ALL THINGS LITERARY. ALL THINGS NATURAL.

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

Farm City, Deeply Rooted, and Each Featherless Wing

Turkey bones and veges for soup According to The Wall Street Journal, 46 million domestic, farm-raised turkeys were devoured this week (including the 13 pound turkey whose bones have been stewing in my soup kettle until an hour ago).  It’s probably fair to say that none of us ever saw “our bird” fully feathered, or heard it gobble, or knew whether a “hen” or a “jake” was gracing our dinner platter.  I haven’t had this kind of intimate relationship with a Thanksgiving turkey since leaving our Wyoming ranch a few years ago, and I miss it. 
7J Outfitter Wild Turkey The picture below was taken by Seven J Outfitters on land adjacent to our ranch. I do not know these hunters but no doubt I’ve seen this turkey’s brethren foraging on our hay meadow. These are the same turkeys my son and daughter watched through the seasons when growing up, including hunting season.  “If they’re too many jakes,” my son once told me, “they’ll harass the nesting hens, and not enough eggs will hatch.”  He used to spend days out in the woods, studying the bands of wild turkeys. If this photo stirs you in any way, I hope you’ll respond by posting a comment.
In the fall, the wild turkeys that I used to share this land with loved to graze the acorns that gathered beneath the bur oaks.  They also loved the hay meadows, where it was harder for a coyote or bob cat to sneak up on them. I imagine they still do. 
Had the 46 million domestic turkeys eaten this week been born wild, like the Merriam’s wild turkey of the ponderosa forests of the West, only 25 percent of them might have survived beyond their first few weeks of life.  Those that did might have lived for a year or two, maybe three, but it’s the rare and wise wild turkey that could escape both disease and predation to see a tenth birthday. 
Like the coyotes who prey on the turkeys, I find myself mostly at peace with the role of predator.  My eyes, like the coyote’s or the eagle’s or the mountain lion’s or the fox, are located in the front of my head. My teeth, too, are designed for tearing flesh.  I trust nature’s grand design.  What I am not at peace with are the insidious and mutated forms of predation that now seem to define our species. 
Farm City Yesterday, with the taste of Thanksgiving still lingering on my tongue, and memories still stirring my heart, I read an article on the New York Time’s book editors’ top 10 reads for 2009.  Dwight Garner’s selections included the memoir Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. “A moving meditation on urban life versus the natural world,” wrote the publisher Penguin Press, “and what we’ve given up to live the way we do.”
The intersection of anything rural and urban intrigues me.  Here was a memoir about a young woman who grubbed out a small garden plot from a dirt lot in a drug-infested ghetto in Oakland and started growing not only herbs and vegetables, but ducks and rabbits and even two Red Duroc pigs.  I clicked on a link to Garner’s June 11 book review:
“At heart,” he writes, “Farm City is more about Ms. Carpenter’s experiences with livestock than it is about growing plump tomatoes. In fact Farm City is a serious, if tragicomic, meditation on raising and then killing your own animals. She wants to have “a dialogue with life,” she writes, and realizes she can do that only by also having a dialogue with death.”
Bravo, Ms. Carpenter!  We Americans shy away from death, or at least from hands-on death.  We shy away from admitting that nothing lives that something does not die.   We rarely anoint our own dead, and rarely wonder about the lives of the things we eat to nourish our own bodies.
DeeplyRootedYesterday I was also reading High Country News.  I came across Andrea Appleton’s review of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness by Lisa Hamilton. (November 9, High Country News).  “In this narrative nonfiction book,” writes the publisher, “Hamilton tells three stories, of an African-American dairyman in Texas who plays David to the Goliath of agribusiness corporations; a tenth-generation rancher in New Mexico struggling to restore agriculture as a pillar of his community; and a modern pioneer family in North Dakota…”  Click here for a SLIDE SHOW of the people in these three stories.  Click here to read Appleton’s REVIEW, “For farmers, small is beautiful.”
This year’s turkey carcass has been simmering on the stove for two days.  When I took the pot out of the refrigerator this morning, the broth was a thick, protein-rich gelatin.  The meat is now  stripped from the bones and I’m about to dice the celery and chop the onions and shred the carrots.  Making this soup feels like an act of gratitude, a prayerful way to spend a few hours regardless of whether the turkey lived a wild life, or a confined one.  But I will miss the slight taste of wild acorns that used to grace the Thanksgiving soup I made back at the ranch.  I will squeeze all the intimacy from these bones that I can—each leg bone, each rib, each featherless and flightless wing.
Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, Counterpoint Press, May, 2009.
Farm City, Novella Carpenter, The Penguin Press, June, 2009.

Friday, November 20, 2009

NEWS FLASH! Colum McCann Wins National Book Award

I met Colum 4 years ago (please see previous post below) and am thrilled Let the Great World Spin has won.  Go to NPR to learn more and read about it from the Associated Press News Release.  Here’s an excerpt:

Colum McCann Let the Great World Spin “McCann won the fiction prize for "Let the Great World Spin," a novel about daring, luck and mortality in the pre-digital world of 1970s New York.

“He has called his book an act of hope written in part as a response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Accepting his prize, McCann praised the generosity of American fiction and of the American people.”

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Colum McCann. Luck of the Irish? Or just a fine, fine novelist?

Everything in This Country Must “A summer flood came and our draft horse got caught in the river.  The river smashed against stones and the sound of it to me was like the turning of locks.  It was silage time and the water smelled of grass.  The draft horse, Father’s favorite, had stepped in the river for a sniff maybe and she was caught, couldn’t move, her foreleg trapped between rocks.  Father found her and called Katie! above the wailing rain.  I was in the barn waiting for drips on my tongue from the ceiling hole.”

These are the opening words to Colum McCann’s short story “Everything in This Country Must,” first published in The Atlantic in 2001 and later published in book form (along with another short story and a novella) by Macmillan/Picador.

I met Colum McCann in June of 2005 at the Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival in Colorado.  Colum was part of an impressive lineup of Irish authors, including Robert Boswell, Grande Dame Edna O’Brien, Polly Devlin, Nuala O’Faolain, Paul Muldoon, and Marie Ponsot.  (Photo of Colum by Brendan Bourke.)  I knew that I was in the presence of a writer

Column McCann by Brendan Bourkewhose greatness was as apparent as his magnetism.  Colum, (born in Dublin in 1965), was approachable, handsome, and sensual (with a lovely wife). A few minutes later, as he began to read the 14-page short story, “Everything in This Country Must,” we were quickly enfolded in the charm of his Irish voice.  Afterwards, we watched the short film based on the story, which had won 16 top awards at major film festivals and was nominated for an Academy Award Oscar.

The story is about a work horse that gets caught in the roaring creek, the farmer who can’t save his prize Belgium, the teenage daughter who’s trying to help, the British soldiers who rescue the horse, the same soldiers who, two years prior, had accidentally crushed the car in which the farmer’s son and wife were sitting. It all comes full circle. The farmer is in such deep dark place of grief and impotence and anger and fear that in the end, after the soldiers are gone, he goes to the barn and kills the horse he loves because, perhaps, he cannot bear the thought that he must forgive the country,and the soldiers, who took his wife from him.  An entire, exquisitely wrought and painful world is contained in this short story. 

Colum McCann Let the Great World Spin Colum’s sixth novel, Let the Great World Spin, (Random House) is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist, and was called “One of the most electric, profound novels of the year” by The NY Times Book Review. It was also just picked by Amazon.com as Editors’ #1 Pick of their Top Ten for 2009.  Colum’s novel Dancer (Picador, 2004), received the prestigious Irish Novel of the Year award.  CLICK HERE for dates of Colum’s November and December, 2009, New York and Amsterdam appearances. 

NOW, I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to Nuala O’Faolain, who also spoke at the Aspen Summer Words Festival in 2005.  Known as Ireland’s female counterpartNuala O'Faolain to Frank McCourt, her  memoir Are You Somebody?  was on the NY Times bestseller list for 17 weeks.  Nuala was bold, outspoken, funny, had no fear, and was passionate about the rights of women in Ireland. She sat down to write her life story with no intention of publication – and thus “told all” in the book.  She was hilarious and impassioned and took over the panel discussion in Aspen in a way that thrilled all of us in the audience.

“I was only writing my life story,” she said, “with no intention of it being read by anyone.”  One day, she was walking down the lane and a tall woman came toward her and congratulated her on the book.  “I told her, I’d never intended to get all this attention, and the woman said to me, ‘Stand by it. It’s your life. Stand by it.’”

I was so moved by her belief in the importance of women’s stories that I gifted her with a copy of In Search of Kinship, which now seems like a presumptuous thing to do.  A week later, I received a note from her.  She told me that she read my memoir on the return flight, cover to cover.  And when she finished, “I left it on my seat in the plane, so that it would gift the next traveler in the same way it had gifted me.”

Nuala died three years later, in 2008, of lung cancer.  Her message to us, even now, is to stand by our lives, to recognize that each emotion we experience ties us more deeply to all of humanity.  We do not need to destroy that which we love the most because we fear our own vulnerability in the face of that love.  We only need to move more deeply into what it means to be a human being.