A friend lent me the one-volume edition of Helen and Scott Nearing’s The Good Life and Continuing the Good Life a few months ago, and since that time I have worked on it in leaps and starts. The blurb on the back of the book advertises it very well, and explains why I was willing to take the book home:
Helen and Scott Nearing are the great-grandparents of the back-to-the-land movement, having abandoned the city in 1932 for a rural life based on self-reliance, good health, and a minimum of cash… Fascinating, timely, and wholly useful, a mix of the Nearings’ challenging philosophy and expert counsel on practical skills.
So says the Washington Post Book World.
The Nearings’ story, in brief, is as follows: in 1932, after a career as a college professor – he was fired for his Socialist views – Scott Nearing decided to move, at the age of 49, to Vermont, with his twenty-eight-year-old wife Helen. He was a dynamic older man driven by ideology – a biography of him has been written entitled The Making of a Radical – and she was an energetic young woman who appears to have been attracted by older men with charisma of the ideological type (I read she was also linked romantically with Jiddu Krishnamurti, the founder of Theosophy). They were both from well-to-do families, and it being the Depression, they were able to purchase hundreds of acres of land on Stratton Mountain in Vermont for less than three dollars per acre (where now land might sell for fifty thousand dollars an acre). Here they built their own buildings, grew much of their own food, and ran a small but profitable maple syrup business. During the winters they traveled, wrote, and lectured, often on topics related to their Socialist views. After twenty years of such a life, they published a guidebook to maple sugaring still considered standard among hippies (The Maple Sugar Book) and shortly thereafter their first memoir, The Good Life. After World War II Stratton Mountain was developed as a ski resort, bringing massive development to the area, and the Nearings fled to an isolated promontory in Maine, where they recapitulated their success in Vermont, purchasing a large property, building a new home and new outbuildings, growing their own food, and growing blueberries for profit. By that time the Sixties had hit, and the couple had become heroes of the Hippie movement, and their wide social circle of admirers became a deluge of guests looking for “an alternative lifestyle.” In 1979 they published a second memoir, Continuing the Good Life, now published in a single volume with the first. Scott Nearing died in 1983 at the age of 100, and Helen Nearing in 1995 at 91s. The property has now become the headquarters of a nonprofit promoting “the good life,” i.e. homesteading in one form or another.
All this is very interesting to me, though the book was in general disappointing. Frequently the stated goal of back-to-the-landers is “self-sufficiency,” and while I acknowledge this to be one of the axes of a mature, full life – alongside “membership,” or acknowledging that one is a part of a larger body – too often self-sufficiency seems to me to be the goal of a limitless egotism and bristling woundedness. What the Nearings found – and I think this is broadly true – is that anything even remotely approximating self-sufficiency is really produced by scale, of a sort which is (to me) not easily compatible with simplicity. The Roman Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus famously spent the entire latter half of his life – decades – without purchasing a single thing. However, he lived on a villa the size of a county, worked by innumerable slaves who could produce everything he needed from fish to grain to olive oil to bricks to paint and nails. It was a self-sufficiency based on scale (and also on slavery). I live on six acres, which is not a small amount of this world; but the Nearings’ lifestyle, squeezing a living out of the sap of maple trees, required the hundreds of acres they had. They had two farmhouses on their property already, but they needed many more buildings than that to sustain their lifestyle. One of their first projects was building a lumber shed and two-car garage: it was over fifty feet long, twice the size of my entire house. They then built a 12×32 workshop and guest-room, then a second woodshed (!), 12×14; then a 12×16 stand-alone study so Scott could have some privacy from the guests (who apparently provided no small portion of the labor for the farm); then an 18×24 tool-shed, plus an 18×6 greenhouse, and a 9×12 cabin for more guests (and storing sap buckets). And of course the 12×20’ concrete swimming pool. And of course they built a large house as well as their dwelling-place, and while no measurements are given, it had a footprint which by middle-class standards would be considered vast – to the eye more than sixty feet to a side.
I find this excessive, but given their goals I do not consider it unnecessary. I have often marveled at how life in the woods, and alone, seems to require either 1) an infinite supply of tools or 2) a willingness to get absolutely nothing done. You might think you can get by with one wedge, until you get your wedge stuck in a log; then you find you need a rescue wedge to get your original wedge out. You might think a bowsaw will cut your wood, but you find that for limbing trees you really should have a small bowsaw – eighteen inches – and for sawing wood you will need one thirty or more inches in length. Otherwise your work will take the entire day. An axe for felling trees, of course, but also a maul for splitting logs; and if you have a chainsaw you will also need a sharpener (with a mount to control the sharpening angle of the file of course), chain lubricant, motor oil, gasoline (and a container in which to mix the oil and gasoline), and the screwdrivers to take the whole thing apart. This kind of multiplication infects everything. I was thinking about buying or making cloches, movable translucent sheds to put over vegetables in cold weather to protect them from freezing. But then I realized: I would have to build a place to store them. Such a project is worthwhile and vastly extends the growing season, which is crucial for self-reliance. But it requires the Nearings’ approach: literally thousands of square feet of roofed space per person.
Also required was ruthless organization. They were trying to squeeze a living out of a large farm, in which a great deal of capital and labor had been invested, and they needed to work, and work on a schedule. A garden can be killed by a two-week vacation, and maple sap will spoil if you don’t boil it down within days of its running. They were very good at this organization. And since they did not want to be buying new tools all the time (which they could not make for themselves), they took care of the ones they had. Again, given their goals I find this necessary and admirable. But there is unfortunately something rather joyless about the way they write about such a life:
We tackled our practical problems one by one, as we reached them. In each case we followed a pattern which began with a survey of the situation, continued with a discussion or series of discussions which led to a decision, often written down in memorandum, black on white. The decision was elaborated into a plan, also written out and often revised. Finally the plan was checked and coordinated with our ten year plan, adopted as a project and fitted into the work schedule.
Some of our readers will feel that such a life pattern is over-organized. They would not wish to plan their activities so completely. After having tried it out, day after day, and year after year, we know it is the way to get things done. Two people can accomplish much in a day or a month or a year if they have defined objectives, agreed plans, if they work on the program systematically and conscientiously, giving as much attention to details as to the over-all plan.
Take an illustration from the handling and conditioning of tools. We had a place for each tool. Shovels, hoes, rakes and bars were in racks on the right as we entered the tool shed. There were as many holes in the racks as there were tools. No one ever had to hunt for a shovel or a hoe. If one was missing, a glance showed its absence and we searched until we located it. If we could not find it, we replaced it. Actually, with this system, we almost never lost a tool.
After each job was completed in less than a working day, the tools went back into their places. At the end of each day’s work we followed the same procedure. Consequently, tools which were not in place were in actual use and tools not in use were in place. We tried to follow this course even though a tool was used on several jobs in the course of one working day.(44-5)
Again, this is prudent, and if you want to get things done, virtually necessary. But in the Nearings’ case it comes as part of a pattern which is somehow depressing. It seems they left modern mechanical society not because they loved nature but because they found modern society not quite sufficiently mechanical – there was something wastefully and riotously alive about it, and they were hoping to fix that. I am especially sensitive to this kind of Puritanism, because I know I am susceptible to it. I always hope that I anchor my objections to modernity in the joy of nature: I do not want to hate electricity so much as love being able to see the stars. But for the Nearings – and I suspect Scott, the “radical,” was the real source of this – there was something painfully aggressive and lifeless about their efforts. As you read their writing an awareness of their general unlikability seeps in. Yes, we should take good care of our tools. But for them it is more than that: in the fashion of a zealot, the pride in their own mechanistically measurable perfection of morals morphs into curses on the irresponsibility of their good-for-nothing backslider neighbors. It starts slowly enough:
Many of our hammers, saws, planes, shaves and metal tools had been well cared for and had served the needs of two and three generations. Had this equipment been left, even for brief periods, out in the weather, its life would have been shortened. Had it remained outside through the late fall and winter, it soon would have been unfit for use. We argued this point, to little purpose, with several of our neighbors. Invariably they replied that it was easier to leave the tools “handy to the field” than it was to bring them in. Many of these men had shed room and simply failed to use it. (47-8)
It gets more acute as the book progresses, and begins to read like the self-justification of an unhappy person.
On Sundays we varied our schedule by having no schedule and by doing no regular bread-labor. Usually there was a period of music Sunday morning and often a group discussion Sunday evenings. Other evenings there was a period of reading aloud by someone while the others cracked nuts, shelled beans or did some personal chore like darning or knitting. We adhered generally to this daily and weekly routine, but not fanatically. However, unless there was a good and sufficient reason, we did not depart from it.
Need we say that our Vermont neighbors were appalled by such a planned and organized life? They were accustomed to a go-as-you-please existence. They usually ate at noon, but that was the one fixed point in the day unless somone was working out on a regular job and had to report at a specified hour. They got up and went to work, or did not go to work, as a result of accident or whim. If someone else came along and wanted to visit, they would turn from almost any job and chat, sometimes for hours. When they did decide to work, they let inclination determine the object of their efforts. When they got through with a tool, they dropped it. When they wanted it again, sometimes half the day was wasted in search. If the morning looked like rain or snow, they “sat on their heels” in the local vernacular. They naturally regarded our regulated life as self-imposed torture. “Those people work on a treadmill,” said the neighbors pointing in our direction. “Why, they go on a schedule, like a train or bus.” (53)
And they were Puritanical indeed, in ways that seem almost comical. It starts out innocuously enough. They don’t like frivolous luxuries: “We bought no candy, pastries, meats, soft drinks, alcohol, tea, coffee, or tobacco” (155). Needless to say they neither bought them nor made them. But of course they had to prohibit their guests from eating such things as well, making it clear to all that “meat, alcohol, and tobacco are taboo on the place” (198). But lots of other things are taboo as well. Furniture and decoration is bad, and they quote Frank Lloyd Wright to this effect:
The ideal of ‘organic simplicity’ naturally abolished all fixtures, rejected the old furniture, all carpets and most hangings, declaring them to be irrelevant or superficial decoration…. Swift sure lines and clean planes in every way make a better background for living than lace curtains, figured wall paper, machine carved furniture, and elaborate picture frames. (85-6)
Yes, Lord deliver us from “elaborate picture frames.” No pets either:
Cats and dogs live dependent subservient lives under the table tops of humans. Domestic pets kill and drive away wild creatures, whose independent, self-respecting lives seem far more admirable than those of docile, dish-fed retainers. (36)
I do appreciate the insult “dish-fed,” though I also appreciate pets. While I am on the topic of what I like, let me note that I love the beauty of the old, but to them, preservation of old structures was useless and they took pride in getting rid of the old: “If they have no function, we will tear them down at the first opportunity.” (36)
Some of this appears to be a kind of hatred of their own culture, and with it a glorification of the foreign. There is a brief but bizarre attack on silverware:
Our salad we ate with chop sticks, as we found the ‘nimble boys’ (Chinese ‘fai-tze’) more selective and discriminating in picking up food than the shovel-like fork. (148)
I presume they ate everything that was in their salad bowl, so I cannot imagine why their eating utensils needed to be “selective and discriminating,” but obviously this is just some kind of bizarre bit of self-congratulation about how much better they are than their neighbors. No one cares if you want to eat with chopsticks, but don’t tell me there’s something wrong with my fork, please.
What is most striking is just how familiar all this is. It is still a part of the “counterculture” scene almost eighty years later. Almost every wealthy college in America will have some rich kids in a co-op who with the backing of ample family wealth will rail on about modern consumerist society while building an “alternative” lifestyle whose alternative-ness still depends entirely on being a consumer (just of different things): wearing different clothes, eating different food, reading different books, rejecting Western religions/foods/eating utensils/whatever. The food thing, since it is the most elementary consumer item, is paramount to the consumerist self-makeover, and it was paramount to the Nearings, who drone on and on about it, in almost the same words as people use today.
Modern markets are selling everything from baby food to dog and cat food in cans, – pre-cooked, mixed, prepared. Even people who have open land at their disposal find it easier to pick up these products in cans and packages than it is to raise them in a home garden. One lazy gesture with an automatic can opener; spoon the stuff into a pan; heat it, and the meal is ready. Thus an entire generation of humans is being raised, from infancy to maturity, chiefly on processed, prepared, canned and packaged factory foods. Most of such foods have been cooked, peeled, shelled, ground, sliced, minced, tenderized, pasteurized, or in some other manner deprived of their wholeness before they went into the cans or packages. (124)
All true, though I will note that the “entire generation” the Nearings are talking about (in 1950), was the longest-lived generation in human history. The Nearings refer to processed food consistently as “poisoned” food and treat it like the Nazi threat: “at the moment, all too few individuals and families in the United States are doing anything practical to meet the menace of processed, poisoned foods” (134). People are still talking this way. And there is the same hysteria about it:
Milling may sound like a horrible example of food processing. It is only one among many. We refer to it in some detail because the colorless, flavorless and lifeless white flour of the present day in the form of bread, crackers, noodles, cakes and pastries forms so large a part of the diet of western man…. Among the vested interests who have come to the fore in the modern world there are many who deliberately devitalize, drug and poision the population for profit…. Pies, cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers, other products of white flour and of white sugar and white rice must be classed as poisons under the dictionary definition. Baking sodas, baking powders and common salt would come under the definition; so would irritating spices and sauces. (126-7)
We’ve already gotten rid of old buildings, pets, wine, carpets, forks, and elaborate picture frames: now we have to give up pies, white rice, “common salt,” “irritating spices,” birthday cakes, and cookies? Yes indeed, and it even gets worse:
During our entire twenty years in Vermont we never baked a pie, we seldom ate cake or cookies and almost never doughnuts. In a community which serves pie, cake and doughnuts for two if not three meals a day, conduct such as ours was not only unbelievable but reprehensible. (167)
I will confess I am going to support whoever is on the side of doughnuts in this debate. And the book so turned me off to the Nearings that I had to applaud even the inhospitable, outsider-hating obnoxiousness of New Englanders in this one instance:
To the credit of Vermont conservatism it must be said that during the two decades of our stay, after innumerable discussions and long-drawn-out arguments on the subject of white flour, white bread, white sugar, pies and pastries, the necessity for eating raw vegetables, and the revolting practice of consuming decaying animal carcasses, no native Vermont family of our acquaintance made any noticeable change in its food habits. (167)
If you want a sample of these “innumerable discussions and long-drawn-out arguments” – which again, in every college co-op in America right now are still circling on in their endless navel-gazing gyre, here are some bits of the Nearings’ tedious consumerist pedantry, which as usual is distinguished by humorless unsolicited tirades lacking all sense of perspective or proportion:
An uninformed shopper, influenced either by whim, the colorful label, the radio or magazine ads or the bargain price, may upset the health of an entire household by buying the wrong foods. (121)
I will note that both my grandmothers, who ate nothing but white foods and meat, and always bought what was on sale, lived longer than Helen Nearing did. (Nearing did of course die in a car accident, but then again, neither of my grandmothers ever learned to drive, which for personal and global health is probably actually more important a choice than food choices are, so I consider it a fair comparison in the end.)
A whole raw apple or cherry, raw peas or corn, a whole raw carrot, beet, radish or turnip, a raw asparagus shoot, a leaf of lettuce, cress, spinach, endive, chicory, a ripe raspberry or tomato is more delectable to the unperverted taste than any product of the most elaborate food processing. (122)
I’ll have to wait for the person with “unperverted taste” and one hell of an eloquent tongue who can convince me that chocolate (a processed food) is less delectable than chicory. (Really, chicory?)
[Quoting R. Briffault]: “Primitive humanity was, no doubt, like the anthropoids, mainly frugivorous.” … In a recent study, The Recovery of Culture, Henry Bailey Stevens attempts to show that this “blood culture,” with which he also associates war, dates back in human history for only a very brief period. Before the blood culture, which began with the domestication of animals, there was a tree culture based on a diet of fruit, nuts, seeds, shoots and roots. (142)
For sheer food pedantry you can’t beat the section where they tell us what milk and eggs are:
Milk is the secretion of the mammary glands of cows, goats, or sheep. Cheese is a coagulation of the curd of this liquid. Eggs are the reproductive media of birds [wow, is that jargon]. Milk is a highly concentrated infant food, especially designed to stimulate rapid growth in the early stages of development. Human milk should normally be for baby humans, cow’s milk for calves, etc. A calf doubles its weight in a month, a human baby in six months. Food intended by nature for one is not necessarily a desirable food for the other. Adults of any breed should have been weaned and past the milk stage of feeding. (141-2)
So much for ice cream, I suppose. And buttered rum is really out. The obvious question is left to be asked by the reader: is this tedious seriousness at all compatible with what can truly be called the good life? Can a person who has succumbed to such self-importance really know that much about it? Even I – who am seriously tedious enough to write five-thousand word essays as a form of enjoyment – insist on breaking apart my serious pleasures with idiocy, and lightening my principles by occasional blatant violations. The other day I was enjoying sawing wood in the winter stillness so much that it became burdensome to me. I went in to the cabin, took out my ghetto blaster and a cassette tape I had made in 1990 and blasted Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” to the unhearing woods. The absurdity of the moment endeared it to me much more than my pristine hardworking industriousness had.
So is there anything in the world the Nearings can take refuge in, some good thing they can believe in, immersed as they are in a capitalist world of pie-makers out to “deliberately devitalize, drug and poison the population for profit”? Why, yes, there is:
What we are doing on a few square yards of a North American farm, the Chinese are doing on a nationwide scale. They are planning their agriculture, dovetailing it with the changing seasons and the weather and building their farming base.
What the Chinese are doing on a national scale, the Soviet Union is attempting on a continent-wide scale. Eurasian rivers, among the largest on the planet, which have flowed north for millennia are being turned around, made to run south into the Central Asian deserts. Twenty years ago this was an engineers’ dream; today millions of desert acres are being irrigated and cultivated. Another twenty years and the desert wastes of barren Central Asia may be feeding and clothing a great section of the human race with its harvests of cereal grains and cotton. (282-3)
The absurdity of this is manifest, though again, I will note that people are still carrying around Mao’s little red book in Co-opistan. There is something deathless about absurdity, so we must accept it. All we ask, I think, is that it come with a little bit of self-awareness and humor to keep it within manageable proportion.
Because there is much about what the Nearings did which is admirable. They worked hard, and while I insist on getting doughnuts if I am going to work hard, their lives and writing still point to the basic truth that we have to work. There is no satisfactory evasion of God’s pronouncement upon Adam, that “in the sweat of your brow shall ye eat bread.” It is a divine pronouncement, which means that it is a curse, but also a blessing. The Nearings were also intelligent, and thought about how to go about their lives without binding themselves to others, and at times their method is to be imitated. Look at how they examined the problem of insuring their business:
We also decided to insure the sugarhouse and its contents. Sugarhouses were littered places, fires in the evaporator were hot and many syrup and sugar makers suffered serious fire losses. We went to an insurance agent. Oh yes, he would insure our sugarhouse and contents for $500, but the risk was great and the premium was high. The policy would cost us annually $125.
We thanked the insurers and went our way. Each year we took $125 from the sugar-business surplus and put it aside. At the end of four years we had $500. With this money we built a second sugarhouse, installed a duplicate set of sugar tools and equipment so that in case the first sugarhouse burned during the sap season we could finish out the season in the second sugarhouse. Incidentally, if we had a big run of sap we operated both sugarhouses at the same time and were able to double our output in a single good sap day. (354-5)
They also turned a critical eye on the rural economy, and I don’t doubt their finding that it was highly individualistic and unable to do anything that might have required real community solidarity. Certain cooperative ventures might have been very useful to rural communities – they discussed starting a cooperative sawmill for processing all the valley’s lumber, but found others not willing to work on cooperative projects and watched the lumber all go to distant sawyers. There was not enough willpower or trust or ideological agreement for such ventures. This created general economic weakness and social dislocation:
Atomism, separatism and consequent isolation have increasingly played havoc with rural life in the United States as the household has decreased in size while the household has shed some of its most essential functions… The resulting absence of group spirit and neighborhood discipline, the chaos and confusion of perpetual movement to and from work, to and from school, to and from the shows and the dances, has destroyed the remnants of rural solidarity and left a shattered, purposeless, functionless, ineffective, unworkable community. (204)
It is interesting to contrast this perspective with Wendell Berry, who basically uses rural America in the 1940s – precisely the same time period – as his ideal. Of course the Nearings were adults then, and Berry just a child, which probably explains the variance in perspective.
There were other things the Nearings did which do raise questions about just how practical their wisdom really was. For example, they built in stone. They had plenty of the stuff and they liked the fact that stone buildings required little maintenance after construction. But they did not have the skill to build tall stone buildings, which meant that for size they needed to increase the footprint of their homes. It was said – and I believe it – by their neighbors that the reason the Nearings traveled so much in the winter is that they found their large stone home, with its vast modern spaces, impossible to keep warm. The old houses had tiny rooms, low ceilings, small windows, and many doors to control where warm air went. They also had second floors, where heat would remain even after it had fled the rest of the house. The Nearings had neither small rooms nor upper floors. Instead, as I have said, the Nearings had two sheds for wood storage, one of which was larger than my entire house. They were cutting and storing vast quantities of wood. They liked the aesthetics of fireplaces, but only the luxury of a very large woodlot and a fair amount of time to indulge in woodcutting can really justify not switching to stoves for wood heat. But you cannot easily make your own stove – it is a product of the industrial system, as opposed to a fireplace, which the Nearings were able to build for themselves. These are the kind of tradeoffs that go into such living: oftentimes energy efficiency can only be created by the superior workmanship of high civilization.
Similarly, while the Nearings speak often about the importance of community, it is clear that their work and their principles were more important than connections between people were. I like my country home because the long blank nights are great for long deep conversation and ancient hospitality. To me, that’s the point. Here is what the Nearings say about hospitality:
We went about our jobs as usual and let guests fend for themselves, or come and help, if they wished. We served no ice tea on the terrace while telling or listening to life histories. By some we were thought uncordial, but we did not aim to entertain. (197)
Again, there is something mechanical and onerous and inhuman about all this. And hence, I think, something unsustainable. I was speaking with a friend who used to go to the Nearings’ house in Maine for the weekly meetings held there, and she reported to me the “scandal” of Helen Nearing’s death, which is that she died in a car accident – while speeding in her fancy sports car. Whether this is true or not I do not know, but the story is eminently believable. Her husband had died some years before, and perhaps she felt a bit freer to indulge in the sorts of things her life with her husband had denied her. Whether she had a pack of Snickers ice creams bars in the trunk I don’t know either, but for sure we cannot keep up the tedious seriousness forever. The quest for the good life goes on, but we have to take our sense of humor and proportion with us on the journey.
And on economics in general:
If I buy one necessary of life, I cheat myself to some extent, I deprive myself of the pleasure, the inexpressible joy, which is the unfailing reward of satisfying any want of our nature simply and truly.
From his Journal.
I’ve been enjoying the apocalyptic selfy earth-pain of this forgotten Michael classic… it came on the radio recently, which brought it back to mind. You can dance it pretty easily, and the video is a kind of pleasing exaggerated train-wreck dirge-dance.
We’ve had a cold spell recently, and it’s been below zero every night. During the work-week I experience the cold rather fully: not only because I work a great deal outdoors, but because with my small stove my house is cold when I am away. I came back from the city late Monday night, and it was seven degrees inside my cabin; I had to stay up a few hours with my stove warming the house up to about thirty, when I went to sleep. The next evening, coming home from the wind-turbine meeting late at night (around nine p.m.) it was eleven degrees inside the cabin, and, astonishingly, that felt warm to my skin: it was at least ten degrees colder outside even then. I like living with the cold – I do not want to homogenize life into modernity: when it is summer let me work in the sun and dirt, and drip with my own sweat, and then jump into the creek; when it is raining I want to be soaked and stand out in the rain all day like an old tree; when it is winter I want to feel the knife-air on my raw skin, and dance with joy and gratitude before a glowing stove at night. And to live this way is more than just pleasing contrast and fullness of experience (which it is): it is also living in accord with nature, living on less, and the kind of life we will have to have if we are to live sustainably. We cannot make summers cool and winters warm without cost. Everything will be paid for. Everything. ”Amen, I say to you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Last weekend I was teaching for a Latin immersion experience in West Virginia and the first night there I saw what I had never seen before down South: a sky of stars (a Southerner confessed to me that because of the humidity he never sees stars like the stars of the North). I brushed up on my mythology – just the story of Orion, really – and led a group of skywatchers out into the field and spoke to them about the constellations, in Latin. It was for me a visible, tangible, sacramental experience of a connection with the past: to watch and talk about the stars in a language that has been used for such discussions for literally thousands of years.
Everyone knows the constellation Orion, but very few know his myth, in part because his story has received no particularly complete or deathless treatment in what we have of the literature of the ancient world. But the important part of the story, to me, was the hubris of his death: Orion the great hunter, inflated with his success, decides to kill every animal on Earth. Earth, or Artemis (depending on the version, but the name matters not – the female Earth-principle) sends, as punishment, the Scorpion to kill him.
To the ancients this may not have even seemed like a terribly significant myth: it was not conceivable that a man should kill off the animals of the Earth. And of course even for us this is not possible without, as the myth indicates, our own death. This is the story our culture has written into the winter sky. And even in the city, this one constellation, and this one lesson, is visible.
Up here it is clear as crystal. In fact last night was the best display of stars I have ever seen in the Catskills. It was clear and cold and amazing. I stood outside and looked at my little cabin, dark in the white snow, stars everywhere all around it, and was amazed.
“The best written musical autobiography since Bob Dylan’s Chronicles.” – The Telegraph describing Morrissey’s Autobiography.
A piece I wrote for the Catskill Native Plant Society.
This morning I woke to the sound of large machinery. I was surprised: it had started snowing last night and a full-on blizzard was expected. I got up and looked out the window: there was an excavator trying to turn around on my driveway. The snow was melting, too, which surprised me, and there were patches of ground visible. On the other side of my cabin I saw two more construction machines. I got dressed and went outside. There was a construction crew on my property, working just uphill from my house. Down below I could see their handiwork: a newly graded, well-laid road, forty feet wide, running through the forest. It ran within twenty feet of my cabin, right through my garden, obliterating it. The men were continuing their work, felling and stripping trees while a bulldozer pushed out the stumps. The road was continuing up the mountain.
I saw someone walking by and told him, “I want to speak with the person in charge of this project.” He said “Sure,” and then walked me down to the paved road, off my property, where there was a kind of restaurant. Just inside the door, at the bar, a man was speaking with two women, who were obviously distraught landowners: they had property maps in their hands, and he was showing them the route. The worker I was with explained to him that I wanted to speak with him, and he excused himself to the ladies and stepped outside with me. I explained what I had seen to him. He seemed very upset upon hearing that my garden had been destroyed, but in a slightly patronizing way: he felt sorry for my pettiness, and seemed to feel he could get rid of me easily enough. I asked him what was happening. ”We’re building a new power line,” he said. ”A new route across the mountain. People have been upset about all the power outages and the fragility of the system, and this route will connect several areas which at present have only one branch and are very vulnerable.”
“This is kind of ironic,” I said with the intellectual detachment I reserve for very large disappointments. ”I live without electricity. I live very simply in general. I chose my property because it was so remote and removed from such things. If I had known it had a right of way cutting through it I never would have bought it.” He pretended to be upset that I hadn’t been informed and brought me to his office. He picked up a phone and began dialing, very slowly, on a rotary phone. He was just putting on a show of concern. The project was going forward. I might be able to get back the cost of my lily bulbs which had been dug up by the road. But that was about it.
As I waited I saw a strange hole on my left arm, about a quarter-inch in diameter. The blood at its bottom was dry, but the skin had not closed: a crisp round hole, about an eighth of an inch deep, remained in the skin, much like an old tap-hole on the outer bark of a tree. Looking more closely I saw more of them all over my arms, and my skin looked wrinkly, and I noticed I was losing flesh from my bones – I was too skinny. Something was wrong.
Then I woke up, and saw the snow piled up against my window.
I’ll be teaching this weekend at the Paideia Institute’s Living Latin in New York event.
As I started my fire yesterday, my eyes paused on the paper I was about to stuff into the stove: the envelope of a friend’s Christmas card. He had died shortly after Christmas. I thought for a moment: that hand, just weeks ago, could write me a card and send it in the mail; and now he could not.
Today there has been a blizzard and I could not go to work due to the condition of the roads. I walked down into town off the mountain, and I passed a neighbor’s daughter; she was clearing the snow from her driveway. I spoke with her awhile and found out that her mother’s boyfriend, R.J., had died earlier this winter. He used to come unbidden and clear the snow from my own driveway; I paid him back this fall in apple butter. His enthusiasm for the stuff pleased me all fall.
He helped build my garden too, bringing in topsoil with his excavator. But he cannot do such things now. It’s a mystery to me, an indigestible mystery.