. The food is great. And oh how I miss produce, and flowers, and those little artichokes they sell in giant net bags in the Farmers’ Markets in the spring. But there were too many people on too little land. The temperatures were rising every year, and neighborhoods were burning even then. The sea was set to rise. And no one knew how to do anything. No one knew how to build anything or fix anything or grow food or butcher an animal. 

Well, that’s not totally fair. I did know some people who knew how to do those things, but they were few and far between, and land prices had started to skyrocket already. There was no cheap land left to buy like my teachers Will Baker and Gary Snyder had done. I didn’t have grandparents in Sonoma. Those open ranch lands above our townhouse in Castro Valley were never going to be sold as anything other than more subdivision lots. 

While my family was a disaster, I had two things working in my favor. One was that as people whose money was, as my mother liked to joke, “so old it’s all gone,” there was a certain disdain for striving, for careerism. This was a problem in graduate school, when I fundamentally did not understand how to curry favor, and was outraged that the only women who got the big fellowship at Utah were the ones who babysat for a couple of specific professors. But this disdain for careerism left a lot of room open for envisioning what kind of life a person might want to lead. In my family, success wasn’t defined by following a preset path. Of the nine of us cousins, who were raised like siblings, there’s a lot of variation in what we wound up doing. Two of us have PhDs, two are union guys (laborer and pipefitter). One runs such a good baby day care that her clients plan their pregnancies around her availability and one went to jail for a while, but got his act together eventually. One was an FBI agent, one runs a small trucking company, and Patrick was in the event business. None of us has ever been considered better than the others because of what we do for a living. 

The other thing I had going for me was that we largely escaped the standard suburban upbringing. I have friends who grew up in a world bounded entirely by malls and swim teams and school and chain restaurants and group activities. It was an indoors life, a life of buildings and cars. The only suburb I lived in was Lake Forest, which is old, and very rich, and beautiful, and riddled with deep ravines that are small wildernesses. We had woods, and little creeks, and the Lake Michigan beach. And because my family was horsey, I grew up around barns and horses. There’s something very freeing about having spent much of your childhood terrified on the back of a large animal who is moving very fast through the woods. It teaches you right off that as a puny human you are not in control of the world. And eventually, as I grew legs long enough to have some effect on a horse, and gained skills, I also discovered the joy that is learning to work with an animal. I learned how to be in the physical world, and how to do things. I learned to go outside and entertain myself. 

I keep making a category error, which is thinking that my subversive outlook on the world is the norm. When did we all start believing in the marketing? When did we stop having contempt for “aspirational” bullshit like luxury brands and the Yellowstone Club? I think it’s why the “you’re so lucky” comments bug me so much. What I hear when someone says that is envy for the aspirational Montana. The Montana of ugly orange log houses with “great room” windows like the prow of a ship, pointed at a “view.” The Montana of peeled log furniture and chandeliers made from elk antlers. 

Whereas I actually live among the people who deal with the housefly outbreaks in your stupid great room, the one that you can’t heat in the winter and that fades your Pendelton blanket upholstery in the summer. 

I didn’t move to that Montana. Although increasingly it has moved to me. The Paradise Valley is increasingly cluttered with ugly houses on small lots that chop up all the migration routes, that clutter up what used to be hayfields, and that are being sold to people who think it’s great that we have so few people of color here. Realtors are using that as a selling point. It’s deeply, fundamentally upsetting. 

I moved to Montana nearly 20 years ago because I needed someplace I could still afford a house, and Livingston was in between bouts of being discovered. I came here so I could buy myself a house that I can live in and work in. A house where I can make things. I built myself a life where I can write some, and work some, and garden some, and go for a long walk with the dog. I’ve been preparing for disaster for decades. I didn’t think it would be a pandemic — I thought something else would break our fragile food system and the trucks would stop coming and we’d have to feed ourselves and our neighbors. I planted black currants and elderberries and rugosa roses in case we need the vitamin C. 

Moving here wasn’t luck. It was a calculation. There’s a major river for water. There are beautiful mountains which I don’t thrive without. I’m not good in cities, which doesn’t mean cities are bad, but if I’d been locked down alone in the Bay Area or New York I’d be in big trouble about now. I never thought that our shiny world of eternal progress was real, or was going to last, or was in any way sustainable. 

What I keep finding startling is that other people have not made these same kinds of calculations. That when the music stopped so many were stuck in houses they couldn’t live in, or cities that aren’t home, or some other limbo of modern techno-nowhere.

I think we’ll get out of lockdown again, but I also think pandemics are here to stay. I think the days of just getting on a plane are coming to an end. I’ve seen articles about people moving back to be near their families, because when push comes to shove, if you have that kind of family, that’s who you want. My friend Nina came back up here, and brought her five kids, the ones I’ve been lucky enough to get to help raise, with her. Right away. It’s the biggest reason they kept their house here during all these years E. has been building his career down there. They didn’t believe it either, that it could last, that the system was robust enough to survive a disaster. They’re my family and I’m grateful to have them on the other side of town. Even if we don’t see each other because pandemic.

I despair of our ability as a culture to cope with the climate disaster that is upon us. We can’t even get people to wear simple masks to keep from killing their fellow citizens. We can’t get them to understand that the masks work. How are we going to get anyone to make the kinds of large-scale changes we need to make? As pandemic hit, we were awash here in selfish white people driving RVs bigger than my first apartment in New York, towing an SUV behind them. It was like there was some urgent call to burn up the last of the fossil fuels as fast and as brazenly as possible. Accompanied by all the current political and cultural markers — the smirks, the bumper stickers, the hats. 

I have no real advice or answers, although I do think it’s probably useful that this year most people learned how to cook for themselves. Maybe more people are thinking about where they live, about what constitutes a home. But mostly I fear that when this wave is over, everyone’s going to rush to “go back to normal.” They’re going to want to forget this ever happened.

We’ll have to wait and see how it’s going to play out. Livingston isn’t the town I moved to anymore. There are fewer artists and writers, and way more second home owners. We still have people who know how to do things though, including grow food and butcher animals. So far, we’re all working together to build a more resilient community. So far our sense of community is holding. 

It isn’t going to be luck that saves us, or technology, but if anything sees us through, it might just be our communities. 

At least I hope so. 

Who is it for?

Who is it for?

Originally published at Substack: February 11, 2021

Grey wolf sitting and howling. Photo credit: Greater Yellowstone Coalition

Last night we were awakened by something barking outside the cabin. Barking for a long time. I think it was a fox — Himself isn’t so sure. He thinks it could have been a coyote. It sounded to me like a fox that had treed something — one of the bobcats maybe? We spent one Christmas Day years ago watching a bobcat who had curled up under that tree. It napped on and off all day, supremely unbothered by my bird dogs (who we kept in the house). We see them on the game cams, and there’s been a suspicious lack of bunnies lately. Usually means a bobcat has come through. The reason I think it was a fox is not only because we’ve seen some, but there’s a den I found walking Hank-dog one morning that’s down that direction, and I’m pretty sure it’s a fox den. Smelled like it. 

I’m lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the cabin Himself built it years ago. It’s on the border of the wilderness area and while he rents it most of the year to vacationers, because the road can blow in with snow, he takes it off the market for winter. Most mornings, we drink coffee in bed, looking out the big window at the mountain and wait to see what the animals are doing.

We see a lot of animals from that window in the morning. In years past, we’ve awakened to the Dome refuge elk herd in the yard. Sometimes it was a core group of about twenty, other times we’ve had as many as a couple of hundred elk come through on a morning. You’d be pouring the coffee and right there, on the other side of the kitchen window, would be a cow elk trying to eat the buds off the ash tree. 

We haven’t had any elk this year. We’ve hardly had any deer. 

And we’ve been wondering why. 

I’ve been trying very hard not to think that the entire population has collapsed. It’s that kind of a year after all. Climate change is one cause of the pandemic, and if the entire world can be shut down, what’s to say that the Yellowstone elk herds couldn’t just collapse? 

Himself said he’d seen the herd when he’d been hiking. They were still there, they just weren’t in our valley. 

I think a lot about Claire Vaye Watkins essay from a few years back, On Pandering.  In it, she asks the question: who is it for? In the case of the essay, she’s talking about the internalized misogyny that causes so many of us women to dismiss our own experience in favor of writing for men, in favor of writing for the the “little white man deep inside of all of us.”

In this instance, I’m not necessarily thinking about who is the story for, but the idea of who are the animals for? When I say we watch animals in the morning, it sounds so passive. As though we’re sitting there waiting to be entertained by the animals, as if it’s a Disney film (although Himself does have longstanding relationships with specific families of hummingbirds and falcons. The hummingbirds have been known to fly at his face when they arrive, then fly up to where the feeder should be if he hasn’t put it up yet. As though they’re saying “Hey! It’s been a long flight! We’re hungry!”). Rather, we tend to watch animals as though we’re solving a puzzle. Where are the elk today? The deer? Have we seen anything else, anything interesting? 

One morning we’re looking out the window drinking coffee, and we see two of our resident coyotes go past. Which isn’t unusual, but they were slinking. Along the ditch, from sagebrush to sagebrush like little boys playing army man. A few minutes later, Himself was scanning the mountain through the telescope in the bedroom. “Wolves,” he said. Sure enough, it was a pair of wolves, probably a couple of miles away as the crow flies, up on a ridge. One was curled up against the subzero temperatures and snow that had come in over night. The other was sitting, and looking out over the valley, and every so often she’d howl. We went outside. You could hear her. 

I’ve heard wolves a few times over the years and it is never ordinary. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

Below them, Alvin our rancher neighbor was rolling out a bale of hay for his cattle, who were getting pretty close to calving. 

So now we know why the elk haven’t been hanging around. 

I’ve had students write me papers about how there are too many wolves, about how the state should “control” them so there are more trophy elk, trophy deer. I’ve had students write me papers about how the point of the endangered species act is to bring species back so that they can be hunted. As trophies. For these students, as for so very many people, probably for most people, the point of animals is how they meet our needs. 

Anthopocentrism of this sort is probably as old as the glorious, hidden cave paintings at Lascaux. It’s as old as the Bible.

Who is the world for? Is it for us? 

Or have we made a category error for millennia? Is the world not for itself? Do the wolves exist for the wolves just like the bunnies exist for bunnies and we exist for ourselves? 

I’m not any kind of sanctioned Buddhist, but I have spent enough time on a pillow meditating on the idea that the distinctions we make between forms, between mountain and human, between wolf and rabbit, are delusions. It’s all phenomena, as my teacher Gary Snyder used to say. It’s all just phenomena.

I bought Himself a set of game cameras a couple of years back for his birthday, and they’ve given us a tiny porthole into what is going on around here when we’re not there, or are asleep, or for instance, have let us watch what’s going on down in the gully behind the cabin. We’ve seen everything from bears to mountain lions to bobcats to coyotes and foxes and some very festive skunks. The birds like to fly right into the lens of the one that’s in a birdhouse-like box, and the deer and elk have occasionally knocked down the camera in the gully. 

What I find fascinating is not so much that we’re not the highest thing on the food chain, but that they all are just out there, going about their lives, keeping out of one another’s way, and occasionally showing up on our camera because the road that goes through our place is as useful for them as it is for us. 

The old idea that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” that predators are some sort of bloodthirsty killing machines, is, from what I’ve seen in nearly fifteen years on this little bench, not particularly true. I’ve watched Alvin’s cattle calve in that field right below us, the one where I’ve also routinely seen the very large and healthy coyotes crossing, or hunting mice and voles. A few years back, when we’d been seeing the mountain lion on the cameras, I asked my friend who ranches sheep just at the bottom of the valley if she’d had any trouble with it. She hadn’t, but was pretty sure it had snagged a deer she shot late one afternoon during the season. The deer went down into the creekbed, and she went looking for it. She knew it was a good shot, but couldn’t find the deer. She’d seen that big mountain lion crossing the road earlier, and “just had a feeling.” So she left the deer, hoping the lion would take it as tribute, and leave her sheep alone. 

They know we’re here, the animals. Himself has circled back on a hike, or while hunting antlers, and had both mountain lions and wolves walk directly in his boot tracks. They’re letting him know they see him, but he’s never had them menace him. 

The question of who is the world for seems to be the central question we’re wrestling with in all our human societies. Is the world just for a bunch of white men, who are outraged that they might have to compete for privileges they were previously just handed? Are the resources of the world for us humans alone? What are we willing to sacrifice so that those wolves can continue to live up on that ridgeline? And who gets to decide these things?