This is an interesting read on the cognitive dissonance we all live with. I might add that there is a lot of construction and buying of big, expensive buildings on and around the island of Manhattan . . ..
A few weeks ago, I finished the twelfth draft of my memoir about life here at Darwin’s View, off-grid with chickens. Since then, I have been scrambling to get caught up with myself and everything else that fell by the wayside, not least, the book summaries I said I’d write and haven’t. What was I thinking, giving myself that task? Each morning, I sit down to write. I pick up one or another of the books I’ve read . . . and I’d rather tidy a hen’s pasty butt until it’s back to fluff and order. And so, instead of pumping out reviews, I have organized my flute music. And moved around my office furniture. With Carl, I have gathered up our taxes and reconciled our accounts. And lots of phone calls and texts and emails. I signed off of that time suck Facebook. What a relief! Now I have more time . . . to write the dratted reviews that are like disassembled skeletons. Even once they are put together, they’ll need flesh and blood to make them worth reading. And ever in the background, the question that ends my memoir and jumpstarts this blog going forward: Now what?
Adopting oxen was my first, if temporary, response to that question. Mentioned to us by a new friend, Jesse and James are described as gentle giants, hand-raised from birth, a working team who pull timber . . . and are quite amorous toward their new and petite Devon cattle sisters. Thus, they need a new home, and I thought, why not here at Darwin’s View?
I must have said that aloud because Carl promptly counted out the reasons why not.
“We have no barn.”
“Oh details,” I replied, and waved a hand in the general direction of outside. “We can build one.”
Carl countered with the obvious fact that cats and chickens challenge my limits. Oxen are enormous and they have horns. And, before I could respond, he suggested we start with something more our size. A dog. I took the bait and opened PetFinder.com. Carl went down to his man cave to practice, leaving me to drool over corgi mix puppies . . . and, unbeknownst to Carl, goats.
Not long ago, I read Brad Kessler’s Goat Song and suggested Carl do the same. The book is about Kessler and his wife’s who move from New York City to a Vermont farm where they take on the task of goat adoption and cheesemaking. In the course of the year Kessler details, he tells the history of humans and goats, his own interactions with their Nubian goats, and the process of cheesemaking. That process would include the fact that in order to get goat cheese, one needs goat milk, and to get goat milk, one needs female goats to get pregnant and have babies that are then detached, bleating, from their mother’s teat so that the milk can be used for cheese. And to get that female goat pregnant? Kessler describes his virgin goat’s first time in graphic detail.
Ah, silly me. There I was imaging that the book would get Carl hooked on the idea of the cheesemaking, and thereby goats. In fact, he was so repulsed by the description of the rutting goat’s rape of that young female goat that he almost contemplated giving up eating cheese. Me, too. Though I was more upset by the bleating kids. Kessler’s goats might be treated humanely but the fact remains, as with cows in dairy farm factories, dairying requires humans to step in and separate mothers from their children.
Fortunately, I was able to balance the anguish of that with Sy Montgomery’s The Good Good Pig. We might not be able to save all animals but, at least, we can have the satisfaction and self improvement of saving one, in Sy Montgomery’s case, a runt pig that grows to be . . . well, rather larger than an ox calf. Montgomery, though, has a barn. And chickens. And a heart full of love for all the world’s sentient creatures and the verve to befriend and love them all.
My friend who suggested the oxen, Alyson, works at Nye Hill Farm in Roxbury. It is a brewery and a sanctuary for animals, not least numerous piggies. I have met these piggies and they are grunty and sweet and big. Actually, huge. Overwhelming and amazing and not, in any current context, within my comfort zone, even having read about Sy Montgomery’s Christopher Hogwood. I feel so limited. After all, if it would mean saving a pig from becoming bacon, I should leap at the opportunity. Instead, I harken back to Carl’s remonstrance that chickens and cats are my limits. I come up short even with them. Just ask Nick and Nora. They meow incessantly throughout the night for attention, enduring great loneliness and neglect when I don’t get up to pet and feed them, maybe run the shower for a moment so that water will run down the drain for them who are positively parched at three o’clock in the morning.
And the chickens? Every morning, while I am strapped in my office chair and don’t dare leave because I know I won’t come back due to one distraction or another, Carl does the chicken chores of watering and providing daily treats. Truth be told, some days, I barely make it out to say hello. Ping is so offended that she hardly deigns to approach me anymore. Granted, she is elderly now and likely prefers to avoid the kerfuffle of the Suffragettes, and Swallow and Squeaky stampeding me in hopes of mealy worms.
In contrast to me, Sy Montgomery is a real, honest to goodness animal steward who develops a relationship with her hens. She keeps her peeps with her in her office as they grow up. She let’s them fly about, be their authentic selves. And when they are grown up, she visits her girls and so they like her.
Pause to note girls. Montgomery doesn’t have the karma that attracts boy chicks to her circle. No cock-a-doodles for her. Her chicks never transgender into cockerels, who start out so sweet and end up chasing her around the yard, rapping her on the wrist with their beaks, insisting she keep away from HIS hens.
I am not bitter. I am only making reference to my own chick to chicken history which is chock full of roosters. Big Red. Cornelius, Pong and Clayton. Little Big Man and his brother who died too young to be named. Mo and Schtude, who was supposed to be Uncle Schtude but is currently not living up to his laid back, gentle name, thus not embodying the future I had hoped to write about in a children’s book. It will have to be fiction.
All to say, I’m not sure if I should start an animal sanctuary here at Darwin’s View. The animals might not be as attended to as they should be. And it’s so blowy up here. This past week, fifty mile an hour winds that blew out the trim in our attached greenhouse. They’d have to be sturdy animals. What if they got sick and the vet took a long time to get here and they were in pain? And if they died? No. I need to protect myself from the worry and anxiety of animals beyond Nick and Nora and our ten chickens . . . and the resident twelve or fifteen wild turkeys that promenade the property like long-tailed pterodactyls. And the herd of leaping, browsing deer. The porcupines and mice. The frogs in our lap pond . . .. Why not be content with worrying about all those living beings?
Because I know what goes on out there in the world. The carnage and cruelty of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). The terror of the just born separated from their mothers. The slaughter.
Whoops! Before I get onto my high horse about that I have to go out and attend to Brownie who is not well. And stare at the myriad books I have read, details of which to come. Maybe. Maybe not. For now, I’m going with the flow, seeing where it takes me. Today, it takes me to meet Jesse and James, the oxen. And a couple of goats. Just to see them because we don’t have a barn. Carl is coming with me to be sure I remember that. And then we will come back to Darwin’s View, to the wind buffeting us and the cats and chickens and I will likely read more words, and write some, all with the aim of finding the answer to that still echoing and haunting question Now what?
Within days of Betty and Bob MacDonald’s marriage, while still on their honeymoon, Bob announced that what he wanted, really wanted, was to be a chicken farmer. Shortly after their return from their honeymoon, he found a farm off in the hinterlands of Washington State. Betty MacDonald’s book The Egg & I is a memoir of the author’s trial by fire life on that farm.
“When you make a complete change in your mode of living, as I did, you learn that, along with the strange aspects of the new life which seep in and become part of you, will come others to which you never become accustomed.” (p. 94)
I found the initial pages delightful. The broad similarities of the MacDonalds’ relationship and experience with Carl’s and mine that imbued the book kept me happily reading. The humorous recounting of her childhood, and her 1950s conditioning on how-to-be-a-good-wife, lay the groundwork for her lack of rebellion at Bob’s turn-on-a-dime announcement. Their move out to the hinterlands to rebuild derelict chicken coops and outhouses, reclaim the forested landscape to create gardens, all while lacking 20th century conveniences like electricity, running water, a radio and telephone . . . and then the creepy nighttime visits to the outhouse? It was humbling to read. I whinge on if I can’t have an espresso in the morning. My comfort zone might be rather small but—full disclosure—we are very, very comfortable here in our now-large, off-grid home. I might have to clean the chicken coop, refill the water buckets and food bins, shovel snow and toss hay bales with my arm in a cast and in negative wind chill weather, but the chores here are manageable with only ten chickens . . and Carl.
Too, we have hot showers. I cannot imagine facing the manure and kerfuffle of two thousand hens without running water or a backup propane tank.
Betty and I do share a special something: a lack of organizational skills. Her high hopes and fantasies regarding seeds are mine. She, too, would dream, as she ordered seeds for fancy-ass plants that grow in zone 8 rather than her zone of 3, of a stunning garden full of burgeoning flowers and herbs and bushes. Her attempts flailed and failed as have so many of mine. Carl’s and my greenhouse, for instance, resembles our barren hens, in its failure to provide us with our winter greens and I would suggest that failure is not the greenhouse’s but mine. Even in a greenhouse, for example, one must plant seeds in the dirt and water them. It’s ever so much like gardening. At times, I wonder if, as was suggested to Ms. MacDonald once upon a time, someone ought to say to me, “You ought to get you another hobby, there is some folks who just don’t have the feeling. Yep, you should get you another hobby.” (p. 155)
I would reject such a notion. I only lack intention. Or maybe it’s attention, a skill I am currently honing with the help of meditation and Carl, which brings me to the topic of husbands.
Bob MacDonald and Carl, too, share interests and tendencies. For instance, both love manual labor’s satisfactions. Bob, though, is more enamored of the financial benefits of that work, also known as chicken care. Carl has a more architectural interest, being on coop ten or eleven for our motley flock. And Carl labors more to satisfy my assessment of the coops, rather than the bookkeeping of the final egg count. Clearly, egg count and finances don’t rate up here at Darwin’s View. If ever we get another egg, it will be equal to gold. If Betty and Bob had had our hens, our girls would have been cooked and plated back in September when they all gave up entirely on providing us with eggs. As she writes “if a hen is lazy or uncooperative or disagreeable you can chop off her head and relieve the situation once and for all.” (p. 39) She further pounded the stake in my heart when she wrote, “I got so I actually enjoyed watching Bob stick his killing knife deep into the palates of fity cockerels and hang them up to bleed. My only feeling was pride to see how firm and fat they were as we dressed them for market.” (p. 147)
Needless to say, when she wrote “dressed”, it wasn’t in a suit and tie.
To enjoy taking a sentient life isn’t something I ever hope to feel. Which brings me to another point of divergence:
The abundance of nature is throughout her book. Her descriptions of the fauna outside of their door, and on their plates exhibit a flourishing of life’s variety. And its intrusion into their life. In the chapter “Who Bothers Whom”, she describes her scary walk through the woods being followed by some unknown beast. To allay her worries, Bob goes out for a walk with the dogs and a gun. Shots and silence. Upon his return, Bob proudly announces he has killed a She bear. A mother bear. Leaving two cubs. Knowing what I know, to kill a She bear when her babies are cubs equates to killing the cubs, too. They don’t yet know how to survive in the wilds. True or false?
She read my mind when she wrote, “Now, were we bothering that bear? Of course, some people will say that the woods were the bears’s natural domain and just by being there Bob was bothering her. But those woods were our property!” (p.173)
In that same chapter, a cougar “that measured eleven feet from head to tail tip” was killed as well and it just begs the question, for me, on property ownership. I get it. Were a bear to stroll up to our porch and take out a bird feeder, I would freak, too. And when our local bobcat showed up at our coop’s door a few years ago, I ran out with a broom. And then ran back in. But I didn’t call around to find someone with a gun.
“In every case the wild animal bothered us first and it was merely luck for our side that Bob was nerveless in emergencies and a crack shot.” p. 181
That is one possible interpretation of facts. My interpretation is that humans are the one’s trespassing. Certainly, we take all the toys and leave nothing for the other creatures. Given the fast dwindling species, I think it’s about time to consider coexistence rather than destruction. There is a way to coexist. Our chipmunks might be obnoxious, how they take one bite out of every, single strawberry rather than focusing on a few and leaving us the rest. But think how plump they got for that happy kestrel? I would argue that if the chipmunk had not been there, neither would the kestrel. By destroying other creatures’ habitat, leaving them no room to exist, we remove the web that supports life, not least, ours.
Betty is aware of this, I think, in her description of the logging companies working in the forests around her farm.
“The only ugliness we saw was the devastation left by logging companies. Whole mountains left naked and embrrassed, their every scar visible for miles. Lovely mountain lakes turned into plain ponds beside a dusty road, their crystal water muddy brown with slashings and rubbish.” (p. 91) … The small companies were careless and wasteful in their logging, but their attempts at destruction were feeble and unimportant compared to the wholesale devastation this company left in its wake. (p. 227) I counted twenty-seven red flags on the way home. Some of them may have been old, some may have belonged to pole cutters, but even ten were too many.(p. 231)
Red flags on a road side show where a logging company is, was, or would be working.
MacDonald is a product of her time. She notes the destruction and killing but seems to accept it as the way of the world. Humans dominate. We kill other animals for food. We wreak havoc on nature for wood and sustenance. We do what we do to survive. For her, the chickens are more important than the cougars and bears. An understandable attitude.
Less understandable is her insulting descriptions of Native American Indians, whom her husband befriended but she did not. Take this breathtaking example: “Little red brothers or not, I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them. They had come a long way from Hiawatha.” page 220
And so. Although I found the book amusing initially, it is dated with its prejudices, and casually exhibits the thoughtless waste of nature, and the hubristic, callous, too-often inhumane treatment of our fellow creatures. I, too, am a product of my time. I believe that when a single person or class or race or species claims dominance, the balance of life and nature tips and the world wobbles. The wind picks up. The chaos grows. Hell arrives at our doorstep until nature provides balance again. Because she will find balance, with or without us.
Thus, I recommend this book. The Egg & I is a time capsule, showing a perspective on a past world, one that still burgeoned with the diversity of life, so much of which is now extinct. It provides myriad subject matter for discussion, not least for those who are considering a “return to the land”. And it left me, anyway, contemplating this question: how will our generations be viewed fifty years from now, assuming there is life on earth.
When I mentioned The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben to a forester I know, he scoffed. And the wildlife specialist we were walking with said, “Oh yeah, trees scream in agony.” They joshed about the absurdity and we moved on to the topic of how to create more habitat for songbirds. My secret caveat being, I didn’t want to kill anymore trees.
The same thing happened a few years ago when I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. Foer wrote that fish have social lives, and that no fish has a good death. Result: I stopped eating fish.
I have to be careful what I read.
Wohlleben writes of the interconnectedness of trees—through pheromones, roots, fungi, and microbes—to each other and the world around them. Each chapter is a vignette on an aspect of this communication. Wohlleben writes of old growth forests and of planted forests, of trees grown in cityscapes, and how different tree species adapt and react to these varying environments. He describes how trees prepare for winter, procreate, feed and protect each other, grow old, die. Just as ants have been proven to communicate with pheromones, and humans, too, so do trees. With scent, trees give warning of bug invasions. With their root systems, they send nutrients to their compatriots, chemical messages and electrical stimuli, thereby raising the “heated controversy [that] has flared up among scientists. Can plants think? Are they intelligent?” [pg. 85]
Alert: I have read The Secret Lives of Plants and The Secrets of the Soil. I have contemplated and participated in a degree of biodynamic farming. I am on board with the idea that animals and plants are sentient beings. Maybe they don’t think as we do. But trees have been around for millions years—the first trees started to appear 385 million years ago. I would ask this: Why would humans be the only ones to evolve forms of communication and caring? And, even if they don’t think, trees exist at a level we need to return to: nature’s level.
Why do we need to? On page 113 of his book, Wohlleben writes, “An organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out.”
Wohlleben presents facts and details about trees far better than I can regurgitate them. His book describes the elegance and solemnity of elder trees, the spontaneity of young trees and how they can overstep their bounds by growing up too fast, taking too much; the advantages of many trees living together in a forest, and the disadvantages of city life; the importance of diversity, and the possibilities and chances taken by trees who live on a longer time scale than humans. I tend not to remember details. But I do try to gain the essence of what’s being said in a book. I ask, what can I learn that I can apply to my life?
From The Hidden Life of Trees I learned this: To reach deep into the ground for steadiness and connection, and up to the sky for light and water; to not rush but grow slowly; to connect, communicate, share. Wohlleben writes about what I believe: the connection of all things in this world by a vibrant, active energy. Call it electrons, love or sentience, consciousness or not, it’s kind of like magic and can be beautiful.
Does that sound hokey, magic? But there’s so much ugly in life, evil and cruelty. Humans have developed protective tools, concepts like a god who protects us. And we divorce ourselves from the animals and plants that we eat by claiming they don’t feel. But why not believe that they do? Wouldn’t we then take better care of everything around us? The diversity of life on this planet has been destroyed by humans. We live with a mere pittance of what once existed and our economics claim that we cannot save the world because it is uneconomic . . . thereby exposing just how divorced from reality we have become. How can we not save the world when, without it, we cannot exist. Why not accept the awesomeness of such a simple magic as connection and let that lift us up to be our better selves, stewards of the earth, not destroyers. Then we might step forward to make more magic happen.
Does this pass for a book review? Maybe not. But it’s a good book for me to begin this “Read and Reading” page because it expresses my personal beliefs and my hope.
Anyone who yearns to learn from nature will dip into this book and slowly be immersed in tree life. There will be some, like my forester friend, who will scoff and say Wohlleben is no scientist. But the author has lived with trees and has opened himself to what they might teach him. That is a path I will follow.