Wednesday, March 26, 2014
In the Fullness of Time©
P. J. Grath
The air was sweet with the heavy scent of roses, reminding her of her grandmother’s house, especially the front porch of that simple little house, a porch all but hidden beneath a wild forest of climbing crimson blooms, screening a child dreaming over a book from the eyes of passers-by. Full-blown, she thought. Then, to bloom, to blow, the archaic verb coming to mind like a petal on the breeze, as it had every spring and summer since she had first learned of the old usage.
The plum trees were also in blossom, but the oddity of plum and rose blooming simultaneously escaped her attention because she had eyes only for the man coming toward her from the barn with quick steps, his eyes bright and hair tousled. “Time to mow soon,” he said, adding, “as it always is.” And he was enfolding her in his strong arms, and at the same time she was in some other space, light and white and clear and open and bare, and a different voice was explaining a new world to her.
“But who are you?” she asked the stranger, searching for even a single comprehensible fact to counter an impossible reality her mind could not compass.
“You may call me Michael, if you need a name for me. It doesn’t matter.”
She couldn’t see him and could barely distinguish his voice from her own, the only apparent difference being that he was the teller and she the questioner ... for now. Who said, “for now”? Had either of them spoken those words?
“Give me the basic outline one more time, please,” she requested, knowing he would comply. “We have all the time in the world, don’t we?”
“One more time, a thousand times, it’s all the same,” Michael answered. “Because there is no more time. There are no more ‘times.’ No more events, nothing happening or changing or growing or sickening or suffering or dying. Do you remember your ancient and medieval philosophy? The concept of perfection? A circle complete, with nothing more to be added. Well, time is complete. And so, it ceases to exist.”
“Perfection and nonexistence – that’s contradiction,” she objected.
“Think of it, rather, as a paradox,” he suggested gently.
She looked around her. The white light contained, as she could now see, all colors, some of them quite new to her eyes, and she pushed Michael further with her questions. “When did it happen?” she asked. “When did time become complete?” Her thoughts whirled, and her heart beat like a pow-wow drum, colors flashing by her eyes like the lights of a city seen at night, close-up, from the window of a speeding train. And yet all was calm and still.
“There is no ‘when’ to fullness,” Michael replied patiently, and she seemed to hear a smile in his voice.
“Well, am I dead then?” she demanded. You would question St. Peter himself, she heard her mother say, and she was nine years old, insisting on answers her mother gently urged her to “take on faith,” something else she had never managed to do, either as a girl in seersucker pajamas or a woman with more practical concerns. Home was the classroom where the subject was philosophy, where questions were demanded as urgently as answers. Home? But home, too, the woods in spring and autumn, the wildflowers and mushrooms and fall colors, her dog bounding eagerly ahead and then turning to wait for her. Home that bedroom in Paris, with the cooing of pigeons echoing in the airshaft every morning. And home every evening, wherever they might be, the marriage bed, the perfect circle of her husband’s arms around her.
“Do you feel dead?” Michael’s voice asked.
“No, not at all.”
“Do you have a memory of dying?”
“What? Would I remember anything at all if I were dead?”
“What do you think? Do you think the dead have memories? Or, ask yourself this: do the dead have sensations...?” His voice faded off, and there was no more white, bare space but green grass and blue sky again, and clean, white sheets blowing on the clothesline in the bright sunshine, and her grandmother – her mother’s mother, it was – pushing back and forth, with her feet, a metal glider bench in the shade, a bowl of green beans in her ample lap, fresh from the garden, her hands busy snapping the ends of the beans, stripping the "strings," while out beyond, behind the garden, her grandfather – her mother’s stepfather, he was – went about his slow, steady work of pruning back raspberry canes, bees lazily humming about his head, and all around rose the sweet smell of earth and growing things. In the distance a train whistle sounded, and she knew it to be her other grandfather, coming to the crossing where they often drove in the car to wave at him as his engine sped by, and she knew his second wife, her other grandmother, was making a salad of the bright, ripe, red tomatoes from his tiny garden behind their old, brick, two-story house on the tree-shaded street in Ohio.
“And with time complete,” she said aloud, addressing herself to Michael and trusting that he would be wherever she was, “there is no more dying, is that right?”
“No more change of any kind,” he confirmed.
“But those who died, in time – that is, before completion -- ?”
Again she heard a smile in his reply. “They live in your memory, as they always have and always will.”
At tables under the sheltering maples, on blankets spread on the grass, on the porch swing and strolling at the edge of the meadow, and in the halls of old university buildings and in the streets of cities and on quiet country roadsides, they were all with her, but not seeming at all a crowd. Instead she saw only one or two or three at a time, as they had been together in time. And she was also onstage with her high school orchestra and standing on a bridge in Paris, looking down the Seine, and singing blues in a dim, smoky club.
“But it wasn’t all good....”
“Again, recall the older philosophies. Did evil have substance? No, it was but a turning away from good, from God. All pain and suffering were temporary results of the absence of perfection. Hence -- .”
“That’s too simple!” she objected.
“So think of it another way: the bad parts simply don’t bear remembering. And in the fullness of time, whatever you are experiencing you are, in reality, remembering.”
“But then I’m selecting and leaving out -- .”
“So go back to the first explanation. Why turn away from perfection?”
Another problem formed in her thoughts. The very fact of my failure of understanding implies a lack, an imperfection. Furthermore, this very conversation implies ongoing thought, by definition incomplete at every step....
“Do you think we are having this conversation for the first time?” Michael asked her, although she had not spoken aloud. “You are remembering it. You are, in fact, remembering many conversations, and you are remembering them, reliving them, because you have always loved such conversations, because you have always felt most alive when asking such questions of yourself and others. There is no contradiction. With the fullness of time, love also is complete, including your love of argumentation, with no one telling you any longer to cease from questioning or arguing....”
Again Michael’s voice faded, lost on the breeze. Where he had seemed to stand, off to her side, appeared frolicking dogs, entering into her field of vision joyously, ears flapping, tails wagging, eyes shining bright. There was the first Ginger, their first family dog, as spry as Ginger II, a puppy now and always, as well as canine companions of later years, joining the Gingers, all of them alive and healthy and happy and playing together.
It is all quite impossible, she mused. Perhaps all of it might exist in one brief millisecond of her conscious imagination. Perhaps there was nothing more to it than that.
But she saw no sense in rejecting any part of it. Not the gardens, any of them, and certainly not the old friends and dogs all come back, or her grandparents, the train whistle, the scent of roses on the breeze, laundry on the line. Not the soft cheeping of baby chicks and contented sounds of hens hovering nearby that she heard now, along with the neighing of a horse from the pasture. Her horse. Her chickens.
No, it only made sense for her to take her comfortable ease in a cushiony chaise recliner beneath her grandfather’s old standard apple tree, where there in dappled shade someone handed her baby son to her, and she took him again in her arms and gazed down at that beautiful child. He was miraculously complete and perfect, from the downy, sweet-smelling crown of his head to his tiny, pearly pink shells of toenails, and nothing was wanting, truly, nothing missing in all the world.
March 26, 2014
Monday, March 24, 2014
|Someone dropped off bales of hay for the deer|
In prosecuting an inquiry into the general state of bookselling just three hundred years ago, a frequent and not altogether explicable circumstance is that in relation to the different imprints which appear in some cases in the same year on one work. There was practically no such thing as copyright; and the moment a manuscript left the author's hand, and found its way into the printing-office, all claim on the part of the author ceased. If one bookseller had sufficient confidence to publish a poem or a play, and it proved successful, the chances were a thousand to one that rival tradesmen would offer rival copies. – William Roberts, The Earlier History of English Bookselling, 1889
Now, you know those warnings on DVD movies about piracy not being a victimless crime? It isn’t a new crime, either. Nor was it the only concern in the book world of the sixteenth century. As might readily be imagined – and, in fact, as we all learned in our history lessons back in high school – the introduction of the printing press brought challenges to political and religious authority. If ordinary people became literate and could read the Bible for themselves, what was to stop them from interpreting it for themselves? From thinking for themselves on all matter of questions?
For example, parallel to revolutions in politics and theology came a revolution in medicine, the idea that every literate Englishman might be “his own doctor.”
Just as the publication of the Bible in the vernacular eventually made ministers redundant, by selling printed matter that enabled every man to become his own doctor, which the title of one publication proposed, London bookmen undermined the legal monopoly of the traditional medical establishment and assured the success of its challengers. – Elizabeth Lane Furdell, Publishing and Medicine in Early Modern England (University of Rochester Press, 2002)
The bare notion of medical books being published in English rather than Latin was deemed dangerous by many in the Royal College of Physicians of London, those Furdell refers to as the “philosopher-kings of medicine” of the time, although Sir Thomas Elyot, author of Castle of Helth [sic], published in 1543, defended the practice by bidding his critics
“...remember that the Greeks wrote in Greeke, that Romaines in Latin, Avicinna and the other in Arabick, which were their owne proper and maternall tongues.” – quoted in Furnall, ibid.
Sixteenth-century medical books for the general public included botanicals, herbals, astrological treatises, recipe books “with lists of ingredients and directions for usage,” the line between cooking and preparation of remedies blurred in literature as well as in practice.
In early modern England, the “author” of a book (especially a foreign author whose work might be translated and published without his permission, let alone any remuneration) had little standing unless he were also a printer, and a printer might begin in a small way and work up to maintaining his own bookshop -- vertical integration at the very birth of the business of publishing and bookselling! Publishers of medical books often sold the remedies, also, in their combination bookshop/drugstores. Self-publishing and one-stop shopping!
Rivalry among printer/publisher/booksellers was fierce, too. Any “stationer” could record the name of a work (this had to be done in person) in the books kept at the Company Hall of the London Company of Stationers (“a union of printers, booksellers, bookbinders, and a few paper merchants”), which was chartered in 1557 to self-police the book trade. Along with recording the work, the union “stationer” paid a fee to register it, thus effectively blocking anyone else from publishing it, and not surprisingly cutthroat practices developed, such that “an ambitious printer ... registering a sweeping series title for anticipated books” could block rivals out of an entire topic or category.
Who owns a name? Today’s copyright and patent wars are nothing new; they have roots at least as far back as the sixteenth century.
Picture a struggling bookseller of the 1500s -- burdened with a large capital investment in printing presses, threatened by jealous physicians and clerics, harassed by government censors, set about by unscrupulous rivals – did he manage to get any sleep at all? Or did she? in those cases (and there were several) where a wife inherited her husband’s printing business and continued it herself, sometimes marrying a young apprentice printer to share the work.
The Charles Dickens biography I read recently shed a little light on nineteenth century practices, both in England and in America. Dickens had his first success, Pickwick Papers, with the publishers Chapman and Hall in London. Robert Seymour, a caricature artist, had suggested a series of sporting plates to Mr. Chapman, and Mr. Hall invited Dickens to contribute “letter-press,” or text to accompany the illustrations. The serial publication of the work was a flop (the publishers nearly abandoned it after a few numbers), but Dickens had a huge success from the subsequent book. Dickens received £2,500 and a share in the copyright, while the publishers’ profits were over £20,000. Thirty-two manuscript pages of Pickwick sold for $775 in 1895, according to Leacock, and for $35,000 in 1928. What would those pages bring today? Of course, Dickens did not see these later amounts, but he was even in his day a rich man, made rich by his writing, though others did the printing, publishing, and selling of his work.
To return to the knotty business of piracy-- the United States in the nineteenth century, at that time a young country, had no respect whatsoever for copyrights issued overseas, and Charles Dickens was terribly affronted by the publication of his works in America, earning him no royalties. In fact, while his first American tour began with loud, effusive mutual admiration and gratitude, Dickens and the Americans seeming completely in love with one another, the longer the tour went on, the more Dickens found the issue of nonpayment of royalties rankled. According to Leacock, along with slavery and tobacco-spitting it formed a triumvirate of offenses committed by the former colony.
(When did American publishers first begin paying royalties to foreign authors? The first step in that direction was the Copyright Act of 1891, but I seem to remember (vaguely) that one prestigious American publishing house was ahead of the curve, making a corporate decision to do the right thing before they were forced to it. The question is, which publisher was it? I don’t recall and am too impatient to keep searching for the answer this morning.)
Sometimes in my random reading, an unintended theme emerges, and so it has been this March. Discovering the English travel writer Norman Lewis (I have yet to read any of his novels), I find myself following a minor thread in his book The World, The World, namely, his relationship, and those of a few others, with his publisher Jonathan Cape. In 1948 Lewis took a novel to Routledge, where a friend of his regretfully told him it was “publishable ... but perhaps not for us.” It was suggested that he try Jonathan Cape, then the top of the English publishing world.
Here is one bit I liked: One man’s way of sorting through manuscripts was to read a few pages and then, if those pages passed muster, to set the manuscript aside to take home. This man read about ten manuscripts a week. The method of the second man was to read the first page of the manuscript, two or three at random from the middle, then the end, taking only about fifteen minutes at the task. Lewis remarks that he was fortunate in the pages Daniel George read from the middle of his own work. He was also fortunate in his contract with the publisher, apparently. Not so fortunate had been Mary Webb, as Lewis relates.
The publicity campaign for Webb’s Precious Bane is a story in itself (did Jonathan Cape invent hype in the 1950s?), but her treatment at the hands of her publisher were of a very different order. Sensing a bestseller, Cape bought up copyrights for Webb’s previous “near-flops,” which in the wake of Precious Bane “shared enough of the limelight to become commercially viable,” but then refused to pay “anticipatory release” of royalties.
She remained short of cash and her appeals for loans were turned down. Jonathan refused to see her and his deputy Wren Howard put her off and got his face smacked. By this time her health was failing. She was reduced to keeping a flower stall on Shrewsbury market, and with her books selling by the thousands – as they continued to do for many years – she died in near poverty. – Norman Lewis, The World, The World (NY: Henry Holt, 1997)
Scraping along as a flower-seller until her death in “near poverty” while her books were selling “by the thousands”! There is a story! The prize studs in Jonathan Cape’s stables were T. E. Lawrence and Ian Fleming, and it was through Fleming that Lewis came to meet Ernest Hemingway, whose first book Cape had published. Mary Webb, it seems, was only the goose roasted for the others’ Christmas dinner.
|A blink in time's eye|
We tend to think of the constant change and reshuffling of our own time as the upsetting of a long-stable apple cart, but the truth seems more like a continual upsetting over the course of more than five hundred years.
Thursday, March 20, 2014
The vernal equinox is upon us, daylight now as long as night’s dark hours. Bright, bright sun! Everywhere the sounds of melting and dripping and running.... And yet – and yet –. Don’t start looking for spring flowers – not outdoors, at least. A more appropriate project would be to organize a betting pool on how long before these mountains of snow will be entirely gone.
But peer closely over the top of that snow mountain out by the corner of the cemetery, and what do you spy?
Walking down the old road to the township dump this sunny morning, I was able to frame the new golf course clubhouse in my viewfinder, another Northport building project that’s been quietly going forward through the winter months. Has there been a year in living memory with so many ambitious local projects?
In the village, work on the Galley (will it keep its old name when it reopens?) goes on indoors, but there’s not much outside to photograph. A surprise awaited me on Mill Street, however, with an OPEN sign in the window of Barb’s Bakery again. Apparently Jerry’s winter vacation in Turkey is over, even if Barb’s isn’t.
Back here on Waukazoo Street, the Garage Bar & Grill next door to Dog Ears is taking spring break and will reopen on April 8. [I originally posted this date as April 18, but the sign has been more clearly written since then.] Yesterday Lelu Cafe was picking up the lunch slack by offering soup and tamales, though, so slow down as you round the corner and look for a sign on the sidewalk....
Officially, Dog Ears Books continues on winter hours for a while longer yet. That’s Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Unofficially, I’m often here earlier than 11 a.m. and sometimes as late as 4 p.m., and occasionally the OPEN sign will be showing and the OPEN flag hanging out on a Monday or Tuesday. It is my little world, my treasure island, after all, and I love it. Anyway, it’s too soon to be working in the garden at home or walking the beach with Sarah.
Yesterday I opened a biography of Charles Dickens by Stephen Leacock (himself an enchanting Canadian writer) and fell in its thrall. You know how people have been saying in recent years, “No one reads books any more”? We who read books know that isn’t true, but we do wonder, sadly, if younger generations will ever come to love the books we have loved all our lives. Leacock wrote:
There are many younger people now, so we are told, who do not read Dickens. Nor is it to be wondered at. We live in a badly damaged world. It is a world of flickering shadows, tossed by electric currents, of a babel of voices on the harrassed air, a world of inconceivable rapidity, of instantaneous effects, of sudden laughter and momentary tragedy, where every sensation is made and electrocuted in a second and passes into oblivion.
These lines appeared in a book published in 1936, so it must have been the radio “destroying” the future market for literature back then.
Well, does no one any more read Dickens? On the first page of his first chapter (preceding the lines quoted above), Leacock noted that while the work of other writers might often be read “as a task,” the case was different for Dickens, all of whose books “have been read for their own sake,” for pleasure alone, not for duty. That’s no longer true, is it? Many of my generation were already assigned titles by Dickens in high school and college classes, and that assigned reading continues today, I’m sure. But how fortunate for each generation of readers that Dickens has not been forgotten, shuffled off to the compost heap by radio, television, the internet, and the world wide web! When a friend of mine wanted our little reading group to take on Bleak House one winter, I groaned. And then, what a delightful experience followed! Here is what Stephen Leacock has to say of the central theme of Bleak House:
...The issue of a long drawn lawsuit in the Court of Chancery passing from generation to generation and leaving behind the wreck of broken lives, and wasted hopes--there is nothing abstract or imaginary here. It dominates the story from its sombre magnificent opening in the Court of Chancery setting in the London fog, to the climax of the closing scene when the great suit of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce ends--like the fall of an ancient building, eaten into nothingness and collapsing into dust. So ends it with the sardonic laughter of the Court, and Richard Carstone, dazed, unhearing, marked for death. The theme has all the majesty and inevitability of Greek tragedy. Round it is gathered every thread of the narration: the bright loves, the broken lives, and the beauty of renunciation stronger than love itself.
But while the theme of this one Dickens novel is taken directly from reality and not from the author's inventive mind, Leacock tells us very clearly, and more than once, that to identify too closely any characters from the Dickens novels with actual individuals in that author's life (and the same is true for any other author of fiction) is to miss the point badly.
Human beings are made of aspects, not of realities. Each of us is such and such things from certain angles and in certain lights. We are many things to many people and show to the occasion and the hour a different aspect of our being. It is the art of genius to seize the deceiving aspects of real people and turn them into the realities of imaginary ones. The act involved is not transcription but creation.Curiosity led me to open an earlier biography of Dickens, one written by Ralph Straus and published in 1928, and there (again in the early pages) I was intrigued, as a bookseller, to read that “Dickens alone among modern ‘best sellers’ began to be ‘collected.’” So did the whole book-collecting field of Modern Firsts begin with Dickens?
Straus found Dickens more interesting than any of his characters. I’m not sure any novelist would take that as a compliment. Leacock, if asked, might reply that Straus has posed a false dilemma, for Leacock wrote:
Of school he had but little; of college none at all. The early flowering of his boyish genius received neither encouragement nor recognition. If he was precocious, there was none to know it. A little boy reading in an attic his tattered books – who cared for that? A child in an agony of humiliation at his lot as a little working drudge – who was there to notice that? In all the pictures drawn by Dickens, there is none more poignant than the picture of little Dickens himself. The pathos of little Oliver, of Tiny Tim, and little Paul is drawn with a sympathy that sprang from the childhood experiences of Charles Dickens.
At home I’m reading a fascinating travel memoir by Norman Lewis but did not allow myself to bring it to the bookshop today, as I had reached an ideal stopping/starting place and promised David I would only take the book up again to read aloud in the chapter where the author makes a trip to Cuba to visit Hemingway. But more about that another time. Right now I need to give my tulips fresh water....
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Here's an e-mail I received this morning and wanted to share:
One of Ed Arnfield's poems has been recognized by "The 16th Annual Juried Poetry Contest and Reading Event." The poem, "Strawberry Patch," is on page 10 of the Roadside Guide to Michigan Plants, Trees and Flowers, the book that Ed and his wife Connie co-authored. As a result, Ed has been invited to read his poem at the City Opera House in TC, 7p.m., Sunday, April 27, at the annual "Poets' Night Out." This event showcases the poets and poetry of northwestern Michigan.
Additional winners will also read their poetry to the audience. The audience then votes for their favorite.
Additional information may be viewed here.
Monday, March 17, 2014
Friday, March 14, 2014
Our inventory at Dog Ears Books, both new titles and old, is in constant flux. Consequently, just as I’m focusing this blog more on books for 2014, I have a new agenda for the bookstore this year, too.
I started with a question: How do readers and browsers find out about new books that aren't necessarily block-buster bestsellers? It’s always been part of my bookselling mission (yes, we booksellers are usually missionaries of one stripe or another) to stock poetry, philosophy, books on farming and economics and all kinds of other things not to be found in grocery store magazine racks. But this year I’ll be going out on a new limb, featuring new fiction that has come to my notice but that the general public might otherwise miss. And not just Michigan fiction, either.
Monday is St. Patrick’s Day, so let's start with The Spinning Heart, a novel by Donal Ryan. The Spinning Heart won the Guardian First Book Prize and was also named Irish Book Awards Book of the Year. Kirkus gave it a starred review and called it “disturbing and unnerving but ultimately beautiful.” Here’s the setup (from the back book cover):
In the aftermath of Ireland’s financial collapse, dangerous tensions surface in an Irish town. As violence flares, the characters face a battle between public persona and inner desires. Through a chorus of unique voices, each struggling to tell their own kind of truth, a single authentic tale unfolds.
The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan
Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, paper, $15
My other out-on-a-limb selection this week is Solomon the Peacemaker, by Hunter Welles, a novel bridging the categories of literary fiction and science fiction and exploring “the limits of technology, violence, memory, and love.” In this future world, peace between nations has held for half a century, thanks to a peace-keeping computer, while a cult-like church basement group led by the bearded Preacher provides contrast and conflict. Here is the review from ForeWord magazine that convinced me to order this title.
Solomon the Peacemaker, by Hunter Welles
St. Paul, MN: Cowcatcher Press, paper, $16
And if you didn’t already take note of the publishers’ addresses, do so now. Hanover, New Hampshire, and St. Paul, Minnesota. Not New York. Nothing wrong with New York, of course; my point is simply that there are independent publishers everywhere in the U.S. these days, producing quality work to supply independent bookstores with new books -- to be discovered by adventurous, independent book customers! Not a nation of sheep, but a nation of independent buyers -- is there a future in that idea?
Reading. Make it an adventure!
Thursday, March 13, 2014
That’s my current short answer to the perennial question, “What’s new?” Will returning summer visitors even recognize little Northport, Michigan? There are changes afoot almost everywhere you look in our little village these days. Photos below show only a few, and you have to be kind of a visionary to be able to picture what things will look like come May, let alone June or July. Let's start down at the Depot, where renovation has expanded beyond the little stone building to the caboose.
That's the scene down near the marina.
Out at the south end of our block of Waukazoo Street, lots has been happening for months, as Tuckers of Northport charges toward completion. Here's the scene as of Wednesday, March 12.
And all that activity is only outdoors. Plenty is going on indoors, too. Here's how the main floor of Lelu Cafe looked this morning, while all the coffee-drinkers were cozily crowded, out of the way, into the bar:
Change! Novelty! Expansion! Growth! During the couple of "warm" days we had, there was activity at Northport Brewing Company, but I didn't see anyone doing anything there yesterday or this morning, so no pictures of that.
David Grath has doubled his gallery/studio space, and I'll devote a post to his space soon. Meanwhile, although there are no painters or carpenters at work in Dog Ears Books, things are happening there, too, on a daily basis. For one thing, with every new book order I put in I include a few items no one has (yet) asked for, such as this little gem:
So we have surprises for you, too.
And now an important date to mark on your calendar: Friday, June 13. Mark it now! Add 5 p.m., Dog Ears Books. I'll let you know more as time goes by....
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Everything Is Useful©
“Nothing is garbage, nothing is junk! There is nothing on earth that deserves to be wasted!” She was screaming as if he stood a block away from her instead of mere feet. “Everything that exists is part of this earth and deserves respect, just like the earth deserves respect!” Her tone was belligerent, as if they were in the middle of a long, drawn-out argument, but his feeling was that she had started arguing years before, maybe with the world rather than any particular individual.
So far he had only said hello, in order to start the conversation his professor had assigned. Now he blinked and consulted the scrap of paper in his hand. Talk to a homeless person. How old does this person look? Find out how the he or she lives. What kind of life events led the person to street life? What color are his or her eyes?
As he glanced down at his notes, the tiny old woman paused to catch her breath, hacking her lungs out and leaning on the grocery cart holding her little mountain of assorted belongings. None of it junk, according to her, he reminded himself, mentally rolling his eyes. Yeah, right. Precious filthy blankets and innumerable plastic bags of priceless treasures! Her chest was sunken, shoulders rounded, and thin, wispy grey hair peeked out from under the knitted cap she wore. Her fingernails were cracked and black with dirt. A beautiful long-haired white cat, crouching in a carrier on the shelf underneath the cart’s heaped-to-overflowing basket, a cat so immaculate and perfectly groomed it could have been entered in a show, added an incongruous note.
“So, is that your cat?” the young man asked to divert her from her tirade.
She peered up at him and countered his idle question with a sharp rhetorical query of her own. “Who else’s cat would it be?” Then she smiled, slyness replacing suspicion in a surprising instant. “Or maybe he belongs to himself, eh? Cats have lives of their own, you know.” She narrowed her eyes and grinned, quite the Cheshire cat herself.
“Yeah, well, that one’s in a cage, isn’t it?” He couldn’t keep the note of sarcasm out of his voice. He wouldn’t have taken this class at all except that it was required, and he couldn’t see for the life of him what the point was, and whenever he was confused or unsure of himself, his go-to position was sarcasm.
“Do you want to let him out?” she asked in a strange, wheedling tone.
“What?” He almost jumped, startled by the surprising question.
The old woman began to nod vigorously, then to shake her head from side to side. “Yeah, you know all about cats, don’t you? You’re a bright boy. Go ahead – open the crate and let him out! What’s your name, anyway?”
“Pete!” he answered nervously. “My name is Pete.” What did she care what his name was? Maybe he should have given a false name?
He started to back away, but she grabbed his arm. “Peter, you want to give this cat its freedom? Let it live its own life? I’m telling you, go ahead and let it out!”
Traffic streamed by at highway speeds. When he had first spotted the woman, he thought she couldn’t be safe that close of the road, but there was no sidewalk out here. Nor were there stop signs or lights at the closest intersection. A cat running loose on this road wouldn’t have a prayer! What kind of crazy game was the old woman playing?
He straightened his shoulders and shot her an angry, supercilious look, turned away and stalked back to his car. The hell with her!
That evening he called a girl in his class, using the encounter with the street woman as his excuse for the call but hoping the conversation would move on quickly to more interesting ground. He told the girl about the old woman, her cart, and the cat.
“What color were her eyes?” the girl asked.
“The cat’s eyes?”
“No, Peter. You were supposed to note the eye color of the person you talked to, remember?” There was a short silence before she asked, “What color are my eyes, Peter?”
He had no idea. But he did suddenly have a glimmer of possible lessons he might pick up in college, things he hadn’t known he didn’t know until that moment.
- P. J. Grath
Saturday, March 8, 2014
A winter crop is the crop that a farmer grows in his mind while he sits by the stove in the winter. They are always perfect crops. They are perfect because no sweat has been shed in them, and they are safe from pests, human frailty, and bad weather. Summer crops are another matter.
– Wendell Berry, “Looking Ahead” (1978), in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural
There may have been a time when Wendell Berry’s work was known only to a small group of devoted initiates, but that day is long past. Berry’s essays, as well as his fiction and poetry, have brought him well-deserved recognition in his lifetime, as it should be. I was proud of my country when Wendell Berry was chosen to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities. If you missed that lecture in 2012, it’s worth taking the time to read it (or listen to it) now, and if it’s been a while since you’ve read or heard it, it’s well worth revisiting.
Berry (a farmer and a poet, after all) is as sensitive to language as he is to land, nature, farming, society, and history. I flinch each time a visiting small town consultant uses the term ‘agribusiness’ instead of simply agriculture or farming. To Wendell Berry, the change in terminology reflects an enormous change in attitude and perspective.
Farming, according to most of the most powerful people now concerned with it, is no longer a way of life, no longer husbandry or even agriculture; it is an industry known as “agribusiness,” which looks upon the farm as a “factory,” and upon farmers, plants, animals, and the land itself as interchangeable parts or “units of production.”
– “Agricultural Solutions for Agricultural Problems,” 1979
I also flinch at talk of our community needing to “brand” itself. Are we a “product”? In some ways, yes, you will tell me. Well, I’m just hopelessly old-fashioned. I don’t even seek to “brand” Dog Ears Books. I work hard to maintain the quality of my bookstore offerings and to get the word out (and the people in), but “branding”? In my book, that’s for breakfast cereal. Whole or steel-cut oats do not require an advertising campaign. I leave it to you to think of cereals that depend on brand-name recognition.
I don’t want “brand recognition” for my bookstore, just a good, solid reputation.
One of my village neighbor-friend customers recently asked me to order Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land for her. (Generally, I stock as much of Wendell Berry’s work as I can, but this time of year stock tends to run low and not get replenished until later in the spring.) She has many of his books already but was told that if a person had only one, it should be this one. So I ordered a copy for her and one for stock, and when she came in to pick up her order we both began paging through to find favorite essays.
Immediately I turned to “A Good Scythe” (1979), a short essay running only slightly over four pages. You see, I have a scythe at home in my barn, and I also have instructions for “hanging” it, i.e., adjusting the grips to my height and the length of my arms. I’ll need to sharpen (whet) the blade, too, this spring, and then, what’s to stop me from mowing my own meadow, without any noisy machinery at all? It will be a dream come true, working with that beautiful old tool.
After giving a list of the problems encountered with a power scythe and a contrasting list of advantages gained by using one powered by his own muscles, Berry adds two more differences he discovered, first, that he never took any pleasure in using the power scythe but always did with the hand tool, and second, that he experienced, if I may paraphrase, “the good kind of tiredness” after working by hand, rather than the strained weariness left him by the power tool.
Back in the 1970s (the Environmental Era, as I think of it) we had a name for tools like this. They were called “appropriate technology,” AT, which was to say they were technology suited to the job at hand rather than to an outsized vision of every farm being a thousand acres and every household task requiring electric "horsepower." For me, AT means washing dishes at home by hand. It also means, in every part of my life, reaching for books and magazines printed on paper, reading that can go from car to coffee shop to desk to bathtub to bed and never need batteries.
Well, what did you expect of me? If I were not already in love with the life of the senses, I’d have little reason to live in the country, and if I weren’t given to romanticizing my life (who will do it for me if I don’t do it for myself?), I’d never, ever have become a bookseller, so you will not be surprised, o my little band of readers, when I confess that my very favorite part of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was that section where Levin was out in the fields, mowing with the peasants.
Levin looked around him and did not recognize the place, everything was so changed. An enormous expanse of the meadow had been mowed, and its already fragrant swaths shone with a special new shine in the slanting rays of the evening sun. The mowed-around bushes by the river, the river itself, invisible before but now shining like steel in its curves, the peasants stirring and getting up, the steep wall of grass at the unmowed side of the meadow, and the hawks wheeling above the bared meadow – all this was completely new....
... But Levin wanted to get as much mowed as possible that day and was vexed with the sun for going down so quickly. He felt no fatigue at all; he only wanted to work more and more quickly and get as much done as possible.
- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Winter daydreams are fine for a while, but getting outdoors to work is going to feel very satisfying, this year as always.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Today's post isn’t about books, but it is about reading, and some of what you’ll read here, if you are persistent enough and read far enough, may surprise you, but if you’d rather just have pictures, see Wednesday’s world of glittering frost over on my photo blog.
“Where do I get my news?”
That’s the question on my mind this week, as I’ve been reflecting on sources I trust to tell me what’s going on in the world. What about you? Are you a newspaper reader, radio listener, TV watcher, Internet viewer, or some combination of different sources in different percentages?
My obvious #1 source in terms of exposure time is National Public Radio. We have it on every morning and every evening at home, and I’d listen at my bookstore if I got a good signal there. “What would we do without NPR?” is a rhetorical question often voiced in our house. Interlochen is our nearest station, with CMU in second place. “All Things Considered” is always interesting, and we value Diane Rehm and Terri Gross for range of topics and depth of coverage in politics, environment, and the arts. Aaron Stander’s local “Michigan Writers” program is also excellent. What would we do without any of these?
We haven’t had television in our home for years now, and the only newspaper I read on a regular basis is our county weekly, but every now and then I splurge on a New York Times or Detroit Free Press or, more often, a Traverse City Record-Eagle.
(I’m hardly what anyone would call a news junkie, but I was shocked to hear that one local man admitted he was unfamiliar with a name that’s been in our local newspaper, week after week, for quite a few years. Do we live in the same planet?)
* * *
I come back a day later to make amends for an omission in my original post by inserting this important paragraph. When it comes to news of publishing and bookselling, my trusted daily source is Shelf Awareness, delivering national and international stories from the book world, as well as regional bookstore news that would not reach me otherwise. I cannot say enough good things about Shelf Awareness and recommend it to all who care about the future of independent writers, publishers, and bookstores.
* * *
As I reflected further on “where I get my news,” however, I realized that the issues most important to me – and those I feel are most urgent to the future of the world – are only rarely addressed by dailies or weeklies, and seldom are they examined in much detail or depth. I’d love to hear more about them on the radio, but the usual silence there, other than occasional, topic-limited “stories,” is deafening, too. I want more than an occasional “story” about global finance, international trade agreements, genetically modified organisms, farm and food regulation, food and farm safety, farmland ownership and subsidies, hydraulic fracturing, and natural resources in general. What I want is ongoing, nonstop coverage.
Where do I get it? Mainly from two sources: “Nation of Change” and a magazine called AcresUSA, “The Voice of Eco-Agriculture.”
Where do I get it? Mainly from two sources: “Nation of Change” and a magazine called AcresUSA, “The Voice of Eco-Agriculture.”
The Acres folks have been around since 1970, and the history of the magazine is worth reading about. (How did I miss it back in the 1970s when gardening and rural life informed all my dreams?) These days there are plenty of new rural periodicals, but far too many of them are superficial and “cute,” their content -- intended mostly for hobbyists -- driven by (as is common on the newsstand) by corporate advertising of the worst kind. Acres is different. Every month’s “Eco-Update” and “Industrial Ag Watch” cover the latest, most important studies and legislation affecting not only organic growers but every single American. The magazine’s editorial and opinion pieces are knowledgeable and hard-hitting, their features long on specifics and experience, and the interviews are with experts whose voices deserve a national hearing.
We all eat. We all need to know where our food comes from. Agriculture news shouldn’t be just for farmers.
A 2012 Stanford University meta-study (study of results of other studies) that got a lot of attention in the national media purported to show no nutritional difference between organic and nonorganic food. Imagine two apples analyzed in a laboratory and found to be “nutritionally” equivalent. How much did the study really show?
It did not ask these questions:
Ø What toxins are present in various nonorganic products that are not present in organic products?
Ø Which toxins from nonorganic products may remain and accumulate in the human body?
Ø Of nutrients found in organic and nonorganic products, what are the differences in the body’s ability to access and utilize these nutrients?
Ø What long-term dangers to health result from toxin accumulation?
Ø What long-term effects on food prices result from escalating immunity to agricultural chemicals?
Ø What long-term effects on health care costs will result from continued and escalating reliance on agricultural chemicals?
Ø What is the truth of studies purporting to show safety of GMO crops? (Find someone who's studied the question seriously here. I learned about her work through an Acres interview.)
Sigh! Journalists sometimes make me think of lemmings. One particular story of the day or week, one temporary world “hot spot,” and there they run, en masse; meanwhile, ongoing economic, environmental, and political events continue to unroll, unreported, throughout the world. During the Clinton presidency, for example, reporters and news junkies did a lot of jumping up and down and worrying and shouting and rib-jabbing about President Clinton’s marital indiscretions. I couldn’t care less, then or now. It was NAFTA that took away any enchantment I had with Clinton. And here’s what the current Acres Opinion of Judith McGeary has to say this month about NAFTA:
...Instead of the hundreds of thousands of new American jobs that were promised, a recent report estimates that the United States lost over 1 million jobs. Our trade partners have suffered just as badly. Mexican farmers, in particular, have been some of the greatest losers under NAFTA as subsidized corn from the United States undercut local production and drove Mexican farmers off their land. The “free trade” approach has not simply shifted wealth from American workers to foreign workers – it has shifted wealth from workers of all the countries involved to the large corporations.
Is that news to you? And what about the latest “free trade” agreement, now being negotiated, is the TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama Administration initiative begun under George W. Bush? While NAFTA was ramrodded through Congress under Clinton’s guidance, the substance of TPP is being kept ultra-confidential. Over 600 corporate “trade advisors” are in the know, but the few members of Congress who have seen the text have been sworn to secrecy. Why, if this agreement would be beneficial to our country, are American taxpayers and voters being kept in the dark? That’s what Elizabeth Warren asked, and her question deserves an answer. McGeary warns that a bill to “fast track” TPP and other trade agreements “would empower the Administration to negotiate ... without input from Congress,” which she calls “an abdication of Congress’ constitutional duty to regulate commerce with foreign nations.”
AcresUSA is where I get my most important news.
Along with articles on poultry-raising and bee-friendly farming, the March 2014 issue of Acres features a lengthy, in-depth interview with Margaret Mellon, senior scientist with the Food and Agriculture Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an authority on biotechnology and on environmental law. Mellon was interviewed on the subject of herbicide-resistant weeds. “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans and cotton, she said, were embraced by farmers who were promised they could lower inputs (costs) by applying only a low dose of a single herbicide, but here’s what happened:
At the beginning the company claimed this was lowering herbicide use while increasing farmer incomes, and they were right. As time goes on, though, the weeds started developing resistance, as they will. ... [Now Roundup Ready seeds are] driving big increases in herbicide use and some people think that in four or five years we’re going to have double the herbicide use that we have right now, and it will be because the glyphosate isn’t working....
Farmers become dependent, and weeds become immune. After an initial drop, costs – and therefore prices – rise. One might draw a parallel in human health and disease, with the enormous increase of antiobiotic prescribing and antibacterial cleaning products and the subsequent increase in deadly resistant bacteria.
But there is more than a parallel between problems confronting farms and hospitals, and there is important news to be found in what at first glance look like mere foodie-health-and-cosmetic sources. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, has made antibiotics resistance a top agency priority for 2014, says an article in this month’s Prevention magazine, where I read the story told in numbers.
Every year 2 million people in the United States get infections that are resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die as a result. Dozens of new, virulent bacteria have emerged over the years, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which causes more than 11,000 deaths in the United States each year, and resistant strains of E. coli that can turn a run-of-the-mill urinary tract infection into a trip to the emergency room.
Antibiotics, remember, are given to livestock (in heavy doses) as well as to humans, and on-farm use does as much to encourage resistant strains as overprescription by family doctors. According to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council,
The FDA buried research revealing that 18 types of antibiotics currently in use on farms are considered high risk for increasing antibiotic-resistant bacteria outbreaks in humans. In total, 30 drugs did not meet the FDA’s own safety standards. (Prevention, March 2014, “Special Food Report: Cleaning Up the Farm”)
Health magazines can be important sources for all kinds of important global news stories. I would not have thought to look up the CDC home page if not for the story in Prevention magazine. When one news source leads us to others, our available information is multiplied.
Then the other day David brought home a couple copies of Rolling Stone, where we were both astonished to find important, in-depth features on the banking industry (February 27, 2014, “The Vampire Squid Strikes Again,” by Matt Taibbi) and, in another issue, American energy capture and use, as distinguished from official green “talk” (January 2, 2014, “Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story,” by Bill McKibben). Did you have any idea that investment banks are now buying up entire industries, as well as the natural mineral resources needed to sustain them? Do you believe our country is moving away from dependence on oil and gas? Rolling Stone is a lot more than a rock-n-roll rag.
If I had my way, major U.S. newspapers would carry daily features like “Eco-Update” and “Industrial Ag Watch,” and radio news would cover every day whatever could be uncovered relative to the shenanigans of politicians in bed with corporations and the ramifications of that nonstop fornication for the immediate and long-term future of American farms, food supply, fuel prices, land ownership, workers’ wages, and the health of soil and air and water. But doing so necessitates news sources going up against the biggest money in the corporate world.
Many issues affect the lives of residents of Planet Earth, but agricultural and economic issues affect us all, and if we’re not informed about what’s going on relative to those issues, we have no chance to determine our own future.
What news sources do you trust to tell you what you really need to know?
It's still very cold, but the sun is shining, and we're here now, we're here now, we're here now....