Loving Your Place

Tonight I went to a conversation hosted for Honors students at WKU by my colleagues Wolfang and Elizabeth, and the reason I went was because I wanted to think more about what Wendell Berry argues is crucial–for sustainability or resilience, or whatever term you want to use–for what needs to happen with regard to the happiness or livelihood of this place we call home. What does it mean, I wanted to hear others reflect on, to love your place?

The students offered some insights that I think are worth noting–that a place is tied up with the people we know there. This is true–how to disentangle the people that we know in the place we have come to love? (Why would we want to?) But I don’t think that our sense of place is limited to the people, and if it is, that seems to be a problem. Some of the students spoke about their time here in Bowling Green as temporary–they’re only here for four years or so and they anticipate leaving, so they feel no need to establish the kind of affection for a place that comes with time. I, too, spoke this way when I was an undergrad about my home in the other Bowling Green, in Ohio, where I lived for a short time knowing that it was not where I would “land.” I was a visitor, no need to invest myself in anything but the tasks at hand. (Or is that what I told myself while unconsciously I sent out tentacles of caring? I wrote some poems about the place, breathed in the air of the place, took from it. And 40 years later still store somewhere within the feel of that old farm house in the middle of the soy and corn fields where I lived.)

I told them, I speak as an old person, one who has come to understand that loving a place is an act of resistance. If we don’t care for the place we are now, then we more easily become a pawn. Loving a place is an act of resistance against corporate mentality, against the notion of disposability. If we say, “I’m only here for 4 years,” all those hours become one more disposable thing. Unimportant, unremarkable, unlovable. But if we can say instead, it matters, where I am, then we are enacting something that our throw-away, unsustainable, corporatized world has told us is no longer necessary to a modern way of being.

How do you love your place, not in an easy, packaged way, but in a real, deep way that locates you in the here and now, not in some fantasy of tomorrow? The past couple of nights I’ve stood outside my back door until the cold drove me in, watching white and gray clouds race across a nearly full moon. I listened to the wind. Is this what I love, these full bodied trees, now bare of leaves? The smell of wet leaves dense across the yard?

Berry casts us as either “stickers” or “boomers”: “’Boomer’ names a kind of person and a kind of ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. ‘Sticker’ names a kind of person and also a desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope.

“The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. . . . Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”

I don’t know that the world divides so neatly into two kinds of people, but Berry’s point is well taken. I think about the pressure we face–those of us who are educators in public institutions (and maybe the private ones too)–to ensure that our students get jobs, preferably right out of college, and preferably with benefits, a salary . . . pipeline to the American dream. How this leads to bottom line thinking, short term results, slippery ethics, corporatization, students as clients, fast-tracks, and hollowed out psyches. I think about how the drive to get a credential and screw the examined life translates into devaluing the humanities, political numbing, greater separation between classes, loss of self. Far smarter people than I have written books on this (Martha Nussbaum, David Orr, and Wendell Berry, to name three from very different pathways).

The very worst thing that happens is a failure of imagination, a closing off of the mind.

I like what David Orr says about the imagination, how crucial it is, and I believe what Paul Bogard says in his book The End of Night about the loss of night to increasing artificial lighting: “The aesthetic sense–the power to enjoy through the eye, and the ear, and the imagination–is just as important a factor in the scheme of human happiness as the corporeal sense of eating and drinking; but there has never been a time when the world would admit it” (214).

Doesn’t that sound like what Orr is getting at when he writes, “We have good reason to believe that human intelligence could not have evolved on the moon—a landscape devoid of biological diversity. We also have good reason to believe that the sense of awe toward the creation had a great deal to do with the origin of language and why early humans wanted to talk, sing, and write poetry in the first place” (reprinted in Hope Is An Imperative: The Essential David Orr, 249).

When we erase the humanities–in our education and in our daily lives–we surrender to the speed-up-and-make-a-buck mentality that flips a bird at what really matters, calling it irrelevant, dreamy, a luxury.

Here again is Wendell Berry on the notion of “stickers”–those who invest their lives in a certain place: “I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.” http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture

This is no soft focus, no optional discourse on love. When the money’s gone, the world we knew swept away by super storms and mega corporations, we’re going to have to look across the landscape and decide wherein we see ourselves.

Meditation 101.2 Breath is Life

If you can pull yourself away from the demands of work for just awhile each day and focus all that attention on the most basic part of your life–breath–you may find a different way of being, even in the midst of the most complicated situations. That’s what I tell myself, maybe not literally, but implicitly in my trip upstairs to my serenity room with my laptop under my arm, and as I click on the guided meditation about breath. . . .

My serenity room, as I like to call it, has its own history, and breathing in the air of that history is part of the paying attention and part of the serenity, both. When we first moved here in 1996, that room was Casey’s bedroom, he being the youngest, it being the smallest of the three rooms on our upper landing. As the older brothers began moving out, he took the back room and I turned the middle room into my office. There I wrote and did school work for many years. My mom’s and uncle’s letters, part of the family project, are stored in my mom’s old dresser. After Casey died, it’s the room where I went to close off the world and lose myself in Brahms Requiem, churning out poetry and crying my heart out. Then last summer I went on the retreat to Creative Expressions in Yellow Springs with my cousin and fell in love with the little apartment designed for simplicity and clarity. I moved my computer downstairs, thus emptying the room of some of the furniture and clearing a space, I imagined, for serenity. That’s where I sit, breathing in that history, and when I open my eyes at the end of the session, I see this poster on the wall in front of me:

"If you become a bird and fly away from me," said his mother, "I will be the tree you come home to."

“If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be the tree you come home to.”

One of the ways that we are taught to feel the breath, at least in the guided meditation cd by Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Steinberg, is to note when the “in” begins, when it stops, when the “out” begins, when it stops. Sometimes there’s a pause between the out and in, and it’s there that you can settle your attention on the body. I feel this moment or two of not breathing as a place of suspension, a place where you can glimpse the hugeness of the mind, all it can be. It’s like standing on a very high hill where the land stretches out. Even with your eyes closed you feel the space as something endless and you are small and at the same time an essential part of it.

The mind won’t stay put, however, and the return from wherever it takes us back to the breath is the essence of meditation practice, always returning, gently, patiently, without judgment. One of the thoughts my mind takes me to, when I’m feeling the air fill my lungs, when Salzberg says, “One of my teachers once told me to imagine every breath as your first breath and your last breath,” is Casey’s last breath. I try not to linger there, but somehow he’s there with me, though his last breath was not in his old bedroom, but on a county road twenty minutes away. The doctor who wrote the autopsy spoke of the shape of his lungs in a way that makes them sound like a beautiful cathedral.

I put this into one of the Casey poems, which made its way into my essay, “The Weight of a Human Heart,” and I offer it here:
Theirs is a numbers story: how the lungs weighed 440 grams, and the palpable bullet lodged 9 inches left of midline and 53 inches from the left heel, having blazed its path from the right shoulder, a downhill slope, 30-35 degree deviations. A story of contrasts. How devastating lacerations of lungs and thoracic aorta can leave untouched the adrenal glands’ smooth yellow outer cortical rims overlying zones of deeper brown cortical and gray medullary substances. How a body’s internal landscape tells of liquid harmony, where mucosa falls like drapery in longitudinal folds and walls are smooth and glistening. You couldn’t find a more perfect container for his 330-gram heart, even when yours has tipped the scale, even when the landscape has darkened and the waves rise and fall in silence and the story you tell begins and ends once upon a time.

If life is sacred–or precious, dear–or both, giving breath a few minutes of undivided attention–or a few seconds until the mind skitters away, so then a few more seconds, and on and on–might be the best way to say thank you.

5 Things on a Walk

So it seemed like an easy assignment: find 5 things worthy of comment on a walk around the neighborhood. It’s one thing to go for a walk on a beautiful sunny autumn day, it’s another to remember 5 things that you then go home and write about. Would there be competition? Would I have trouble finding even 2? Thanks to some help, I came home with five, just five, no more no less.

1. The sun streaking through the trees as it settles on the hill rising ahead of me: reds, golds, yellows brilliant against their drab cousins. But no, this verbal paintbrush is too brash. Not just red! Not gold the color of money! No buttercup or baby chick yellows! My only camera on hand was my cell phone, which could not handle facing the sun, so no evidence from today.

2. The persimmons are stankin! You could walk around our circle (about a third of a mile each turn) with your eyes closed and know immediately when you are passing them. Ken says that if you put one in your mouth you’ll be instantly awash with saliva, and drooling. Here’s an assortment. I love their lavender pink skin in the fall.

Persimmons: whole and various stages of squished

Persimmons: whole and various stages of squished

3. Buddy, our sweet australian shepherd, went with me and walked about 5 times the distance I did, just trotting out the length of the leash then looping left and right then back to me. When I paused to tighten my shoe laces, he rushed over to lean heavily against my arms. This made the whole shoe-tying business take twice as long, as I had to keep peering between his legs to see my shoes. What makes this worth remembering? Just the fact of slowing down and letting someone get in our way, it’s not always so bad.

4. A boy, about seven, and his grandfather arrive in their big white pickup and carry their basketball to the court. As I keep circling, their voices–one soprano and one tenor–filled the cup of our neighborhood circle with sweet sounds. I could distinguish his voice, “Long shot!” “Okay, 4 to 5.” But the grandfather’s remained just a bass rumbling around in the background.

5. I pass our neighbor Shirley walking her toy terrier Scooter. He is wearing a jaunty Irish plaid vest over his back. Buddy towers over him but does not insist, as Scooter scoots around her other side. We exchange niceties, the sort of unnecessary but reassuring sign of recognition. We don’t “need” to say, “beautiful day,” or respond, “wonderful, enjoy your walk,” but we do. The alternative, looking the other way or burrowing our noses in our bellies, would seem outrageous. And so we share our well wishes, and I think we both mean it.

I’ve been wanting to find a place to share this photo of a —-, some soft seed pod that we found last year about this time, on the shores of Ken Lake….I like it for the colors, not exactly the brilliant sun-splashed ones of this afternoon, but nuanced, the way fall is:

Fall pods of unknown origin

Fall pods of unknown origin

Book Report: Dominion

The subtitle is “The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy,” and I’m considering using it for a spring semester course. It’s a devastating critique of our willful disregard of animal suffering. At worst, it’s about greed and arrogance so self-serving as to leave your mouth hanging open. It’s also about our lazy ignoring of what hear about the treatment of animals in factory farm, and the greed and hypocrisy of the people who argue that the animals like it. It’s also a defense of animal rights over time and of those who’ve fought corporate interests to ask for some human compassion for the needless suffering of animals at our service.

It’s not a likely book choice for me, written by Matthew Scully, a former speech writer for George Bush, a political conservative, a Christian, a right-to-lifer (I assume), with the nickname of the “most compassionate conservative.” But Scully is no sycophant to the republican agenda or easy quoter of Biblical passages to argue for another indefensible social policy. In fact, he is as hard on them as he is governmental and corporate suck-ups. On the other hand, it is a likely book for me because I am increasingly disgusted and horrified by the way animals are abused and tortured for our pleasure, with some weak rationale about our human superiority and “right” to their unequivocal surrender to whatever we demand of them.

Hence, the “dominion,” which we are Biblically admonished to hold over the creatures of the Earth. In his introduction wherein he talks about the Biblical roots of this dominion argument, he quotes a prayer from a 375AD bishop, who said, “We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail” (13). Hmm, why does that sound so present-time, this “groan of travail”?

His response to the criticism that animals don’t deserve so much attention, that humans deserve our greater effort in eradicating the realities of oppression, is developed throughout the book, but this comment is characteristic: “One may view the creatures as morally incidental, as soulless beings for whom no bell ever tolls . . . . What one may not do under the guise of religious principle is deny that we have at least certain basic obligations of kindness, and that these obligations impose limits on our own conduct that today are simply not being observed” (18).

Here are some of the topics–

Safari Hunting. One can go to Africa, where one can bag big game, and at the Safari Club Int’l be recognized under a range of categories of achievement, such as the “African Big Five Grand Slam,” which means you’ve killed an elephant, a rhinoceros, a Cape buffalo, a lion, and a leopard, while the Bears of the World Grand Slam requires your killing an Alaska brown bear, a grizzly, a Eurasian Brown bear, and a polar bear. But one doesn’t have to travel that far. In the US and other countries, “farms” allow “hunters” to pay big sums to come in and shoot illegally gotten elephants, giraffe, zebras, lions, and tigers–or great animals bought when they had served their function from zoos and other “protectors” of animals, now too old to be worth gawking at behind bars. Scully sums it up, “Your typical trophy hunter today is hunting captive animals, and for all the skill and manhood it requires might as well do his stalking in a zoo” (63).

Whaling. Here we get into more international politics, with countries and native communities (with the urging and support of Japanese corporate interests, in one case) arguing everything from consumer demand to the protection of cultural uniqueness. Scully’s take: “Grasping their stricken prey by the flukes with a giant iron claw, swallowing them whole through a gaping mouth in the stern, stripping, boiling, and disassembling an entire whale in under an hour, these floating factories are among the ugliest creations of the human mind” (159).

Lest anyone feel to smug about what those people over there are doing to these beautiful creatures, Scully is quick to point out the hypocrisy of anyone on US soil suggesting that those other countries are morally corrupt in their desimating of vast populations of whale, while we retain our pristine purity. Buffalo, anyone? Passenger pigeons? Native Americans?

Do animals suffer? No? Okay, then no need to worry about any pain they might feel. Without the capacity to think about what suffering means, it’s not real pain. This is an example of the kind of contortions apologists for animal cruelty have gone to in order to show that it really doesn’t matter. One scientist (French) wrote that animals “‘eat without pleasure, they cry without sorry, they desire nothing, they fear nothing, they know nothing” (196). I like Scully’s use of irony throughout to point out hypocrisy, like this: “An animal to rate decent consideration in our hands doesn’t need to philosophize or orate or compose an Ode to Joy. If the creatures experience some humbler degree of thought or emotion, then that’s enough and the burden is thrown back upon us” (197).

Industrial Factory Farms. This is probably the most horrifying of all the atrocities detailed in this book, and worst of all is the pig farms. Read this and you’ll never buy Smithfield brand again–or any animal raised in such tortured chambers. We have heard about the horrors of the killing rooms, where the work is so soul-killing we have to go south of the border to find anyone to do the work. But we learn in “Deliver Me from My Necessities” that the torture begins with birth. In a tour through one factory barn, Scully is accompanied by an ironically named “Gay,” they pause in front of a cage labeled NPD 88-308. “‘Baby’ is lying there covered in feces and dried blood, yanking maniacally on chains that have torn her mouth raw, as foraging animals will do when caged and denied straw or other roughage to chew. She’s hurting herself with the chains, I remark. ‘Oh, that’s normal'” (266). And later: “Frenzied chewing on bars and chains, stereotypical ‘vacuum’ chewing on nothing at all, stereotypical rooting and nest building with imaginary straw. And ‘social defeat,’ lots of it, in every third or fourth stall some completely broken being you know is alive only because she blinks and stares up at you, . . . creatures beyond the power of pity to help or indifference to make more miserable” (268).

And what is this practice of “docking”? “Termed in the field a ‘short-term stressor,’ docking doesn’t remove the target [why target? because the animals are lined up so close to each other that the pig behind will inevitably chew on the tail in front]: The idea is to leave each tail more sensitive, so that the pain of a bite is sharper and the pigs will therefore try harder to avoid attack. Otherwise the pigs display what is known in both animal and human psychology as learned helplessness. They just give up, their tails get chewed and infected, the infection spreads, and they die an unauthorized death” (276).

Animals tested for science: everything from what we’ve learned already–that rabbits are held down so that toxic chemicals can be poured into their eyes so we can see what happens–to new developments in cloning that are crossing species in entirely creepy ways. Fortunately there’s some reprieve in this chapter, since Scully acknowledges the growing awareness that there are more effective ways to test the effects of this or that than on animals. Thanks to the efforts of some doctors and the animal rights activists who are so lambasted for being extremists, scientific experimenting has changed its emphasis on live animals to cells or computer diagnostics or even cadavers. Still, there’s the March of Dimes, which “each year devotes millions of dollars to experiments of the kind carried out by a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. . . . [which means] taking a group of kittens, sewing shut the eyelids of half of them while rearing the others for one year in total darkness, and then killing them all to examine the effects of this experience on their brains” (379). And March of Dimes has also “funded experiments administering massive doses of cocaine, nicotine and alcohol to animals, as if mankind has not himself [sic] provided sufficient data on the harmful effects of these substances” (379).

The last chapter is “Justice and Mercy” and is a collection of recommendations–largely legal and policy ones that often have no teeth. In addition we need to stop taking on faith “that if Science says research and testing are necessary, then it is not for us to question, and those who presume to do so must be radicals, misfits, and sure enough, as he [Cal Thomas] notes in the same column, ‘vegetarians,’ too” (378). Near the end, he provides a bulleted list of things the Humane Farming Act should do, and concludes with an homage to the people who make good what other people have attempted to ruin, “leaving behind them a trail of trouble and hurt” (393). There are sanctuaries increasingly given over to rescuing the “‘downed’ animals, the injured or sick who would just be tossed aside anyway” (396). What are they doing? “Lambs and calves forage, play, or lie together on straw in scenes recalling the lines from Oliver Goldsmith: ‘No flocks that range the valley free / To slaughter we condemn / Taught by power that pities us / We learn to pity them.'”