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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Proust and Pups, or, Forget the Speed of Light—What is the Speed of Time?

A couple of bookstore conversations before Thanksgiving centered on questions of time. The first one had to do with why time seems to pass more quickly as we age. Not far into the second conversation (with different participants), questioning what time might be, in itself, one book-friend became so agitated he took himself right out the door, shouting, “Time does not exist! It’s the reification of an idea!” Our friend would probably not describe himself as a Wittgensteinian, and his language in conversation and argument is certainly more direct than Wittgenstein's, but his position and reason for holding it made me think of that brilliant and enigmatic philosopher. But never mind that now. Or, mind it if you will, but I want to get back to the first conversation.

Older people always say that their days, weeks, months and years fly by, and the middle-aged have intimations of this speed-up when they compare the length of childhood summers to summers of adolescence and adulthood, so let us accept that the experience is universal. The question remains: Why? My own long-held theory is not scientific, as I have no way to test it, but I hold that so much of what is new to us as children, experiencing everything for the first time, is déjà vu in later years. By déjà vu, I don’t mean to imply that we must be jaded or bored or cynical, because while some older people find life’s repetitions boring (Damn! Another spring! Another winter! Another wedding and another funeral!), others find joy and reassurance in cycles of familiar events. (Again the cherry trees bloom! How delightful! Another graduating class--glorious!) No, it isn’t simply the temperament or attitude of the aging person but that, as we grow older, the tiniest events of each day are thickly and deeply layered with memories and associations from earlier days and years. When it’s all for the first time, there is room for time to spread out languorously, but the fiftieth summer has crowded into it all the games and fantasies of childhood, the popular songs and crushes of adolescence, the memories of one’s own small children spending their first days at the beach, and so forth.

While Ken and Bonnie were standing in front of the counter at Dog Ears Books, animatedly throwing thoughts back and forth to one another, I could say none of this, but it stayed in my mind, along with all of the other times I have had similar thoughts, and last night I found a passage in Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve that perfectly expresses what I feel and wanted to say. But first let me observe that Marcel Proust could squeeze more experience from thirty seconds than some people manage to find in thirty years! He saw a sunbeam fall on the balcony railing and drew pages and pages of description and meaning from it. Imagine that single, brief sunbeam, before the sky bursts full of sun, and realize the tiny fraction of time that this writer has clarified and made full. Épatant! Well, then, here is the one sentence I want to lift out from its surrounding context:
...Just as in those Celebrity Concerts where the famous singer, whose voice is not as strong as it was, is supported in her rendering of a special item by the voices of a choir off-stage, countless faint memories reaching back one behind another to my earliest childhood received the impression of that sunbeam at the moment when I first saw it with my actual eyes, and imparted to it a sort of volume, to me a sort of depth and plenitude, and reality, made up of all the reality of those days that were loved and mused over and felt in their authenticity, their promise of pleasure, their intimate, uncertain heartbeat.

I have taken the liberty of emphasizing what so struck me in the passage: Yes, that is what I mean! So there it is, not my own original theory at all but expounded 100 years ago by none other than Marcel Proust, but do not mistake me here--I am not claiming Proust as an authority whose opinion must be accepted: “If he wrote it, it must be true.” No, it is my own experience, my own feelings that convince me, his words expressing what I have long felt and believed to be true.

The only way you can verify this theory for yourself is to examine your own responses to passing time. At the Thanksgiving dinner table, were you aware of other, earlier holidays, and did those memories play a part in your experience last week? What is the difference between music you hear for the first time and music you have known since childhood? You can formulate your own questions, and it would probably be helpful to do so. But how often, if at all, do you experience anything that calls forth no memories or associations whatsoever?

My philosophy in a nutshell (which is all the philosophy most people can bear, so condense yours into a short, pithy sentence if you want to find a hearing for it) is that everything is a double-edged sword, and this is as true for “living in the now” as it is for anything else. Take Sarah, for example. When we are on a trail through the woods, her “now” is thrilling in the extreme, full of new, strange, wonderful scents and broad, complex vistas. Even the “now” of our daily exercise ground is a pleasure to her; she never tires of leaping and running and chasing sticks. The wonderful “now” of STICK PLAY!!! But then we come to work, or we go home, and the hours in the bookstore or in front of the fire stretch out pitilessly, her “now” empty of excitement, her vitality held in suspension for the moment when the chance for activity will again present itself. There are many boring “now” hours in a dog’s life. If only she could revel in the memories of an hour before or anticipation of the hour to come—but no, she is captive to the moment. ("How do you know that?" Bonnie would ask me. I infer it from my dog's expression, her posture, her behavior.) This is the downside of “living in the now” that no one ever talks about. Time for her must pass very slowly.

David and I, on the other hand, experience Sarah in the same rich, multilayered, past-in-present way we receive our other impressions. We invent diversions for her and laugh happily at her joy, remembering together the pink of her puppy tummy and her warm, sweet puppy breath the first night she came to live with us There are associations with our old dog, Nikki, and the ways in which Sarah is like Nikki, as well as the ways in which she is different. Our “now” is full of past and future, and it rushes like a mountain stream!

Many Proustian themes are to be found in Henri Bergson’s philosophy. Bergson, the last of the “clear and distinct” French philosophers, saw the future in much the same way as did Proust:
What makes hope such an intense pleasure is the fact that the future, which we dispose of to our liking, appears to us at the same time under a multitude of forms, equally attractive and equally possible. Even if the most coveted of these becomes realized, it will be necessry to give up the others, and we shall have lost a great deal. The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself, and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.

- Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (1889)

(This Bergsonian thought is echoed in Proust's Contre Sainte-Beuve.)

Perhaps our relationship to the future as well as to the past accounts for the acceleration of time as we grow older? The “infinity of possibilities” is reduced as one reaches life’s end; the future shrinks and withers to a decided finitude. For example, the sad realization of Tony Judt that he would never take another train trip:
Perhaps the most dispiriting consequence of my present disease—more depressing even than its practical, daily manifestations—is the awareness that I shall never again ride the rails. This knowledge weighs on me like a leaden blanket, pressing me ever deeper into that gloom-laden sense of an ending that marks the truly terminal disease: the understanding that some things will never be.

I don’t bring in end-of-life thoughts to be depressing. All I want to do is make a pitch for something other than “living in the now.” As long as we have memories and as long as we believe a future awaits us, living in past, present and future tense at once is a normal and blessed state for human beings. Let’s not sell it short.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Forest, Farm and Wildlife, From the Perspective of 100 Years Ago (More or Less)

The forest is as beautiful as it is useful. The old fairy tales which spoke of it as a terrible place are wrong. No one can really know the forest without feeling the gentle influence of one of the kindliest and strongest parts of nature. From every point of view it is one of the most helpful friends of man. Perhaps no other natural agent has done so much for the human race and has been so recklessly used and so little understood.

- A Primer of Forestry, Part I—The Forest, by Gifford Pinchot (1900)

The grasses are of great importance in our agriculture.... A feature of the grasses which makes them valuable pasture plants is the location of the growing point of the leaf. This is near the base, so that the tip may be grazed or clipped off several times and the leaf still continue to grow. The forage grasses add variety to the rotation, supplying crops which may be used as meadows or pastures, or short-season crops such as millet, which may be used to occupy the land when an earlier-planted crop fails. The perennial varieties add a mass of vegetable matter to the soil. They thus improve its physical condition and their decay increases the yield of annual crops which follow. They also form a cover which prevents the loss of fertility by washing and other means of erosion.

- Field Crops (revised), by A. D. Wilson & C. W. Warburton (1912, 1918, 1923)

I have twenty-seven guns—and I have used them all. I stand condemned as having done more than my share toward extermination. But that does not lessen the fact that I have learned, and in learning I have come to believe that if boys and girls and men and women could be brought into the homes and lives of wild birds and animals as their homes are made and their lives are lived we would all understand at last that wherever a heart beats it is very much like our own in the final analysis of things.

- James Oliver Curwood, in his preface to Baree, Son of Kazan (orig. pub.1917)

Weird Dream Travels

Sunday night we watched an old Jimmy Stewart film set in World War II-era Chicago (downtown and old tenement districts) and Illinois State Penitentiary Stateville, Joliet, the maximum security prison designed after Jeremy Bentham’s plan for the “Panopticon,” and after the movie (“Call Northside 777”) was over I read myself to sleep with Dante’s Inferno, following the burning red river of blood and fire descending almost to the bottom ring, so I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that my dreams were full of complicated geography and fabulous architecture on a grand, confusing scale.

In the first dream, I was working in a large, crowded, institutional room, where my job was to separate little bouquets from mountains of blood-red flowers. The place seemed to be a hospital, and the bouquets for patients’ rooms, but I had no vases to put the flowers in. This sent me off on a search through corridors full of steam pipes until I found a large room that had similarities to a kitchen and/or a canteen, and there in an open cupboard were vases and jars—a motley assortment, all needing to be washed, but I thought they would do. For a while I worried about having left my original work station but gradually realized that I had been given a public service assignment as some kind of punishment (for what, I don’t know) and that none of the supervisors in any of the work stations cared what I did, as long as they didn’t have to worry about keeping me busy. The place was a veritable formilière, an anthill, with all the uniformed people-ants rushing here and there, and every corridor and room full of stuff of all kinds.

A second dream involved elaborately constructed Japanese gardens with water features and narrow footpaths on many levels. There were tunnels and trellises and terraces, steps and gutters and miniature waterfalls. For some reason I was speaking French in this dream. There were two young men who could have been my grandsons, and when my foot slipped into water running alongside a footpath, and somehow a bit of water splashed into my mouth (I have no idea how that happened) I exclaimed about it to the two young men, asking them with great concern why the water was so bitter (amère) and what was in it. Though it looked fresh and clear as it flowed along, in my mouth it was frighteningly caustic. The whole place looked like a simple Michigan small town that was trying to reinvent itself, to become something exotic, for the tourist trade. It was fall, and the leaves on the simple old trees outside the gardens were November brown.

In the longest, most complicated dream David and I started out from Kalamazoo (where we did live, in fact, many years ago) with a group, on a bus, but when we arrived at the day’s destination, where we had a limited number of hours before the bus would depart once again for home, he and I (this is so like us!) separated from the group and went off exploring on our own. Our bus had dropped us off at very ornate, large, tall building that towered over the rest of the landscape, and we had the vague, general impression that it formed one of the furthermost ends of the huge, sprawling, campus-like place we set out to explore without a map. My dream impression was that this main building was at the north end of the complex and that we started out walking south and would have to turn back and walk north to reach our bus again.

It was the strangest place. I don’t know what it was supposed to be, but when I woke up and thought about it, the scariest part was that I could imagine people planning and building just such a place! It was a weird combination of college campus, shopping center, condominium development and TV evangelist “retreat” and residential worship center. All the buildings were unlocked, with no indication of what they were, so that we might (and did) wander into what looked like a beautifully wood-panelled, 19th-century clubhouse only to discover that it was a private house with naked people strolling around in it, very annoyed at our intrusion.

Inside the buildings, some of the hallways were more like mazes, with dead ends lined with vending machines, and some of the exits led outdoors not with simple doors and/or sets of steps but with elaborate garden statuary of miniature mountains to be descended to the ground. It was when leaving such a building that I realized David and I had become separated from each other.

I tried to hurry, but the thing I had to descend slowed me down considerably: the narrow ledges for feet were far apart, and the handholds far from the ledges. Someone gave me a hand, and I made it to the ground eventually, but David was nowhere in sight, and it was then that I tried to run, but you know how it can be with dreams, especially when one is asleep in bed, sandwiched between a spouse and a dog, with no room to move a leg! I seemed to be running underwater, except that the water was a thick syrup. My lungs were near bursting with effort, and yet I could hardly put one foot in front of another, and the buildings and the rooms in them and all the people buying hamburgers, shopping for cosmetics, proselytizing for their religions and hurrying to their classes were much too busy to help me.

Then I found a crowded fast food place where all the placemats were maps, and on the wall was a larger map, and I could see at last an overview of the place, with the building where we had started (it looked like a gigantic old-fashioned radio towering over the rest of the scenery) at the top of the map poster. Since I couldn’t get up any speed running, I leaped into the air and began to fly. This helped in terms of being able to see where I was, but even in the air my movement was frustratingly slow.

Where was David? Would the bus leave without me? Without us? Would we be trapped in this horrible Wonderland forever?

Dante and Stateville do not combine to make soothing dreams, but they don’t make boring dreams, either.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I Hadn't Anticipated the Elves

We had Story Hour at Dog Ears Books yesterday afternoon, as part of the Merchants Open House day in Northport, and my friend Susan Cordes came to help out at the sales counter while I read to the kids. I’d never have the energy to be a kindergarten teacher, but it was lovely having the little ones inch closer and closer and closer until they were practically in my lap as the reading progressed, their noses almost touching the pages of the big, bright picture books I was trying to hold up so that everyone (as parents kept reminding the eager beavers) could see. Fun! What I hadn't expected was that we would have elves at Story Time. These two young ladies came over from Brew North and added quite a note of festive color to the occasion. As for the kids listening to stories, there was no way I could read to them and take pictures of them at the same time, but I can tell you what books we shared: What Pete Ate From A - Z (Really!), by Maira Kalman; Children Make Terrible Pets, by Peter Brown; City Dog, Country Frog, by Mo Willems; wrapping up with The Bump on Santa's Noggin, by Jeffrey L. Schatzer.

Now it’s Sunday evening, and I’ve taken a real day off. The dog girl and I went out for a good hour in the wooded dunes, while the sun was shining brightly. Sarah carefully sniffed each branch and twig and fern overhanging the path, places where other animals had passed by and left their scent. I enjoyed spotting tracks in the sand and traces showing where the wind had been during the night.

No deep thoughts today. Day of rest. More pictures of dunes here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

My World Travels on Thanksgiving Day

Some years back, David and I decided not to travel for holidays in November and December. The weather is too dicey, for one thing, and besides, there are too many people on the roads, all hurrying to their destinations. Better, we agreed, to visit our families at other times of year and stay in our own home for winter holidays. But my trusty armchair has wings! Under a warm comforter, I am a world traveler!

When a bookseller deals in used books as well as new, the surprises from day to day are endless, and so I found myself on yesterday’s cozy holiday at home reading Kim Sunée’s Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home. The trail took me first from Seoul, Korea, to New Orleans, U.S.A. Then, after Kim left her adopted parents’ Louisiana home, I traveled with her to Florida and Sweden, Italy and North Africa. But we spent most of our time in France, in Paris and in Provence. Can you believe that she had, for a while, a little bookstore on the Île St. Louis that sold nothing but poetry? No, it did not make a profit. I knew you would ask!

Part of the reason I often find it difficult to recommend books to other people is that tastes and interests are so diverse. I have no problem telling someone what books I love and why. Whether that other person will love a particular book, however, is something I cannot predict with certainty, and I bring this up because the copy of Trail of Crumbs that I have been devouring so avidly came into my hands with a note in the back from a previous reader. That note read, “An okay memoir—not sure I would have finished it if I had not heard Kim speak at TC library—felt ending was abrupt—Recipes are full of fats and small servings.” Would not have read the whole book if she hadn’t heard the author speak? Really??? There, you see, is the danger of recommending a book to someone else, because if that someone else hadn’t heard the author speak and had the same reaction to the book as the writer of this note--! Well, you see the difficulty. I, however, had none.

Any book that begins in France grabs my attention, but when the author flashed back to her childhood abandonment at three years old, in an outdoor food market in Korea, I accompanied her not only willingly but eagerly. When a young American couple adopted Kim and another Korean orphan girl and took them back to New Orleans, that part of the story mesmerized me, also. Childhood is never as simple from the inside as adults looking at it from the outside want to believe. Two little girls who didn’t look like anyone else in their school, taunted by other children, suffered painful confusion, although in Kim’s case the suffering was at least partially counterbalanced by her relationship with “Poppy,” her adopted mother’s father, who welcomed her into his kitchen and taught her to love cooking. In fact, on almost every page of this book, long before the Paris chapters, I was ever so slightly distracted by wondering who among my friends and family members would most enjoy this story.

Well, yes, some of the recipes are full of fats. The cream of chestnut soup, for example, contains a quarter-cup of heavy cream and only serves four (“Small servings”), but that’s only two tablespoons of cream per person, and is that so bad? (My Thanksgiving contribution to a large dinner party last year, cream of chestnut soup was not on our table this year, but maybe it will be for Christmas.) I have a few short chapters to go in this book so cannot yet say anything about the ending and whether or not it strikes me as “abrupt.” I’ll report on that another time.

Did you know that this year was the 100th anniversary of birth of gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt? That this year is the 70th anniversary of the release of “The Wizard of Oz,” featuring one of the most beautifully poignant popular songs ever written, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”? We enjoyed these programs and more on NPR. Public radio, as I first remember noticing in 1991, seems to offer exceptionally good programming on holidays. Thanks to NPR, we traveled to the Land of Oz! Then came bedtime and the moment to turn to Mark Twain, reading aloud and sharing several exciting chapters of Life on the Mississippi, which took me once again to New Orleans, where I’d been earlier in the day.

David worked outdoors during the day on storm windows and barn door props while I mixed up cookie dough in my cozy kitchen. Later Sarah and I braved grey skies and drizzle for a walk and romp involving (on her part) lots of running and stick retrieval. No car motors were started, no planes or trains boarded by our pack on Thanksgiving Day, and we were indoors more than out most of the day, but don’t be misled by “facts.” We got in plenty of holiday travel, in our own way.

Now there is a tree to decorate at Dog Ears Books in Northport, and tonight there will be cookies to bake for tomorrow’s Open House. Story Hour will be from 2:30-3:30. Will I be the reader or someone else? What will be read? I’ll just say now, Don’t arrive late and miss the beginning of the story or the chance to sample a cookie before settling in for the reading! Do you enjoy being read to? All ages are welcome--and who knows where we might go together?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thankful to Have a Home and Loved Ones

The wind was whipping county trees and waters here in Leelanau on Tuesday, November 23, and there were snow flurries in the air, but the photograph above is one I took sometime the previous week, when southern Leelanau Township had snow on the ground and the northern parts had none.

Now comes the holiday, and a hush falls over the blogosphere! Who has time to poke around on blogs when there is so much cooking and cleaning and talking and laughing to be done? For some, there will be hunting or football games on television. Maybe old photograph albums will come out of drawers to be perused and exclaimed over. I can easily imagine that occurring all across the country.

I got an album out the other evening, looking for a picture of Grandpa Gilbert with his train engine. My sister has a great one, framed, but all I could find was this blurry image, tucked into the box with the album but not “good enough” to merit a place on a page.

There are other pictures of all my grandparents, however, and even some of great-grandparents. This album represents my birth family, from greats to my own son. “Your poor grandpa,” that old tease used to say to me, “had to ride a pony to school!” The dog sitting on the pony’s back probably didn’t get to go to school, but isn’t it a wonderful image? I wonder what that dog’s name was. Too late to ask now. My grandparents are gone, as is my father, but Thanksgiving seems a good time to remember them.

I love this picture of Daddy and me by the side of a train. Were we both boarding, or was he going away or seeing his wife and first-born daughter off? Was this snapshot taken in my birthplace, Aberdeen, South Dakota?

And here, a few years later, is the rest of the nuclear family, with my mother looking glamorous, Deborah and me looking solemn and Bettie—well, looking like a baby. Sorry, Boo, but it’s true!

David and I will have a quiet holiday at home with Sarah this year. Various pieces of our families are assembling in various places, no one big central gathering (though we will all be in each other’s hearts, and doubtless there will be phone calls, too). As I look forward to the cozy day at home, it seems to stretch out in anticipation as a long, leisurely expanse. Experience tells a different story: We will sleep in and then exclaim how late it is by the time we’ve finished cookie-baking project will severely cut into reading time...dinner will be ten times longer in preparation than in consuming...Sarah will tease for a long walk, and David will tempt me with movies. Well, they are my pack, and I am not about to shut myself up in my library, away from the family, like Mr. Bennett. Family first, books second on holidays, though I’m hoping to combine the two for part of the day, reading aloud from Mark Twain.

This is my favorite American holiday. It isn’t about presents, and it doesn’t leave anyone out. So however you are spending the day and whatever you are having for dinner, do please have a lovely and peaceful Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ask the Artist: Placement of Horizon Line

My day off (Bruce was at the bookstore) took me to the wooded dunes for a while and later to Lake Leelanau and home by way of Leland, where I stopped to frame these two shots of the north lake. I kept looking back and forth from one to the other, trying to decide which I preferred, but what I noticed was that, similar as the two images are, my feelings toward them were very different. The first made me sit up straight and feel, if not slightly anxious, certainly alert, while the second gave me a feeling of calm. In the evening I showed them both to David and asked him to explain the emotional difference. He was happy to oblige.

“A higher horizon line indicates that the viewer is looking from an elevated position, also, and a higher position carries with it a sense of risk and danger. When you’re lower in the landscape yourself, you feel sheltered.”

Mountain vs. valley: It made perfect sense. Then the artist confessed that no one had ever asked him the question before and that he’d not been taught this or even thought about it until I asked. He’d made up his answer on the spot. Pretty convincing, though, don’t you think?

These days David is reading Paradise, by Larry McMurtry, and I’m engrossed in Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (for one man's synopsis, click here; I will write more about this book sometime soon), but later in the evenings (and probably in the course of our cozy Thanksgiving day at home) we are (and will be) pleasurably immersed in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. For a couple whose favorite books are Wind in the Willows and Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat, Life on the Mississippi is a natural read-aloud choice, and, happily, the season for reading aloud is upon us, one of winter’s soothing joys.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


He was very close to my age, only about two weeks older, and he died this past August. “Did he get his work done?” David asked. I showed him Tony Judt’s publication list inside the covers of The Memory Chalet, his last published book. Yes, indeed, he got his work done.

I am a latecomer to Judt’s writing. In much the way that the name Adam Gopnik came to mean more to me with each of his New Yorker essays, it was the steady appearance of Judt’s memoir pieces in the New York Review of Books that taught me to love the precision of his thought and the elegance of his expression. I hadn’t read more than three of these essays before I wanted an entire book of them. Now, posthumously, here it is.

And now, book in hand, I re-read everything I've already read (along with those pieces new to me) hungrily and with heightened appreciation--not simply because the writer is dead, though that always affects reading work we’ve come to love, but also because having all the memoir essays together in a bound volume makes the reading a new experience. Is it the more comfortable size of the pages, the lack of a magazine’s distractions, the comforting way the hardcover volume stays still in my hand, not flapping around like a newspaper? The mere fact that they are together, one following another, makes the experience newly exciting, and I am able to see and feel more easily this time around the complete structure of each essay, the way the writer brings it all home in the final sentences, completing (each time) a thought that began on the essay’s first page and took the two of us together through rich, meandering lanes of (his) memory, reflection and interpretation.

Judt grew up in England and studied in Paris and only came later to the United States, but his personal historical frame of reference is mine, simply because he was born in 1948. I say “personal” since Judt studied and wrote and taught history all his life, encompassing a breadth of knowledge greatly beyond my own. He worked through his “midlife crisis” by learning the Czech language; I only went to graduate school in philosophy. Quand même, nous étions tous les deux des soixante-huitards. Still, for better or for worse, we were both children of the Sixties.

But wait. I need to start over. If I had picked up this book and opened to a page in the middle, knowing nothing of the author ahead of time, I would have been quickly won over by the penetration of his intellect, the polished turn of every sentence and the subjects on which he turned his writer’s gaze. Any reader coming to this book new to Judt’s work, however, learns in the prefatory chapters that these are no ordinary excursions into nostalgia, for at the time of these writings he was in his last two years of the “progressive imprisonment without parole” of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. There is no pain with ALS, he tells us, but there is no loss of sensation, either.
It is not as though you lose the desire to stretch, to bend, to stand or lie or run or even exercise. But when the urge comes over you there is nothing—nothing—that you can do except seek some tiny substitute or else find a way to suppress the thought and the accompanying muscle memory.

Nighttime, visited by insomnia and unable even to change the position of a foot or hand, was the worst, and yet, “if you must suffer thus,” Judt wrote in May of this past year, dictating the sentences to his collaborator, “better to have a well-stocked head.” Having, as he did, all those “pieces of serviceable recollection, readily available to an analytically disposed mind,” bits of memory and endless wakeful hours in the dark to rearrange and connect them, what Judt needed was a mnemonic device with which to record the rearrangement, the new verbal composition, so he would be able to retrieve it the following day. This he found in his detailed visual memory of a little Swiss chalet visited with his family when he was ten years old.

He would map each essay, as it took shape, onto his mental map of the chalet, beginning a composing session by taking possession, in imagination, of one of the armchairs in the chalet’s public room. And then--.
Once I know roughly what I want to say and a sequence in which it is best said, I leave the armchair and go back to the door of the chalet itself. From here I retrace my steps, usually from the first storage closet—for skis, let’s say—toward ever more substantial spaces: the bar, the dining room, the lounge, the old-fashioned wooden key rack pinned under the cuckoo clock, the rather random collection of books straggling up the back staircase, and thence to one of any number of bedrooms. To each of these locations has been assigned a staging point in a narrative, say, or perhaps an illustrative example.

In the morning, the writer could once again take his mental walk of the night before through the Swiss chalet, from one station to another, picking up the pieces of his essay where he had stored them in the dark hours. Whether I am more amazed or moved by this feat, I find it hard to say, but that is the explanation of the book’s title and the manner in which the essays were composed.

Most of the pieces in The Memory Chalet have one-word titles, simple, straightforward names like “Austerity.” (Austerity is one of Judt’s favorite words and one he uses approvingly in other essays besides the one so titled.) “Mimetic Desire” does not sound exactly straightforward--more like a paper to be read at an MLA conference. It may, however, have been the first Judt piece I read in NYRB, and if I fell in love with the writer it was for this sentence: “I love trains, and they have always loved me back.” Yes, yes, yes!
As a child, I always felt uneasy and a little constrained around people.... Being always felt stressful—wherever I was there was something to do, someone to please, a duty to be completed, a role inadequately fulfilled: something amiss. Becoming, on the other hand, was relief. I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better. Walking was pleasurable, cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.

Let me repeat two of those sentences:

“I was never so happy as when I was going somewhere on my own, and the longer it took to get there, the better.”

“But the train was very heaven.”

That should give you some idea.

A reader need not have known the Sixties or grown up on trains, lived in Paris or read French philosophy or worked on an Israeli kibbutz to appreciate this book. I have never been to Israel, much less worked on a kibbutz. I have never lived in London or visited Prague or Vienna and will never be a historian, much less a leading American intellectual. Moreover, the torment of ALS is an experience few of Judt’s readers have known first-hand. None of that matters. Memory’s intimacy as accomplished in memoir builds context for readers, and so in reading we walk with Tony through the little Swiss chalet, through the streets of Putney and the halls of Cambridge. We take the freighter to Israel and travel by automobile across the United States, marveling at the literary holdings of university libraries surrounded by cornfields. What is familiar we see with fresh eyes, and what historical or political background we lack, his words and thoughts give us a hunger to acquire.

The last page of this book sends me back to the image on the cover, and right away I want to open it and begin the journey anew. I don’t want it to be over. I hope the author’s last mental images took him to that place he most loved, “going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.” Thank you, Tony. Thank you so much.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My Sustain Pedal Is Not Working Today

After the long, three-part review series, my brain is weeping with fatigue. Miscellaneous short tidbits are all it can produce today. Fortunately, I have a few.

It’s Transition Fortnight everywhere Up North. The week before Thanksgiving as well as the week of the holiday, mean changes in weather, merchants’ displays and village decorations. Yes, we are switching over from fall to winter. Winter coats are coming out, along with warm caps, scarves and mittens. Sally Coohon and I took down scarecrows in Northport (we only missed one, and I cut him free a few days later), and the village people (but can they sing?) put up evergreen branches and red bows.

Lights were strung on the tree Friday. Then an errand in Lake Leelanau meant I made my way home at the end of the day through Leland, where I saw the same kind of thing taking place.

My events calendar over in the right-hand column only has to do with the bookstore, but there will be much more happening on Saturday, November 27, so here’s the complete list as it was given to me:

• Have your pet’s photo taken with Santa at Northport Bay Dog and Cat Company on Shabwasung Street. Donations will benefit Black Sheep Crossing Farm Animal Sanctuary. 11 a.m.- 1 p.m.

• Enjoy story time for kids at Dog Ears Books on Waukazoo Street. Who will read, and what will be read? Be surprised! 2:30 – 3:30 p.m.

• Join the puppet-making workshop at Dolls and More. All materials provided for $10 fee. 3:30 – 5:30 p.m.

• Decorate a couple of ornaments (buy one, get one free) at the Ceramic House on the corner of Waukazoo and Nagonaba. This is an all-day opportunity for fun.

• Another all-day event will take place at the Pennington Collection on the corner of Mill and Nagonaba: decorate a pinecone!

• Santa (Mr. Claus) will be at the Big Store (corner of Waukazoo and Nagonaba) from 3:30 – 5:30 p.m. Not something to miss!

• Finally, the official lighting of the Christmas tree is scheduled for 6 p.m. There will be a fire in the fireplace, and the Northport Community Band will be playing, so come and sing along!

I’ve made a couple of changes to my settings on this blog, so it should now be easier for people to leave comments. It worked for Steve. If you had problems before, try again and see if we’ve got a solution.

Follow this link to another review of Jeff Vande Zande’s book, Threatened Species, in case you missed my review or want a second opinion before committing to a quality reading experience. The newer link (first in paragraph) will also give you an interview with the author.

That's all, folks. Sayonara, night-night, and bon weekend!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Wrap and Give, Unwrap and Give Again

It was a great day for me at the post office this morning, with notes from two of my dearest friends, a check (payment for books), the New York Review of Books and, last but not at all least, a package from Marjorie Farrell. Marjorie and her husband come to Northport from Woodstock, New York, on a semi-annual basis to spend time with Walt’s mother, and besides being a serious reader and writer, Marjorie (unlike your bookseller blogger here) is a very creative craftswoman, always trying something new—in fact, a lot like my Northport friend Sally at Dolls and More, another local shop where Marjorie hangs out when she’s in town.

So what was in the package? Furoshiki cloths! Marjorie had been working on them and suddenly had a brainstorm about how perfect these traditional Japanese wrapping cloths would be for holiday book-giving! I love how easy books are to wrap, anyway, but with these cloths the wrapping is reusable, not trash to throw away, so if you should be lucky enough to receive a gift wrapped in a Furoshiki cloth, you can use it to wrap the next gift you give, or the cloth can be a small table cover or even wall art. And when you give a book this way, you’re really giving two gifts in one. I've opened one of the folded ones (below) so you can see how ready it is to receive a book.

This one with the bright stocking print looks perfect for a Santa gift. It reminds me of Palmer Brown’s illustrations for his wonderful book (now, sadly, out of print), The Silver Nutmeg.

Marjorie will be at Dog Ears Books on Saturday, December 18, with many more lovely prints and fabrics (and wrapping instructions), and she will do an on-site wrapping demonstration. That’s exactly one week before Christmas, so we’ll have cookies, too, and make it a little party.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Land Beneath Our Feet, Part III

The third book in my three-part review miniseries covers general land stewardship and responsibility, with most of the essays focusing on wilderness. Before reading this post, you may want to go back a few days and read some of the quotations I pulled from Sacred Trusts: Essays on Stewardship and Responsibility, edited by Michael Katakis, that will not reappear today.

It is not a criticism of any essay in the book to say that the anthology as a whole lacks balance. The number of essays on fly-fishing could have been reduced to allow for a wider range of topics, producing a collection more representative of different regions and different kinds of stewardship. Farming, sadly, is not represented here at all, the state of Montana heavily overrepresented. That said, there is some excellent writing in these pages, and many important issues are raised and explored. I am not going to try to cover them all. Instead I want to select a few writers and ideas that are important to me and connect them to my two previous posts.

The only farmer contributor to Sacred Trusts is Wendell Berry, and his essay here is not about farming but about Christianity--and, I would add, Judaism, though he does not say so--and stewardship. Basically, Berry argues that the Bible makes a clear case that all of Creation is holy, all life holy, and that only misuse of the Bible leads to abuse of nature. Modern Christianity, he claims, does misuse the Bible with its narrow emphasis on the salvation of individual souls, counting larger Creation and smaller community as unimportant and disposable. A case against Judaism’s failure of stewardship would take a different direction, and I will neither make the case nor attempt to refute it but will stick to Berry’s argument.

There was at least one other essay in this book that mentioned a lack of stewardship teaching in--I’m sure the writer said--Sunday school. This struck me. I took note of the charge because my own religious experience growing up was very different. Ours was a fairly conservative German Lutheran congregation (my parents chose this church over my father’s upbringing in Methodism and my mother’s mother’s Catholicism), and I recall distinctly the references to stewardship, constant reminders that the earth and everything on the earth was the Lord’s, ours to use but also to protect and care for, and this teaching occurred not once but repeatedly--as did the old Lutheran minister’s warnings about “half-baked professors” who would tempt young college students away from their faith! That was the first time I heard the term “half-baked,” and to this day whenever I hear it I remember that first reference. But the same is true whenever I hear the term “stewardship.” I was taught the concept in Sunday School long before hearing of it in a college environmental ethics class.

Well, a small point. I do agree with Berry that saving individual souls for heaven is a terribly narrow concern, hardly geared toward taking earthly responsibilities seriously, and he is right to say that many draw a sharp line between Creator and Creation, claiming to worship the first while feeling free to denigrate the second. Honestly, though, I would rather have had one of Berry’s essays on farming in this book. As the collection stands, it is woefully incomplete, lacking any discussion of agriculture or food production.

On to the strengths.

The opening essay, “Into the Trees,” by Mary Catherine Bateson, is outstanding. Bateson’s subject is death, the changes that medical technology has brought to dying and the danger of our apparent “victories” over death. Her subject is also forests, their complexity, the necessary presence of death in their midst and the terrible possibility that we could lose them.
I knew people in my childhood who died, and I saw their bodies laid out for mourners. I learned something of death by reading the poems of a friend who committed suicide and from the death soon after birth of a premature son. But I did not begin to learn about dying until the death of my father. He had been impatient for years of medical and dental care, so his body was a clear testimony to aging. At the end, his death was expected and accepted, awaited without tubes and monitors, shared as an extraordinary gift. If my own aging brings me closer to him, does it bring me closer to the trees and to the forest?

Every tall tree is my father now.

That sentence, “Every tall tree is my father now,” is repeated through the essay like a response to more detailed thoughts, almost like “We pray to the Lord,” spoken by a congregation at various points in a longer spoken prayer. Every other sentence occurs but once--for example, “Death is like gravity, shaping and balancing our lives.”

Last Sunday’s “Quotation Potluck” included Bateson’s observation that a forest is unthinkable without death, and later in her essay she refutes the idea that the simple replanting of trees by lumber companies ensures the continuation of a forest.
In this system no trees will be allowed to mature like the ancients, and the elders of the forest will not be permitted to die and melt into the ground.

Some of my photographic images on Sunday may have seemed strange to anyone who missed the connection to Bateson’s words about death. I had photographed broken limbs, fallen trees, rotting stumps, fungi and dead leaves.
It is hard to imagine how those who live by the rejection of mortality and fallibility can care for and protect our natural landscapes. Surely they may be tempted to turn them into manicured parklands, to remove the signs of decay.... Surely the temptation to cut and clear and destroy, the assertion of power, is a rejection of the inevitability of death....

In the life of the forest, nothing is lost. One day, I too want to be a tree.

My time will come to die, the writer says. Death comes to all things in turn, in time, and from death new life springs.

Another essay that stands out is, I’m glad to say, by a writer I know, poet and native Michigan son Dan Gerber. Dan begins “Walking in Tierra del Fuego” with a series of questions. Perhaps the most penetrating question he asks, and the one his essay attempts to answer is this: “What does stewardship mean in a world in which change is not only the condition but the definition of life?” Gerber points out, as did Bateson, the consequences of human beings’ failure to limit their sacrosanct “right to reproduce, to overreproduce.” He tells of his realization that places he first loved as wild country or simply as quiet human habitats (Key West on his first visit) had looked very different fifty years before and would look different to people coming upon them fifty years later. He writes of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, the northernmost part of it a short walk from the house he lived in at the time he wrote the piece, and he recognizes the importance of having this beautiful shoreline accessible to anyone seeking even “the illusion, at least, of a little solitude.” I have written before of Sleeping Bear, Good Harbor Bay, and the old farms and woodlands now within the Lakeshore boundaries and how grateful I am to have that expanse of ungated, condo-free natural beauty.

Gerber brings another critical facet to the discussion, however, and that is the mind of the seeker of wilderness.
Often when I walk out from my house into the hills surrounding it, I discover after twenty minutes or so that I have taken the house with me, have taken the unanswered letters and telephone calls, the windows that need caulking, the slights I suffered last week, the things I should have said but didn’t, the things I plan to say next week but probably won’t. ... It doesn’t matter whether the ground I’m walking over is planted alfalfa or wild knapweed, whether the trees are virgin or second growth. If I am not aware of them, not conscious of their consciousness, nature doesn’t exist for me, though I may be walking in Tierra del Fuego.

Oh, doesn’t this hit home? The times I have left the house to walk across fields and through woods and realized to my dismay that “I have taken the house with me”! And yet, I also find a happier possibility here. In the same way that I might fail to be aware of nature’s existence in Tierra del Fuego or the most magnificent virgin forest, I can also lose myself in nature though it be only an old two-track between orchard and woodlot or a well-worn trail through a tract of public land. What are those lines from William Blake’s poem? “To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower”?

Since 1993 when these essays were published (coincidentally, the year Dog Ears Books first sprang to life on Waukazoo Street in Northport), Dan Gerber has left Michigan for Montana and is, I’m sure, very happy there, but for those of us still here, Michigan continues to offer a host of opportunities to experience nature’s power to those who bring an open heart to it.

Another writer in this book whom I know somewhat (and why not single out those whose lives have crossed mine?) is Guy de la Valdene, who tells here of the 800 acres of northern Florida land he manages for bobwhite quail. (His full-length book with the same title, For a Handful of Feathers, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1955.) In former times this rolling land produced cotton, cattle, tobacco, peanuts and corn. What Guy plants now is not intended for market but to enrich bird habitat. He uses heavy equipment or fire, as necessary, to accomplish desired changes; his land, though tailored to the needs of wild birds, is managed, modified, “sculpted,” and he makes no apology for what he does.
When all is said and done, it boils down to this: the farmer in me grows an annual crop of wild flying delicacies, and the hunter in me harvests a percentage of this fruitage; the businessman in me recognizes a losing proposition, and the child in me doesn’t give a damn.

Here is a lover of nature who plans and works (and hires others to work) like a farmer but with very unfarmerlike attitudes. I am not passing judgment: There are many varieties of stewardship, and I would love a chance to visit these semi-wild red hills, where it seems likely that this writer comes face to face with nature on his managed acreage.

Many contributors to this anthology, if not all, seek solitude and crave wilderness. The reader discovers one after another who desires to live without neighbors and to be the only fly fisherman on a stretch of wild river. But such solitude is increasingly rare, particularly as a way of life, and so, while one form of stewardship is devoted to preserving wild tracts of land, these writers also realize the paradoxical irony of doing so. Any preserved wilderness will attract great numbers of solitude seekers, and crowds of visitors, however well-intentioned and well-behaved, would seem to mitigate against a solitary wilderness experience, especially if we cannot manage to “leave the house behind” and “see eternity in a wild flower” and not get all bent out of shape when we encounter others in the same “wild” space, looking for the same experience we are there to find.

When I mentioned Sacred Trusts to a friend the other day and observed that there was an awful lot in it about Montana and fly-fishing, he smiled and said that fly-fishermen are in the forefront of wilderness preservation. Okay, I won’t argue. I do think, however, that “stewardship and responsibility,” the purported subject of the anthology, is much broader than wilderness preservation and requires more than that civilized human beings set aside preserves and refrain from despoiling nature.

I think back to the farmers and ranchers in Lisa M. Hamilton’s Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness and to the urgency of the case for topsoil conservation made by David R. Montgomery in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. I reflect on farming’s essential role in the continuation of human life. And I remember the necessary intermingling of life and death in productive, fertile land. Yes, I too love forests and wild, uncultivated, unmanicured landscapes, but when it comes to stewardship and responsibility, the acceptance of cycles of life and death and rebirth, the importance of letting land rest and welcoming wild plants and animals to fencerows, it seems to me that the best farmers and ranchers in the world, those men and women committed to caring for their land as their grandchildren’s legacy and committed to their communities as permanent neighborhoods, are the foremost exemplars of those virtues. Who is more a steward of the land than the responsible farmer? And what greater responsibility to the earth and to life can there be?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Land Beneath Our Feet, Part II

Books that figure in this, the previous and the next post to follow are:
Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by Lisa M. Hamilton (Counterpoint, paper, $15.95);
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery (Univ. of California, paper, $17.95);
Sacred Trusts: Essays on Stewardship and Responsibility, ed. by Michael Katakis (Mercury House, 1993)

The hopelessness a reader may feel reading Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations and the despair that may come upon a viewer of “Life and Debt” are at least in part counteracted by Lisa M. Hamilton’s book, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agriculture. Hamilton spent time with three American farm families—a small, family-owned dairy farm in East Texas, a cattle operation in New Mexico, and a North Dakota business run by a family who grow almost their own food and also develop their own high-quality vegetable seeds, both for their own use and for sale. These three farms all manage to be “modern” without losing the farmers losing direct connection with the land. All face a certain amount of skepticism, even hostility, from surrounding farmers and ranchers who have bought into larger, more expensive, “efficient” and debt-necessitating practices, but there are also signs that farm neighbors as well as the general public is starting to catch on.

Healthy dairy cows and beef cattle graze. Fruit, vegetable and field crops with ability to adapt to local environment must be developed locally. Factory methods produce high yields for a while, with livestock or plant crops, but they also bring increased vulnerability to disease and fluctuations in weather, threatening long-term food security for the immediate region and the larger world. And they almost invariably lead to deterioration of soil, the basis for all agriculture.

Hamilton, not much of an enthusiast for milk drinking, hesitates to accept a glass of milk during her visit to Harry Lewis’s dairy farm. Immediately after drinking it, she wants more. When Harry tells her the milk she just drank is less than two hours from the cow, she has an epiphany:
After he says that I look at the barn again. It’s still old and cramped, with more than its share of flies. The white walls are still messy. And yet, I realize, what milking barn is attractive? What cows do not shit? ... The true measure of right and wrong here is not one of manure or mud, but rather of the details. The calmness of the cows and the people. The pace of the work and the attention it allows. Even the shit: most dairy cows have a sticky coating of manure on their backsides and tails. It’s the result of replacing pasture with an unnatural diet of grain and the ill health of confinement, both of which lead to perpetual diarrhea. Harry’s cows, on the other hand, defecate solidly. Their feet may be muddy, but their rears are clean.

Too graphic for you? Then don’t go into dairy farming. The truth of it, though—that’s something anyone who buys and consumes dairy products should think about long and hard.

Virgil Trujillo introduces Hamilton to alternative beef cattle ranching. He grew up ranching but wanted to learn more and went on to study Holistic Resource Management (HRM).
...One of the first steps is to see the ranching system as based on solar energy: the sun’s energy grows plants, then cows [and bulls and steers; “cows” understood in the context of Western ranching to apply to cattle in general] harvest that energy and transform it into energy that is edible by humans. HRM still make their money by harvesting the cattle, but their strategy for success is to take care of the land that grows the plants.

The most basic of HRM is a system of rotational grazing. It is meant to make cows replicate herds of heavy ruminants such as bison, whose sybiotic relationship with the flora was an integral part of grasslands ecosystems for millenia. The herds would concentrate in one area, eat its plants down to the ground, then move on and not return until the forage was sufficiently regrown. Had they returned sooner, they would have compromised the plants that they depended on for survival.

If you are skeptical, consider the “exclosure,” an acre and a half of land that has been fenced off and protected from any kind of grazing for over 75 years. Hamilton reports on what she saw inside the fence and how it compared to what was outside.
The main difference is that the plants inside the fence are shaggier: the clumps of grass are denser, with pointed ends drying out in the sun; the shrubs are a little taller, but woodier. Yet even these differences are slight. By looks, the fence could have been installed last year, just before the cattle came through.

The ungrazed land inside the exclosure is no better off, the grazed land outside no worse off. Virgil explains:
"The grass out here grows six inches to a foot every year. After seventy-five years, do you see that grass inside the fence seventy-five feet high? No. And is the grass outside the fence dead? No. I’m just harvesting it.”

The cattle grazing on rangeland are doing what suburbanites do with their lawn mowers. As I read this section of Hamilton’s book, I thought back to what Montgomery wrote about traditional cattle grazing in Africa, before strict national borders were put in place and cattlemen required to fence in their herds. The resting period, the time when it appears that “nothing” is happening on the range or in a pasture—that’s a key component to the success of grazing. Another, however, is the cattle themselves, enriching the range with the manure they leave behind on grazed land. Because of this natural fertilizer, many people believe that grazing improves the quality of rangeland grass.

I won’t try the patience of anyone who’s hung in with me this far (if anyone has) by trying to explain the complicated ownership of the land where Virgil grazes his herd. I do want to stress--and this seems as good a time as any to bring it in—that the Harry Lewis family in East Texas, Virgil Trujillo in New Mexico and the Podolls in North Dakota have more in common than wise land use, soil conservation concerns and care for the continued productivity of their herds and crops. All are, as Hamilton’s title suggests, deeply rooted in the communities where they live and work. None of these people looked around the country to decide where to live. None chose their home places using abstract, objective criteria. The Podolls are trying to keep going the legacy of their parents and grandparents. The same is true of Virgil. The Lewis family farming tradition does not go back quite as far, in terms of land ownership, but Harry Lewis is regarded as the patriarch of his little unincorporated community of Smith Bottom. All have known challenges and setbacks. All work harder, physically and mentally, than most Americans can even begin to think of working. But not for a minute did a single one of these people consider quitting and walking away. They are committed to what they do and to the places where they do it.

Trujillo and Lewis both, for different reasons, devote themselves to livestock. David and Dan Podoll’s parents in North Dakota pioneered raising turkeys by the thousands, paying off their farm in five years, but it was David who set out in 1974 to investigate the absurdity of organic agriculture and found himself converted by the evidence (he doesn’t call his kind of farming “organic” or even “sustainable” but enduring), and he doesn’t mind people thinking he’s crazy. He focuses on the farm as a whole rather than any single crop and its yield in any one year, and his brother Dan and sister-in-law Theresa and his own wife Ginger (a teacher who grew up on a Montana ranch) are with him all the way. It was in fact Dan’s girlfriend, a Minnesota farm girl herself, who first heard about organic farming in a college ecology class and couldn’t want to tell Dan about it.

Here is one example of how the Podoll farm is different from other North Dakota farms. Instead of wheat, the Podolls raise its cousin, triticale, a taller, bushier crop. It’s not as easy to harvest, and, like hay, there are problems if rain comes while the cut crop is drying in the fields. But it shades out weeds in a way that wheat cannot. Its roots are longer and deeper, meaning the crop can survive drought that would kill wheat in the field. Finally, plant matter disked back into the earth after harvest builds healthy, living soil.
None of this matters much to the guys growing dwarf wheat. They don’t need the plant to shade out weeds because they have herbicides. They don’t need biomass for the soil because they have fertilizers.

It’s as if, Hamilton observes, the different farming methods are occurring in parallel universes.

A big part of way the Podolls manage their farm has to do with growing vegetables, and a big part of that has to do with saving seed. Choosing which plants from which to save seed. Selective breeding. Developing their own strains of seeds and selling those seeds commercially. Again, the very idea of saving seed, once a necessity for every farmer the world over, is considered by many these days to be old-fashioned and unscientific. In cases where farmers purchase genetically modified seed, saving it is a breach of contract punishable by law.
Monsanto’s contract is called a ‘Technology/Stewardship Agreement,’ an ironic choice if you believe, as David does, that the patenting of plants is a direct assault on the very concept of stewardship. When farmers lose the right to save seed, they can no longer care for plant populations from year to year and adapt them to their land. The plants cannot evolve.

Again, I must digress from a book under discussion to recommend a film, this time “The Future of Food,” an in-depth discussion of genetically modified seeds, from what’s entailed in their development to what they mean for farmers and everyone on earth. Anyone who thinks genetic modification is just another version of hybridization or the kind of selective breeding the Podolls are engaged in needs to see this film or in some other way educate himself on the giant leap of technology from garden to laboratory.

The farm crisis seen by organic farmers and seed breeders in North Dakota is a small local echo of David R. Montgomery’s thesis in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, discussed in my previous post.
Over the past century the industrialized world built an agricultural system using a scaffold of external supports: cheap fuel to run machinery; fertilizer manufactured from natural gas; imported water for irrigation; pesticides to eliminate insects, weeds, and diseases. With these inputs, fantastic yields were achieved, the likes of which the world had never seen. When turned into vast quantities of inexpensive food, those yields allowed the world population to grow exponentially. That, in turn, created greater demand for more food. The problem was that scaffold became inseparable from the system itself. Agriculture could not function—the world could not eat—without those external supports, yet they were suddenly running out.

Harry Lewis dreams of farmers taking back the country. When I read about him and Virgil Trujillo and the Podolls and compare their work, close to the soil, close to their communities, to the giant, corporate, engulf-and-devour seed and fertilizer manufacturers, I don’t have to think twice to know which world I’d rather live in, which future I hope generations to come will have a chance to know.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Land Beneath Our Feet, Part I

The grower of trees, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
descending in the dark?

- Wendell Berry, “The Man Born to Farming,” from The Mad Farmer Poems

Other books that figure in this and following posts are:
Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by Lisa M. Hamilton (Counterpoint, paper, $15.95);
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery (Univ. of California, paper, $17.95);
Sacred Trusts: Essays on Stewardship and Responsibility, ed. by Michael Katakis (Mercury House, 1993)

Of these recent three nonfiction works on land use, it was Montgomery’s book that I read first. A farmer friend had ordered it from me, along with another book on agriculture, and when the order came in and he came to pick up his books, I commented that Montgomery’s looked fascinating. “Why don’t you read it first?” he suggested generously. “I won’t have time to read books until winter, anyway.” (He said “enna-way,” which is how a lot of farmers, Norwegian and otherwise, in this part of the country pronounce that word.) So I read the book and passed it along to him bristling with Post-It notes, much to his astonishment.

My friend wondered if the idea of soil erosion was new to me. No, not at all. Long before I worked for almost a year at the Soil Conservation District office, back during my undergraduate education when I did an independent study (readings) in agricultural history, I could have told you the loss of topsoil per acre per year in Barry County, Michigan, where I was living at the time. I’ve also read quite a bit over the years about flooding and soil loss in China. The picture Mongtomery presents, however, is a more far-reaching and much more complicated. At the risk of oversimplifying his message, here’s how I see the thesis:

1) The rise and fall of civilizations throughout history, as well as all migration of peoples from one part of the world to another and including all wars from time immemorial, can be traced to the story of topsoil, the skin of our planet.

2) Human populations have always increased and declined according to food available, such that an increase in yields will always predict a corresponding increase in population.

3) Therefore, a technology that seeks continually to increase agriculture yields at the expense of preserving or building healthy topsoil guarantees eventual environmental collapse.

Montgomery’s thesis is historical. It is as much for the academic historian in the Ivory Tower with no interest in farming as it is for the environmentally conscious alternative new farmer. At times, to be honest, I found the sheer volume of supporting factual detail somewhat overwhelming. Historians, I find, have a tendency to do this: they have a hard time leaving anything out, even when half as much would have made just as tight a case, but some of the details are also quite fascinating in their own right.
The earliest communities along the Yellow River were situated on elevated terraces along tributaries. Only later, after the area became densely populated, did people crowd onto the floodplain. [I have added emphasis to this sentence to make clear the contrast with Egypt that follows.] Extensive levees to protect farmlands and towns along the river kept floodwaters, and the sediment they carried, confined between the levees. Where the river hit the plains, the weakening current began dropping sediment out between the levees instead of across the floodplain. Rebuilding levees ever higher to contain the floodwaters ensured that the riverbed climbed above the alluvial plain about a food every century.

By the 1920s the surface of the river towered thirty feet above the floodplain during the high-water season. This guaranteed that any flood that breached the levees was devastating.

The contrast between China and Egypt could not be more striking. Until the building of the Aswan Dam, agriculture along the Nile was sustained for seven thousand years by periodic flooding that brought fresh silt from upriver, renewing the topsoil and keeping the land productive. The dam changed everything.
After advancing for thousands of years since sea level stabilized, the Nile delta is now eroding. Although the dam allows farmers to grow two or three crops a year using artificial irrigation, the water now delivers salt instead of silt....

As the renowned fertility of the Nile valley began to fall, agricultural output was sustained with chemical fertilizers that peasant farmers could not afford. Modern farmers along the Nile are some of the world’s foremost users of chemical fertilizers—conveniently produced in new factories that are among the largest users of power generated by Nasser’s dam. Now, for the first time in seven thousand years, Egypt—home of humanity’s most durable garden—imports most of its food.

The length of time that land along the Nile remained productive is unparalleled in the world’s history. In other countries, from one continent to another, successful food production led to increases in population that forced farmers onto less and less productive land. Often the less productive land was on hillsides or even mountainsides. Sometimes it was jungle land or prairies that had long sustained native plants. In all these cases, cultivation left topsoil vulnerable to wind and rain, which soon blew or washed it away. Montgomery finds similar histories on every continent except the polar Arctic and Antarctic, which have never been farmed.

Agribusiness and the research that supports it and enlarges its scope with ever more powerful products have been touted by many as the answer to world hunger. Montgomery is dubious. First, he reports that food production per capita has increased faster than world population since the 1960s.
World hunger persists because of unequal access to food, a social problem of distribution and economics rather than inadequate agricultural capacity.

One reason for the extent of world hunger is that industrialized agriculture displaced rural farmers, forcing them to join the urban poor who cannot afford an adequate diet. In many countries, much of the traditional farmland was converted from subsistence farms to plantations growing high-value export crops. Without access to land to grow their own food, the urban poor all too often lack the money to buy enough food even if it is available.

This reality is starkly portrayed in the film “Life and Debt,” which details the role of the World Bank in adding stranglehold stipulations to any loans they make to “developing” countries, such that the borrowing country is no longer allowed to put tariffs on food imports (this is called “a level playing field” by the large, wealthy players) but must allow its borders to be overrun by cheap food produced overseas, with the result that the food security of the population, as well as the self-sufficiency of native farmers, is sacrificed. Never mind that the United States in its early days had many protective tariffs in place to encourage our national agriculture and industry. Now that we’re big and powerful, we bring official international “complaint” against little countries like Haiti if they do not allow absolute “freedom,” i.e., pricing equality, with the rest of the world, even if means the downfall of their very last agricultural export crop. See the film!

Getting back to world hunger--. Reason #1: Industrialized agribusiness has displaced rural farmers. This, you should already be aware, is not a Third World problem only but a reality right here in the United States. Get big or get out! has been American agricultural policy since the days of Earl Butz. The idea was that modern technology on large holdings would be more "efficient" than small farmers who couldn’t afford to modernize.

Reason #2: Shockingly, unexpectedly, crop yields have not continued to rise to greater and greater heights with “modern” (industrialized) methods. The much-touted Green Revolution seems to be stalling out.
The introduction of fertilizer-responsive rice and wheat increased crop yields between the 1950s and 1970s by more than 2 percent a year.

Since then, however, growth in crop yields has slowed to a virtual standstill. The great postwar increase in crop yields appears to be over. Wheat yields in the United States and Mexico are no longer increasing. Asian rice yields are starting to fall. Crop yields appear to have reached a technological plateau.

What has happened with yields due to hybridization, heavy chemical fertilizer applications and chemical pesticides and herbicides is now, already, occurring with genetically modified, “herbicide-ready” seeds. Yields rise, plateau and then fall, fields requiring ever heavier doses of chemicals. Little of this news has yet reached the general public.

Reason #3: Every rise in food supply throughout history has been matched by a rise in population. In theory, it would seem that humankind could take this lesson seriously and limit population; in practice, every group population group (whether national, tribal, religious, ethnic or whatever) usually wants some other group to limit itself (or be limited). Americans in the 20th century, for example, usually pointed to enormous populations in China and India, ignoring the multiplying factor in natural resource use that meant every American child had an impact of something like 15 children in India. (I’m too lazy to look up the exact figure and can’t remember which book it was in, and anyway there have been different figures in different years, and 15 is one of the lower-end numbers I recall.) If the past is repeated into the future, and advances in methods ratchet up food supply, population will also rise, until all the earth’s topsoil has been washed into the sea. It didn’t start in New Orleans, and it didn’t stop there.

Given Montgomery’s argument and the weight of evidence he calls in to support it, the conclusion of the book is unsurprising:
Many factors may contribute to ending a civilization, but an adequate supply of fertile soil is necessary to sustain one. ... As odd as it may sound, civilization’s survival depends on treating soil as an investment, as a valuable inheritance rather than a commodity—as something other than dirt.

To be continued.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Big World to Northport! Come In, Northport!

Living deep in the country, under a blessedly dark night sky, out where coyotes carol nightly outside our farmhouse windows, and then commuting to my little bookstore in a small, quiet Up North village—well, I don’t always feel like part of the larger world of books, even with a blog that is theoretically (the key word: “theoretically”) accessible to readers around the globe. So it means a lot to me when I hear from other book people far from my home ground.

On Friday morning, the day my letter appeared in the daily e-mail newsletter “Shelf Awareness,” the phone rang at Dog Ears, and the caller ID said “Partners Book Dist.” One of my new book suppliers, Partners, down in Holt, Michigan, is a wholesaler for the Great Lakes region. (They also have a Western division.) My first quick thought was, “Oh, no! Am I late paying a bill?” But that’s only happened once in all the years I’ve been buying books from them—an oversight in a busy season--so I knew almost instantly that this call wasn’t about late payment. And no, Mick was just calling to say he’d read my letter that morning and that while he considers himself rabidly anti-censorship, he wholeheartedly agreed with everything I said. We chatted a while and traded stories, me smiling the whole time at my end, feeling both visible and vindicated.

Ron Jolly, author of Northern Michigan Almanac and Michigan's Upper Peninsula Almanac and morning talk show host at WTCM in Traverse City, called last week, too, wanting information about Ellen Airgood’s forthcoming novel, South of Superior. Ron knows that I know Ellen, that David and I regularly visit Grand Marais in the Upper Peninsula where Ellen and her husband, Rick, work themselves to the bone at the wonderful West Bay Diner, and the question of her book had come up in a conversation he’d just had at the radio studio with writers Doug Stanton and Phil Caputo. I checked again, for myself as well as for Ron, and discovered the release date for South of Superior is now set for June 2011. Sigh! We all have to wait! “Well, let me know when you have it,” Ron requested, “because I want to buy it from you.” Another reason for me to smile!

Then, as I was figuratively pawing through old e-mails, deleting messages by the dozen, I came upon an e-mail from Ellen. So I did have her address! Zoom! I zipped off a message, and her quick reply filled me in with details of her Great Adventure as a Newly Published Novelist. In a couple of weeks she’s on her way to New York City—the contrast to Up North as in Upper Peninsula is so great that I can’t just say New York, much less the “Big Apple” in this context—to meet with marketing and publicity people at Penguin Books. She’ll also meet the new editor of a YA novel that’s also on the burner. How unbelievably exciting must that prospect be?

People call on the phone. People send e-mail. Northport really exists, and I must really be here and not only a figment of my own imagination. But I imagine, therefore I am, so it works either way.