Sunday, August 28, 2011

Marion, Massachusetts

Hunkering down today because of the alleged hurricane caused me to think about electricity. The storm itself died before it reached New England, as I suspected all long during the last week of mass panic, but after the wind arrived it was still strong enough to knock down countless trees and the power for the entire day. In some ways, it was the best day of my mini-vacation: I played pool, darts, and the piano, read back issues of magazines and the newspaper, ate food I had forgotten about and would otherwise go bad, and engaged in candlelit conversations on the deck while maples surrounding the house dipped and swayed.

The other source of entertainment was the police scanner. In between reports of yet another branch fallen on power lines, there were stories about domestic disturbances, children abandoned to swim in the storm surge, drunk women swaying through the parking lot of the local package store, and flooded causeways. As if everyone went crazy without electronic devices and televisions to keep their hunger at bay. Even the doctor and his wife across the street, outdoor enthusiasts and runners, broke out their giant battery-powered halogen lamp, as if light alone could keep away boredom.

It made me think about even a hundred years ago, when people had to do things like play games, make music, draw pictures, and write letters to keep themselves amused. How things have changed. A day without electricity made me realize that it’s the central source of civilized change, the civilization that I’m not always sure is a good thing. The times in my life when I’ve been happiest are those when I didn’t have electricity. When I lived in a tarp and spent my evenings gazing into campfires, or when I lived on a boat and burned hurricane lamps while I played cards.

I don’t want to minimize the benefits of the electronic age. I couldn’t be writing these words without electricity and its accoutrements. Yesterday I took a field trip to the Boston Museum of Science, where they have the world’s largest Van de Graaff generator, a device that generates lightning indoors. It was awe-inspiring and loud and made me feel like a kid again as I plugged my ears. But it was also shocking (ha!) to see how powerful are the forces that run our lives. To envision the fluid stream of electrons animating our wires, our walls, and our fingers.

As dusk fell tonight, we broke out candles, Shabbas votives made in the Dominican Republic. Maybe I’m not ready to give up my electricity, but a furlough from it every now and again seems a good thing. Sometimes my furlough lasts months or years, on a trail or a boat. Sometimes just a day. Maybe those of the Jewish faith are correct in taking that Sabbath every week. If I were brave enough, maybe I would too.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My heart is wrapped in ice

Meadow Island

I’m away in Massachusetts, which allows all of my habits to drift away—good in some ways, bad in the others. Whenever I’m spending time with family I have this tendency to allow guilt to settle down around my shoulders, to believe that I should be doing more for them, with them. It’s mainly guilt that I live so far away from the people I love. There’s also an element of feeling like I’m back to civilization. There are restaurants and stores on every block, sometimes two restaurants in one mini-mall. In the County, I have to drive 24 miles for the nearest egg roll, and fifteen for a diner.

So today we stopped for lobster bisque, and if you’re ever along the southern edge of the Cape, you absolutely must stop for the world’s greatest bisque, at Vell’s. Each bite is like heaven on the spoon. So much lobster is in each bowl, that legend has it the meat from an entire claw was once found at the bottom. I haven’t lived here in years, and not very long then, but parts of it still feel like home—the broiled schrod and stuffed seafood casserole on the menu, the Keno, the cranberry bogs stretching out along the highway.

There are the good parts of civilization, and then the bad. The bad is cable television, so tonight I’m catching up on my Anthony Bourdain, and oddly enough, his feature is Maine. It’s funny how some place looks so much more authentic on television, even when I’ve been living in it for six months now. The people look sexier, the food more delicious, the destinations exotic.

Bourdain featured a restaurant outside of Portland, down east, where everything they serve comes from animals and vegetables grown right on site. They slaughter their hogs and use everything, nose to tail. It looks delicious, and is exactly the kind of thing I’d like to be capable of doing (in ten years). But even that carries the gloss of the screen, when I know the reality is much less sexy, much more hard work. I guess it’s good to be able to look through the eyes of an outsider every once in a while, whether here or there.

Friday, August 19, 2011

They were once at peace

When life gives you blight, make green-tomato salsa

I’ve been procrastinating this post, for obvious reason—we killed Schafe on Monday, and I’m having a difficult time with the decision. Even though I’m convinced that it was absolutely the right thing to do. Monday morning K. found maggots in the cat’s hip wound, flies actually flying from his body. He showed me, and I’m glad I looked, even though it may have been the most awful, repellent thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was the heart of darkness, the face of death, everything that I live fighting to destroy, even though I know the flies themselves are just fighting for their own damned lives.

When I saw it, I knew it was Schafe’s time, one way or another. I wanted to drive him to the vet. I knew they still would have put him down, unless we insisted, cruelly, that they do surgery or give him antibiotics or do something equally ridiculous. It was still the most awful thing. But we decided that it was crueler for Schafe, to drive him to Presque Isle, to put him in an awful situation with other animals screaming and having a doctor poke around at his wounds with bright lights and cold instruments and then the same result, but not at the home he loved. So instead we found bullets for the .22.

We planted marigolds on his grave, the place he chose before he died, and had a real funeral, watching a slideshow of pictures of him from ten years ago. He also may be the first cat to enjoy a full-on Irish wake. I can’t say enough good about him. He used to be a car cat, riding around, wrapped around his driver’s shoulders. He used to fit in a tee-shirt pocket. He used to push my pen with his head, purring, as I wrote.

These things still bring me to tears. When I told my sister, she reminded me of a story I don’t think I had heard before, of when my grandfather was a teenager and had to shoot every single cat on his Michigan farm, at least thirty of them. He spoke of it as if it was the worst thing he ever had to do. It made me feel better to know that even someone as strong as he was struggled with death. Maybe that’s what makes farm life so hard—the reality of death, its presence, looking into its face daily.

It’s been a rough stretch. Hail, blight, animal suffering. Maybe it’ll get easier. In the meantime, we grieve. Grief is as real as anything else in life, and I don’t want to deprive myself of its lessons.

I’m in Massachusetts now, visiting family for a week or so. Knowing I don't have to worry about a cat or tomatoes makes our absence a lot easier, and it also makes me want to celebrate life with the people I love.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Little kids I’ve yet to have

Blight on the tomatoes

Another two-in-the-morning post. 1:29 am, to be exact. Schafe is under my feet, on the heater. He got a bath today, and some dewormer—maybe he’ll make it through another winter. In other news, we found blight on our tomatoes yesterday, and tore up three of every four plants.

It was heartbreaking. Cliché, perhaps, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I felt nausea, physical pain in my chest, staring at the plants that I’ve cultivated so meticulously for the last three months. Smelling that foliage scent on my fingers, that tomato smell that’s maybe my favorite in the world, that I wish could bottle. Smelling my fingers as I watch the pile of destroyed plants.

I had that much emotion for a first-time garden, one that’s little more than a hobby, probably twelve plants in all. I can’t imagine how a farmer feels, watching his entire crop destroyed, plant after plant, in an irresistible tide. The blight up here, “Late Blight,” is the same stuff that wiped out all of the Irish potatoes in the Great Potato Famine. It’s common only among potatoes and tomatoes, and endemic in the United State mainly in places where there are large commercial potato growers. Large-scale farmers can use fungicides and sprayers to protect their crops, but it’s basically a lost cause for home gardeners, unless tomato plants are meticulously treated with a copper spray every week before onset of the blight. All information based on hearsay, Google, and our local cooperative extension.

The crazy thing? Tonight Food Inc. was the documentary of choice on PBS. I resisted watching it until now—shots of deformed cows unable to walk to the slaughter is something I have a hard time stomaching. And I’m someone who eats burger. Despite the relentless exposure of our system’s ills, the documentary made some optimistic points. The filmmakers actually believe we can make better choices, that we can influence corporations by what we demand, by the choices we make with our dollars.

The danger of pulling back the curtain on our food production is that it can make me feel hopeless, and go to the fridge for another frozen pizza, some more ice cream, or a bowl of chips to forget about the pain. I’m bad about emotional eating—and it’s almost perverse the way I turn to food when I feel bad about food. Even if I know, beyond doubt, that fresh peas with butter taste better than chips. And I can grow them, and maybe even raise my own dairy someday.

It’s not the easy choice. It’s the more honest choice. It means work, and pain, and heartbreak. It takes sweat, and hailstorms, and beetles. And blight.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Lights are shut down

My parents in the 70s. Part of an ongoing series of familial photographs.

My cat may be dying. He’s not exactly my cat, but a cat that I’ve lived with, off and on, here in Maine, for almost eight years, so he feels like mine. I’m one of several humans whose lips he deigns to claw while I sleep. Not anymore, though. Now he curls up in various corners, beneath end tables, on door steps, in front of bathtubs, and doesn’t eat. I bought him the fanciest cat food I could find, and he exploded all over the house. He nibbled at steak chopped in little pieces, but eventually turned his nose up. This morning, he threw up raw tilapia.

He’s an old cat, an old tom, and he’s had a fair share of adventures, and is almost into his third decade. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to watch his bones jut out at every step, to feel his scapulae distinct beneath his dense white fur. He weighs barely three pounds now.

It’s a peril we take, loving things, people, animals. Danger lurks all around. I remember the muriatic acid we kept on the boat, for what purpose now escapes me, but I felt morbid terror when I cushioned that gallon of toxic chemical against our hull. What if it leaked? What if it corroded a hole in the hull while I slept?

But every moment we live, we cradle muriatic acid against the hull of our hearts. Every being we love can hurt us, can sink us. Buddha spoke of desire causing suffering, a philosophy that I’ve struggled with for years. It’s patently true—every thing I want can cause me pain. But to absent myself from that risk, the risk of pain, feels inhuman. In loving, in desiring good for other beings, I risk suffering.

I want Schafe, the cat, to live forever. It’s a desire that will not be fulfilled.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Train goin’ by

It was rainy and dreary this morning, the result of a persistent low-pressure system that’s been located over Maine for the entire summer. It was fifteen degrees colder than usual today, and more rain is expected all week. According to our meteorologist, it’s because of the consistent high pressure located over Oklahoma and the central US, which has been forcing all of the precipitation north. We’ve had eighteen more inches of rain than normal since the first of June.

Good for the crops, perhaps—I’ve had three ripe tomatoes already, more than my family in Chattanooga—but bad for my sun deficiency. I feel dumb always complaining about it, but the fact remains that I’m constantly living at a twenty-degree deficit up here. So why do I live up here? It’s a compromise. This area is one of few in the country where I can live at my income level.

The ironic thing is that my laundry is hanging on the line. I’m reading Old Maine Woman by Glenna Smith, an Aroostook County writer I met recently, a brilliant book about the way things really used to be. Her mom did laundry every Monday, no matter the weather forecast. Didn’t your grandma? I figured I could do the same. They’ll hang out there until they dry, I suppose. My grandma didn’t have to contend with climate change.

The garden’s going full-bore, producing faster than I can figure out ways to preserve, which I keep telling myself is a good problem to have. I spent all weekend with a group of friends, artists and homesteaders. Somehow I have managed to find a brilliant community of like-minded people. I keep quoting this article from the editor of Mother Earth News, who says rather than the doomsday attitude most environmentalists have, we need to envision the future we want, to envision success if we’re to achieve it.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about that. If we want to change the world, how do we actually go about that, practically? What’s the first small step? How can I be the change I wish to see? I just keep thinking about community models that can be replicated. I know it’s idealistic, and ambitious, but if we don't have idealism and ambition, we’ll never achieve success.

It’s not just rain that’s getting me down. Every time I hear the news, the political bickering, reports from the corporate hegemony, I become a little more frustrated by the paralysis of the people. We can take back our country, we can take back our world. We just have to do it a little bit at a time.

Friday, August 05, 2011


It’s 1:04 in the morning and a Quebecois movie is on Canadian television about a six-year-old Catholic boy given the ability to heal people. I’m listening to Chopin as I read French subtitles. My garden was hit by hail this week, the day after I posted all of those pictures, which was depressing to the point that I haven’t been out there lately. My chard has immense amounts of tiny little holes in it. The plants that have fruit are less wounded, but it’s still tough to face.

The frustrating thing is that I’ve been meaning to harvest the chard for weeks now. I knew it was edible ages ago, but I was distracted by massive quantities of radishes and turnip greens and radish tops. It’s a good problem to have, a problem I wouldn’t have expected to have even in March of this year. I didn’t realize how much of the task of a garden is keeping up with the harvest and finding ways to cook and eat things. My grandma always made sauteed chard to go with her meat and potatoes, but I don’t cook meat and potatoes that often. Today I had holey sauteed chard for dinner. With macaroni.

I’ve been reading my little boat notebook again, never a good sign when I’m looking for stability. I read this notation today: I can tie a bowline now!! 7-7-07

Except I can’t. Try as I might, that knowledge has slipped away from me. I can’t get the rabbit to go around the tree and into its hole. I know I could look it up, relearn it, but I keep expecting the knowledge to magically reappear. I guess I’m learning new things, that chard is still delicious with holes poked in it, and how to eat it with pasta and horseradish cheddar. Time moves on. The past slips away, and its lessons go with it.