Life and death (and soup) in the city

Originally published by New American Homesteader in 2015.

Under a bright December sky we gathered to kill the St. Elizabeth House chickens. My friends who built the coop and tended the chickens had moved to Georgia for a new job, and the chickens had mostly quit laying. Now the aging hens strutted and preened one last time in the weak solstice sun, oblivious to their fate.

“Why can’t they just keep feeding the chickens?” my daughter wanted to know.

Because, baby, nobody here can afford pet chickens. It is a house by and for those living on the margins, where the doors are open for community dinners and a room is reserved for someone with nowhere else to sleep. For two years the chickens fed our friends with their eggs, and in return received clean grain and warm grass and a well-built coop. But the humans come first, so now they’ll have to be soup. Better that than to be a racoon’s lunch. My daughter nodded: Her chickens met that fate last fall. She saw the carnage.

So our farmer friend Jamie offered to help slaughter and dress the birds, and I volunteered because—why? I was happy to help. I’d done this before and I have good knives. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the company. And something more. Years ago, I needed to prove to myself that I could kill an animal, feeling that if I were going to eat them, I ought to accept my responsibility in the matter. I made my peace with meat. But it’s good to be reminded the cost. Continue reading

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Travel in the magic city

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

This summer I moved to a new neighborhood that happens to be much nearer the freeway that divides my city. My house is less than a mile from an on-ramp, though you wouldn’t guess it in this quiet and wooded neighborhood; you can’t hear the traffic on a still evening, and my yard backs up to a seven thousand-acre research forest. Now, I have lived on the edge of this city for sixteen years, and I have always avoided the freeway unless I was traveling some distance and needed to hook up with the interstate at the far end of it; I almost never hop on for just an exit or two. I could say that my distaste for the freeway comes from knowing what its construction did to the old and vibrant black neighborhoods it tore through fifty years ago, but I’m not actually that pointlessly principled. Nothing I do will those neighborhoods back, and I won’t make an academic justification for what is, at bottom, a visceral dislike of divided highways.

Since I moved in, it has slowly dawned on me that I can get practically everywhere faster by taking the freeway. (Likely this would have been obvious to anyone else sixteen years ago: as I said, it’s visceral.) But it has at the same time dawned on me that I might be eroding other, existing neighborhoods by using that freeway—not directly, not by physical or economic means, but simply by changing my perception of them. Where once I drove past strip malls and gas stations, through old neighborhoods holding their ground and neighborhoods that are well on their way to gentrified, noting the changes that happen day by day and week by week, I find myself getting downtown more often by exiting my own neighborhood onto a strip of blacktop that could be anywhere in America and emerging a block or two from my destination. For all that I see of what’s in between, I may as well be asking Scotty to beam me to church, or to the grocery store.

It’s increasingly clear to me that what lies in between matters, deeply. Not long ago I had to answer an icebreaker question: If I were given a free round-trip airline ticket good anywhere in the world, where would I go? It should be said that I hate icebreaker questions, and characteristically I found a way to be contrary. I’d cash in the ticket, I said, and take the train across the country, with no particular destination in mind, stopping here and there in small towns I’d never heard of, eating with the locals and hiking their woods and touring the local museum or seeing the world’s largest ball of twine. A smart-ass answer, as I’m afraid everyone quickly realized, but it’s also true: I’d rather see what’s in between, and I’d rather take my time about it—in theory, at least. But apparently not when I just need to buy some groceries. Continue reading

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Rituals of embodiment

Originally published at Front Porch Republic.

This spring I had to buy a new coffee mill. Facing the loss of both my electric coffee grinder and my antique hand-cranked mill, I debated about what to buy. The decision was no small matter—nothing like choosing, say, a brand of toothpaste or a college major. Making coffee is the first thing I do when I get out of bed in the morning. Well, all right, after letting the dog out. And pulling on some semblance of clothing. But it comes before shaving, shower, morning prayer, checking email on my phone, and any other actually constructive or productive activity. Inconsequential as the ritual may seem, making coffee sets the tone for the day. Not drinking coffee, mind, but simply preparing it.

It’s worth mentioning that I gave up on automatic coffee makers several years ago, when a hundred-dollar machine quit working just eight months after I’d bought it—this, the replacement for another hundred-dollar machine that lasted only a year and a half. Possibly I have some responsibility to grease the wheels of the Great Economy, but not that much. Now I do what foodies call “manual drip”: set a three-dollar plastic filter basket on top of my mug, put the filter and grounds in it, boil water in a kettle, pour the water through the grounds, and there’s coffee, better than came out of any machine I ever owned, becaue the water is always the right temperature. And in my old house, served by electric lines that meandered through a half-mile of woods from the highway, to rely on the power company for anything so essential as coffee was an act of purest optimism, because if storms didn’t knock out the lines every couple of months, a squirrel might commit suicide by transformer.

Hence my love of that antique coffee mill, which did its job even when the grid didn’t. But it had other advantages: it was quiet. It gave me something to do while the water heated besides stare blearily out the window and contemplate my inbox. It made me feel better for not needing Duke Power for every little thing. And it made better coffee, because, as I came to realize, its burrs grind the coffee consistently and cleanly, whereas the blades of an electric mill pulverize the grounds and can scorch them. So when I realized that I could buy a modern hand-cranked grinder for little more than the price of an electric one, I bit. Continue reading

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Does the physical task of writing shape our words?

These thirty-six miseries of reading and writing in 1806, penned by the pseudonymous Mssrs. Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive, are (like most anything written two hundred years ago) a mix of the familiar and the archaic. The first will, I expect, be true as long as there are writers and readers:

1. Reading over a passage in an author, for the hundredth time, without coming an inch nearer to the meaning of it at the last reading than at the first; — then passing over it in despair, but without being able to enjoy the rest of the book from the painful consciousness of your own real or supposed stupidity.

But many of the complaints remind me that writing, especially, used to be a complexly physical affair, one that required the writer to engage with physical objects and his own surroundings in a way that made him subject to their own natures and demands, and not merely to his own — and slowed him down as a result. Here are just a few of the indignities I did not have to suffer in writing this blog post:

24. Emptying the ink glass (by mistake for the sand glass) on a paper which you have just written out fairly — and then widening the mischief, by applying restive blotting paper….

27. In sealing a letter – the wax in so very melting a mood, as frequently to leave a burning kiss on your hand, instead of the paper: — next, when you have applied the seal, and all, at last, seems well over — said wax voluntarily “rendering up its trust,” the moment after it has undertaken it….

33. Writing, on the coldest day in the year, in the coldest room in the house, by a fire which has sworn not to burn; and so, perpetually dropping your full pen upon your paper, out of the five icicles with which you vainly endeavour to hold it….

At first these complaints inspire amusement, maybe, and some combination of gratitude and feelings of superiority that we have better means of writing today. We have Open Office, and WordPress, and at a minimum the very nice fountain pen with which I initially drafted the main ideas of this essay. But being someone who writes both ways, by hand with a fountain pen and with various “text editors” on a computer, I wonder to what extent our means really are better. They’re more convenient, certainly, but do convenient means necessarily produce better ends, or even ultimately save time? And, specifically, how does the physical process of writing (or relative lack thereof) change not only the way we write but what the reader sees? Continue reading

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The thicket

One afternoon in early fall, a couple of years ago, I walked out over a piece of land I had thought about buying. A two-story house had once faced the road, and a barn had sat somewhere behind it, and tobacco fields and pasture and gardens ran most of a mile down to the river. Now it had been ten years since the family had given the place up, and the house had been torn down and the barn too, and back of a brief yard the land had grown up in fresh woods, pines and skinny poplar and sweetgum. All that remained of the house was a well that might yet be hooked to a hand pump. For two hundred yards the woods were — littered would suggest too sparse a treatment of refuse; I could hardly walk a straight line anywhere without stepping over or around a beer bottle or a condom wrapper or a lumpy-full garbage bag or a moldy couch or the rusting hulk of a washing machine. If the human beings of Alamance County could purchase a thing and cast it aside, one or another of its kind surely made it into those woods. How many dumpster loads, I thought, would it take to clean up this mess? And how many months, or years? For how long would I be unearthing the flotsam of present-day consumer culture, like the world’s sorriest archaeologist?

But I had driven forty minutes to get here, and the owners’ agent was meeting me to show me the place, so I waited and tried to imagine what the place had looked like, a decade or a generation or a century ago when it was half a small working farm, and what it might therefore look like again. It required a good deal of imagination. I needed to see what was under those woods, how the land lay, how much was level and how much had been or could be cleared.

The agent arrived, late, in his full-sized pickup with a bumper sticker about how he’d rather be hunting, wearing camo-print cargo shorts and a machete holstered at his side, carrying a plat map and a topo map. His outfitting did not give me hope, but we set off into the woods, he telling me what he knew of the family, I wishing the children who did not want their parents’ land had made up their minds sooner to sell it. There was a way down to the river, he said; he’d found it before, though it was a couple of years ago. We picked our way through the trash, through the first scrim of pines. And then we came to the brambles. Continue reading

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Meat and mystery

Another day, another tale of mystery meat.

Nestle voluntarily recalled two of its Hot Pocket products as part of a larger meat recall….

These products may have been affected by a recall by Rancho Feeding Corp. last week of 8.7 million pounds of beef product.

Regulators said the company processed “diseased and unsound animals” without a full federal inspection, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA says the products were unfit for human consumption.

What, faced with such horror, are the temptations? One is to crawl back under the covers and hide, to gnaw our Hot Pockets in nurtured ignorance. Another is to raise the hue and cry, to demand regulation or retribution, after which (we hope, stupidly) all will again be well. A third is to run away, retreat, withdraw into a culinary monastery of one, refusing to eat anything that might be tainted.

All three temptations lead us wrong. All three reinforce the error that led wrong us in the first place — that raised livestock to disease and unsoundness, hashed them into “beef product,” flavored them with chemicals, wrapped them in pastry and called them dinner.

What is at bottom wrong with our food system is that it indulges our desire to believe ourselves separate, apart, above. Food is grown from mud and shit. Every living thing is nourished by the death of another, or of many others. We rely on an earth we cannot control for our sustenance and on the decency and goodwill of others to bring it to us. Nature is messy. Life is messy.

The supermarket permits none of this. Dinner is chopped, diced, sized, sorted, arranged, flavored, cheerfully labeled, engagingly presented, laboratory-fresh, untouched by human hands, neat and clean and ordered.

Bullshit. Continue reading

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Caeli errant

With apologies to the psalmist.

Each day tells its tale unto the next:
The sun in jaunty setting shouts its benediction to the sky
Like a TV talk show host leaving the stage.
One by one the sky announces stars
But the twinkling stars forget their lines, and the moon, old nag
Spends half the night in prompting. Insouciant satellites streak
Across the stage, and are removed. The audience
Doze, or check their phones. Before the dawn
The constellations are confused, and reel half-lit
About the murky void, Orion and the Pleiades
Doing God knows what together in the West. Now Venus,
Always eager, is up too early, and Jupiter demurely
Hides his face behind a cloud. The night grows pale
And imparts what knowledge it recalls—a whispered word,
The echo of a gesture. Something about the truth?
Not much remains. The day, in any case
Will not believe a word of it.

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The placeless country

Via io9 this week, a collection of 1920s posters advertising the London Underground. The images are worth a browse; they’re all entertaining in their own way, but I was drawn, of course, to the few promoting access to the delights of the country.

I will admit that despite my suspicion of everything institutional I love the posters of that era — the World War I propaganda, the gleefully innocent embrace of modernity, the WPA style of the 1930s. The best of them were so stylized as to evoke a kind of magical reality divorced from the real one: lovely to behold, useful in advertising, dangerous in the real world. In this collection the Underground promises access to the wonders of the city. There’s a five senses series about seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting the riches of London; there are invitations to go shopping and a pair of dreamy images of summer days and summer nights.

Others make clear not all is well within the city limits. Here the Underground is “the open gate that leads from work to play,” a passage away from a blocky, smoky, smoggy city to a sweeping dance of playful children:

opengate

The children are nearly faceless, cloud-white with golden outlines as one might draw angels. A vision of heaven, perhaps, in a park.

Go further and the city disappears. Continue reading

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The interview did not go as planned

She rides ahead and would head off
His maverick thoughts, guiding them to sensible
Corrals — but stubbornly they canter,
This one to its mother, that to the river’s cool
Repose, each in a time and place its own.
He will speak his piece.

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Public space and ignorance

This story seems, at first, like a classic tale of the little guy fighting the big mean corporation. A group of Korean seniors was tossed out of a New York City McDonald’s they had turned into a hangout:

Mr. Lee said the officers had been called because he and his friends — a revolving group who shuffle into the McDonald’s on the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards on walkers, or with canes, in wheelchairs or with infirm steps, as early as 5 a.m. and often linger until well after dark — had, as they seem to do every day, long overstayed their welcome.

The men had, by their admission, “treated the corner restaurant as their own personal meeting place for more than five years,” and management and other patrons claim that they’re interfering with business. There are several senior centers and civic centers in the neighborhood, but the men seem uninterested in going to any of them.

If I were their age, I wouldn’t want to be cordoned off with a bunch of old people, either, any more than I want to be cordoned off with a bunch of forty-somethings now. Nothing against people in their forties, but I like a little variety. The presence of children and young adults lightens things up a bit, and I appreciate the proximity of people of people considerably older than I am. –On the other hand, taking up valuable real estate in a busy restaurant at lunchtime is at a minimum inconsiderate; the people who own these restaurants — franchisees, in this case, not the global corporation — have to make money, and the business model imposed on them isn’t such that they have a lot of wiggle room.

The problem here is not what the owner of a fast-food restaurant ought or ought not to do but that the choice has arisen in the first place, because we simply don’t have enough genuine public space — spaces where people can meet, talk, catch up, get to know one another, even just sit and rest or think without being cut off from the rest of humanity, and without their actions being watched over and prescribed by well-meaning volunteers and civil servants. Continue reading

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