The Edge of Sorrow

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“Providence sometimes foreshadows the future of men in dreams, not so that they may be able to avoid the sufferings fated for them, for they can never get the better of destiny, but in order that they may bear them with the more patience when those sufferings come; for when disasters come all together and unexpectedly, they strike the spirit with so severe and sudden a blow that they overwhelm it; while if they are anticipated, the mind, by dwelling on them beforehand, is able little by little to turn the edge of sorrow.”

Achilles Tatius in The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon

 

To say it less sublimely, —in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life

 

DNA is a relatively rigid polymer, typically modeled as a worm-like chain.  It has three significant degrees of freedom: bending, twisting and compression, each of which causes particular limitations on what is possible with DNA within a cell.  Bending or axial stiffness is important for DNA wrapping and circularization and protein interactions.  Twisting or torsional stiffness is important for the circularization of DNA and the orientation of DNA bound proteins relative to each other. Compression or extension is relatively unimportant in the absence of high tension.

PART ONE: BENDING

July 17, 1996

New York City, Upper West Side

Life’s din diminished some in the small moment when he pulled open his apartment window with such expectation that the last few inches the window flew up knew only his eagerness.  But on this day, July 17, 1996, the window got stuck halfway up.  He stared at it, hands on his hips, perturbed at the window’s unexpected stubbornness.  He loved watching the window reach its conclusion without him.  Humidity, no doubt.  Summer in the city.

He smacked it with the heel of his hands and muscled it open the rest of the way.

He placed his palms on the external, coarse sill and exhaled his frustration and leaned into the horizon – the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades across the way and the George Washington bridge just north beaming a dull evening gray.

He waited all day to tilt into the picture.  He loved the patience evening brought, especially in mid summer when the heat and humidity pressed against him.  He arched his back and stretched and inhaled the tide’s dank odor.

He panned down six stories and set his eyes on an incongruous dance of Poodles and Labradoodles and French Bulldogs and a Great Dane and a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua and a couple of Golden Retrievers held easily by a dog walker in a weathered Yankee baseball cap.

The dogs sniffed the smells coming from a square earth and lifted their legs to trees and squatted when they recognized something.   The dog walker was graceful, never entangled in the leashes held to one hand, then the other, the exchanges fluid and experienced as if it was all meant to be like this.

The Great Dane and the Chihuahua and the Bulldog dumped together, responding to some great secret unknown to man.  The rest waited, and the dog walker studied them.

A country dog doesn’t lift his leg to a tree, not always, not necessarily, thought Dr. Raúl Sicard.  There’s no reason to, no threat to its territory.  The country dog roams unencumbered across a larger earth and squats.

Dr. Raúl Sicard wanted to believe that there was some luck to his life.  That would be romantic.  But luck had little play.   His life was ordained, a design with some options guided by the instinct to survive.  He was sure of it.  He was certain Darwin was right.  Adaptation and creativity go hand-in-hand and life is one large adaptation atoning to the unforeseeable – otherwise extinction follows.

Dr. Sicard, Raúl, often thought about his responsibility – the study of gene-environment interactions and how selection evaluates these relations.   For over a year – since his doctorate in Genetics, Stanford University – Raúl examined ecologically important genes in a shimmering lab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in the upper west side of Manhattan.

During his breaks, when he managed to will his head up from a microscope, Raúl strolled to the George Washington Bridge to study its scars.   He went to the bridge to be away from the lab’s sterility, its shiny evangelical promise, and smell the clammy mid summer air, feel the earth beneath his feet, perspire like everyone else pushing through lives.

He studied the wounds on the bridge’s underbelly to see if they said anything about the fifty-five forgotten men left to the silence of time.  He craned his head until his neck pained him and stiffened, and wondered.

It helped keep his head focused on where things come from and maybe he could make evolutionary predictions, establish principles.  At Columbia Presbyterian, Raúl wanted to understand what reproductive strategies must be used in the future to minimize stress on our tired biosphere.  He depended on histories.  He looked for stories in the smallest of things, cells.  He looked for sure signs.

But when he pulled open his apartment window and stepped into the frame he didn’t want to continue thinking about limitations and outcomes.  He was done with the censors and motivators that exist in the brain and that deeply and unconsciously affect ethical premises.  The day was over.   He wanted to leave it behind.

He wanted to lose himself in the dog walker – an adaptation, an offspring that survived it all so far.   A ancient herdsman, perhaps, like the ones we see on elysian fields in travel brochures to Scotland and Ireland and France, now a dog walker.

Haitian women rushed stately blue strollers with large white wheels around the dog walker scooping up the steamy remains with a hand gloved in a baggie.  The other held the dog web.

Up and down Riverside Drive and across Joan of Arc Park, in the promising glow of summer evening, went these intertwining objects – the dog walkers and the Haitian women and their stately strollers.

When the phone rang and the sadness arrived and pushed aside everything familiar to him and stopped him from stretching as far as he could into the picture of the Palisades knocking at him.

He held the grainy sill and turned to the ring that tempted the faith he found in his routines.

There was a weight in the room that came out of nowhere – yet it was old and familiar, in the pit of his stomach, a sense of things lost, gloom.

Raúl faced the phone.  He held the sill with his left hand, unable to give it up all the way, and leaned in.

The knots in his spine that would otherwise crack and unwind the fatigue that amassed from hours curled over a microscope deciphering the nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms tightened.

The sadness multiplied.  He had no explanation for it, dumbfounded.  He liked knowing where things came from, how they evolved, what changed them, how they appear.  How things appear even suddenly like the ring of the phone that hung in the air with the sadness.

He traced his steps for signs.  Just a few moments before the first ring he entered his apartment and dropped the keys in the bowl on the table beneath the mirror near the front door and draped his lab coat over the chair meant just for that otherwise it would be useless.  Grabbed a beer and turned on the TV for noise.   But at some point that day, the sadness must have begun to set in unnoticed.  Maybe the sadness had been there all along.

The phone rang again.

He could consider the ring’s origin or rather the origin of the intuition he had that came with the ring and told him that something happened and he was involved.  But that was too much, too far to go.

Something traveled the distance and found him and opened a black hole and he didn’t want to be present.  He didn’t want to be sucked in.  Know its spiral history.  This is what humans do, he thought, run for cover – and wait and adapt slowly, hopefully.  Those that can’t adapt don’t make it, ever.   They have no hope.  Hope grows from adaptation.  It’s the single most important characteristic of evolution, adaptation.  From here, all springs forth – but especially hope.  No hope, no survival.  And the end, the true end of everything.

Raúl looked out the window and off in the east the moon was already there.

“It’s always already there,” he said, pushing out a whisper, a way to test his voice and see if he wasn’t dreaming.  “Like everything else.  Six inches from our noses.  Always.”

The ring told him that events had unfolded and suddenly just like that he was in.  He had been on one side of the looking glass and now on the other side nothing was recognizable.  A chill ran up his spine.  He felt bound.  In the lab life laid down road signs, roots to instincts that he could quantify.  There was nothing to measure here.

He turned and inhaled again, just to take a final whiff of the thick, clammy air. Maybe, just maybe what he was feeling was all an illusion, a figment of his exhausted imagination.  But  nothing. He lost the scent.

He retraced himself.  But there was no way to revise the day, see it fully in memory’s half-light.  The phone pawed at him trying to get to where the heart is.

After working in the lab he and friends sat in a sidewalk café across from Lincoln Center and had Brooklyn summer ales and dreamt of things that may never come to pass.  On a  cloudless bright day, they descended into the murky subway station on 161st and took the train to 72nd Street and strolled to 64th.   It was a who cares and so what moment, he called it, because in the design of things, who knows – really – what the next moment can bring.  It was important to have a philosophy, something to hold him up.

When everything is touched by the human hand, he believed, randomness takes on a whole different meaning.  It conceals the real order.  It assumes a privileged place.  But randomness itself is part of the order of things.  He knew that – that’s what he saw swimming on a microscope’s stage.

Wednesdays are halfway moments between the noise that is and the noise that was.   And the noise that’s yet to arrive unannounced is always there too.  That’s how Raúl saw things.  But we never hear the noise that’s yet to come, ever.

He allowed himself a smoke on Wednesdays, a Marlboro Light.  Often more then one.  He dangled it from his mouth like his father did – “It’s just social,” his father said.  Raúl took his time with it, sat back and rubbed his right hand across his unshaven face all in one smooth motion. He liked nothing better than not shaving on days like this because it showed that he was in the thick of it, living.  He rubbed his hand across his face and chin a couple of times.  There was comfort in seeing himself like this, not saying anything of importance, pointing to interesting passersby, with each puff challenging alterations deep in the nomenclature of life in the helix.  But it didn’t matter.  Everything is already determined.  Everything.  We fool ourselves thinking that it’s not.

A Guatemalteco on the corner selling dolls with bouncing heads, a Jamaican next to him selling antique copies of Paris Match and Look and National Geographic in several languages, the skinny invisible woman with tattoos of crosses and peace signs on either hand and barely able to stand on the corner waiting for pedestrians to push by and she’d mumble spare some change as they forget her, a picture of an extinction, something that no one wants to see intimately, the end of an adaptation.  Someone’s daughter.  A failure to create.  She was being run over by the evolving.  She would not be.  It’s been determined like this, how it all goes. No second chances.  No overtime.

When the phone rang he was having a beer in his apartment and getting ready to meet friends again that night to ogle girls in a bar somewhere near Columbia University.  No commitments, just ogling.  Everyone on the same page gauging each other’s reproductive investments.

He tried ignoring the third ring, its persistence.  It came from somewhere deep in the coil, he was certain of that too.  All things do.  That’s the design.  Wednesday, July 17, 1996 was determined long ago.

He turned to the hum of the TV.  It helped him think and it distracted him, made his life noisier even though it wasn’t his.  Now it was his life.  He grabbed his beer, waiting for the phone to ring again, wondering whether to answer or to let the answering machine do the work and buy him time.  He gulped his beer.

On the TV, a voice over a static map of Long Island filled the room with sadness.  That’s when the phone rang a fourth time, its red flash igniting the papers on the desk next to it and the bills waiting for another week.   An inexorable eye looking back at him.

Nothing mattered now.  Except the fifth ring.  Its sound hung in the air, hollow.  The phone and the TV.  Wednesday’s safety was gone.

 

At 8:45P.M, eleven minutes after take-off from Kennedy International Airport, TWA flight 800, bound for Paris, France, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island.  Witnesses say they saw a bright flash in the sky.  But nothing is certain.  There are no causes known at this time.  The Coast Guard responded immediately, dispatching numerous search and rescue vessels.  The New York City Police Department, the New York State Police Department, and the Suffolk County Police Department have all responded as well.  The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team from New Jersey.  And we’ve been informed that numerous private vessels are also involved in this initial search and recovery effort…

 

The phone rang again.

“Papá,” he whispered.

Raúl said it just to hear himself say it, to test its feel and the emptiness that arrives with flashes from a life lived, rattles you and tempts your faith, a specter that arrives in the weak light of suffering memory.

“Papá,” he whispered again.

It filled the room, repeating itself, over and over again and again, dying to reappear, always.

“Papá.   Papá.”

It overwhelmed everything.  The sanctity of his routine, the lab, the dog walkers and their dogs crapping and the Haitian maids and their Cadillac strollers.

He picked up the phone and staggered.

He felt him there, the ghost of his father standing beside him as still as recollections tend to be where light suddenly is as darkness and the darkness is where we are and where we will be.  Where the problems of the heart live.  The sadness was new and full.

********************

Continue Reading:

Edge of Sorrow – Second Movement

Edge of Sorrow – Third Movement

 

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ISSUE 74: Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here? by Mark Edmundson

Well, well, well … seem to be on the same page with Edmundson – great.

 

Education has one salient enemy in present-day America, and that enemy is education—university education in particular. To almost everyone, university education is a means to an end. For students, that end is a good job. Students want the credentials that will help them get ahead. They want the certificate that will give them access to Wall Street, or entrance into law or medical or business school. And how can we blame them? America values power and money, big players with big bucks. When we raise our children, we tell them in multiple ways that what we want most for them is success—material success. To be poor in America is to be a failure—it’s to be without decent health care, without basic necessities, often without dignity. Then there are those back-breaking student loans—people leave school as servants, indentured to pay massive bills, so that first job better be a good one. Students come to college with the goal of a diploma in mind—what happens in between, especially in classrooms, is often of no deep and determining interest to them.

 

Read more of what Mark Edmundson has to say in the Oxford American …

 

an evening with , June 13th, 20005. http://www...

an evening with , June 13th, 20005. http://www.cityarts.net/n.wiseman.html (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

And, along these lines, Frederick Wiseman‘s new documentary, “At Berkeley,” may prove to be quite interesting.  Here’s tidbit from a review in The New York Times by Stephen Holden:

 

In its refusal to identify anyone by name or job title, this four-hour film — Mr. Wiseman’s 38th institutional documentary since 1967 — makes a profound statement about democratic participation. It’s not the “me, but the “we,” that keeps democracy alive. From the humblest janitor to the most esteemed professor, everyone belongs to the same community and is equally important. The modern university is a complex organism that, to function efficiently, needs every component, including someone to cut the grass.

 

 

The Real PRISM Story: The Silencing of Dissent

DISSENT : To differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority; to disagree with the methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government; take an opposing view; difference of sentiment or opinion; disagreement with the philosophy, methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government.

There are 2 challenges facing us post the PRISM story that define a history of efforts to curtail dissent, though dissent is essential for democracy:

  1. The U.S. government approved — and reconciled itself with — the PRISM program without much debate. The public didn’t even know about it. The public sphere has been carefully eliminated by partisanship and media’s propensity for the extreme. This, more then any other story is the critical story of the PRISM leak.
  2. The U.S. citizen is literally clueless about surveillance and the trail we leave behind, which begins the moment we’re born and we receive our social security numbers in our utter innocence. It begins here — then we’re cataloged, followed through school, tax forms (in my case: selective service during Vietnam, and service in the USN), drivers license, marriage certificate, diplomas, CV’s, etc.

DISSENTERS: U.S. history is synonymous with dissent; their voices and struggles created this country. Someone like Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s original theological philosophers, was a dissenter. Dissenters landed on Plymouth Rock, in 1620, 83 years before Edward’s birth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, and his prodigal son, Henry David Thoreau dissented. A long line of American writers — Hutchinson and Bradstreet, Hawthorne and Melville, Whitman and Dickenson — through to Faulkner, say, and Zora Neal Hurston, who died a relative unknown, in 1960, until Alice Walker found her unmarked grave, in the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida, are dissenting voices speaking against the status quo.

The point I’m making is that the evolution of the American character — our beliefs, our personality, our energy and our dedication to civil rights and social justice — is synonymous with dissent; however, as we’ve journeyed into our very tenebrous times, media, corporate sponsored government and our entertainment industries have all worked assiduously to homogenize the American character, thus the American experience. Homogenization, on a mass scale like this, is, first and foremost, how dissent is repressed; it’s also how propaganda parades as truth. And from this lens, how people — and language and actions — are criticized, which is to judge. It’s why John Boehner can call Edward J. Swoden, the individual that leaked PRISM, “a traitor”. This is the same John Boehner that would parade through the halls of congress with wads of tobacco cash asking his colleagues to take it; this is the same Speaker of the House whose leading five contributors are AT&T, Murray Energy, First Energy Corp, American Financial Group and the Boehner for Speaker Committee.

Who is a trader to whom?

Edward Said is dead, as is Howard Zinn. Noam Chomsky is 85 years old. How long can he keep fighting the good fight? Bernie Sanders is all alone, a lone voice. Naomi Kline is working hard, and only 43. If you think, unless you’ve tuned into Democracy Now!, with another dissenter, Amy Goodman, and WBAI, something like that, nowhere in our crowded networks does one hear a single voice of dissent, ever. Colbert, Stewart and Maher are our contemporary — and popular — dissenters, speaking to the choir, but their comedy goes along, it reminds us that all we can do is poke fun at the lies, deceit and idiocy because we have to live what we have. Hell, Rush Limbaugh, for god’s sake, sees himself as a dissenting voice.

Where are we?

In Chatter:  Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, Patrick Radden Keefe (2006) describes the Echelon project, the largest invisible eavesdropping architecture in the world:

The United States is the dominant member of a secret network, along with four other Anglophone powers — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — that intercepts the chatter of people around the world. The pact between thee countries was initiated a half a century ago, in a document so secret that its existence has never been acknowledged by any of the governments involved: the UKUSA agreement. The network these countries have developed collects billions of telephone calls, e-mails, faxes, and telexes every day and distributes them, through a series of automated channels, to interested parties in the five countries. In this manner, the United States spies on its NATO allies, and the United Kingdom spies on its EU allies; the network supercedes any other ties of loyalty… Signals intelligence, or Sigint, in the shorthand of politicos and spies, is the little-known name for listening in that it is used today by the eavesdroppers themselves. Eavesdropping has become an extraordinarily cutting-edge game, with listening stations inhaling conversations bounced via satellites and microwave towers; spy satellites miles above in space tuning in on radio frequencies on the ground; and silent and invisible Internet bugs clinging, parasitelike, to the nodes and junctures of the information superhighway…Though many Americans are not even aware that it exists, the National Security Agency, the American institution in charge of electronic eavesdropping, is larger than the CIA and the FBI combined…[And] Like any good conspiracy theory, this one contains important elements of truth. Like any good conspiracy, it is also nonfalsifiable: while it might be impossible to prove it’s all true, it’s also impossible to prove that it’s not, and the theory thrives on official denials and refusals to comment.

Has anyone read Chatter? Has anyone seen Patrick Radden Keefe interviewed, particularly since the PRISM story broke? Exactly.

In England’s North Yorkshire moors, Keefe reports, in cow country, “lies the most sophisticated eavesdropping station on the planet.” The five Anglophone powers — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — share it. British military police stand guard in front of a sign that reads: RAF Menwith Hill.

What we’re experiencing is a perfect storm right now: a long standing pact between certain powerful nations that created a world-wide — and very powerful — surveillance system; the unfettered dominance of the world’s largest electronic surveillance security agency, the NSA; corporate owned government that by design has to do nothing, because that’s what it’s asked by sponsors, and instead — also by design — harps on ideologies while privileging social issues over human rights and social justice, and dismantles public education; and the slow decay of dissent via entertainment and education, the only outlets for citizens, which is why mediated sports and pornography are the top sellers, followed closely by reality TV.

Very effectively, alternative voices — and alternative points of view — are marginalized through ridicule because they’re different, unable to adhere to jingoistic idealism, the bane of our existence.

The real story of the PRISM leak is here — in how dissent has been slowly silenced and how any alternative point of view, when voiced, is immediately rejected and ridiculed because it’s not following the ruling — and mediated — ideologies of our time, lending our age a certain degree of shiftiness, giving us a sense of transit where complexity — and complex figures — are introduced to produce, in us, an inside and an outside that figure to confuse our identity.

On Being: Lessons From the Farm — Life, Death and Self-Reliance

For my Students in the Fall 2012 First Year Seminar, Voices

and for Jon

I don’t know how I got to where I am, where I’ve arrived. At my age, soon to be 59, we’re suppose to know, have some answers. I don’t. It’s as if life just happened and I went along, foggy.

Did I direct my life or was it directed for me? Who’s the director of my life? Anyone’s, for that matter?

My first instinct is to turn to literature for answers to questions like this; literature is our keystone, the arbiter of confusing dreams. Literature and art have been with me all my life, they’re friends, guides.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Book 1 of his Confessions, speaks to my core: “I alone. I know my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence.” This is not a conceit. It is. That’s all. It simply is what comes to me after I ask, “Who’s the director of my life?” It comes from not knowing; it’s the feeling of being out of sorts, different. And it may have everything to do with having lived in two very different cultures.

My mother tells me that I’m traveling pathways paved long ago. She tends towards mysticism: my ground was set, she says, between 1294 and 1324, in Monatillou, France, when Pierre Maury shepherded his sheep across the Pyrenees into Spain for wintering. My mother argues that we descend from this Cathar line of heretics. This might account for my rebelliousness, my always ongoing push against any and all constraints; this may account for my disdain for authority, too. It may also suggest why I find myself on a farm raising sheep.

My sister tells me that my entire life has lead to this critical point, and that it has something to do with my immediate past, filled with recollections of my grandfather – ranchero, un campesino in Argentina’s Pampas, and my own father and mother on horseback in the hills and valleys of La Cumbre, Argentina. There are pictures of me sitting on horseback, my mother or my father holding me in the saddle. There’s one of me on a burro, my uncle Julio holding me in place. There are images of me chasing chickens towards my grandmother — then she’d grab one by the neck, whirl it around close enough to my face to touch me, bleed it at my feet, and dunk it in scalding water. We’d feather it together and she’d force my tiny hands into its warm cavity so that I’d pull out its lungs. Seems as if I’ve always had this genteel country life at my back urging me along.

But I still don’t know. I don’t know how or why I’ve come to this place.

I live in Vermont. I teach at Middlebury College. Eighteen or so years ago, when teaching in NYC and our youngest son was in diapers, fast asleep in the car seat, my wife, Nina, and I drove through Middlebury. We were dreaming. And she said to me in our fantastic conversation, “Why can’t you teach here? It’s beautiful.” I replied, “They don’t take people like me here.” Fifteen years later, here I am. Middlebury knocked on my door and asked me to join them — and changed my life in the process.

Who directed whom to what?

I’m not sure why — or even how, still, but here I am on a 47 acre gentleman’s farm (for lack of a better way of saying it) trying to make what to outsiders may look like two lives work. But they’re really one: what I do as a professor in an elite, residential liberal arts college and what I do on my small, always changing farm are one in the same. I can indeed see that much — but little else.

Students always ask, “How did you get here?” When they’re really asking, How does an immigrant from Argentina end up a professor in Vermont? (Student’s questions are never what comes out of their mouths; they’re always looking for something else, more, a deeper inquiry.)

Answer: I don’t know. It just is.

Here’s what I do know. “This is what I have done,” says Rousseau, “what I have thought, what I was … I may have assumed the truth of that which I knew might have been true, never of that which I knew to be false.” It’s good enough for me.

Middlebutry College gave me room to run, a luxurious open field to experiment as a teacher and a scholar – writer, conflating all my interests — technology, teaching, literature and culture and writing. It’s not surprising that the college is in the heart of Vermont — the Middle. Vermont has brought me back to Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s notion of self-reliance:

Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that never took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

From the first moment I read Self-Reliance as an undergraduate, these words have haunted me. My spiritual, American father is Ralph Waldo Emerson, in my mind always decadent, always an aesthete, always the father of American philosophy, something that’s grand and strong, unique, and that gives rise to so much, politically, culturally, and, yes, even technologically in this country.  But we may have forgotten this.

I always claimed to be misunderstood, not because I’m comparing myself to Pythagoras or Socrates, say, or even Emerson himself — that would be too daunting; rather, my misunderstanding with the world comes about because I refuse to settle and be inhabited by the conditions I find myself in. Instead, I have always chosen to abandon these, to leave these constructions behind, as just that, constructions, and abandon myself to my instincts, my sense of what Rosseau says is the truth I find in my eyes.

A Truth: There’s nowhere to hide on a farm. The animals — in my case, sheep, chickens, a cow (the second) — need attending, constantly. I am tied to their cycles, to the always present rhythms of nature. Fall into winter, where we are now, at 9 degrees F this Friday morning, the 30th of November, one week left of regular classes before exams; then dead winter and our January term; it slides into Spring — and the term begins in February; which slides into the bliss of spring, graduation’s anxious joy, and summer and the rest of life. The agricultural calendar and the school’s calendar are strangely in sync. And the rhythms of my body with them both. I adapt and negotiate the life of the farm with the constructed semester and the merciless whim of nature that, like this morning’s Artic blast, is indifferent to my freezing fingers, even under thick gloves.

No matter what Nature presents — Nature + the Human Hand, that is — I have to be out there, inside it, learning, making choices, adjusting moment – to – moment, staring into the eyes of my animals — the chickens, the ewes and their lambs, the cow — to see what they’re telling me about how they want to live.  They depend on me — I them.

My wife says that all animals thrive under my hand. My sense of things is that I’m merely responding to what they’re asking of me. It began long ago, it seems now.

Chelsey on SunciWe had horses long ago — 4. This was when our daughter, a great equestrian from a very young age, rode; she did dressage at college, too, competing and doing quite well in the NCAA’s. But like all children, she moved on and I was left a groom to 4 very large horses — a Belgian draft (17.2 hands), a draft-cross, looking like a warm blood (17 hands), and two other draft-crosses, a paint (15 hands or so) and a cross with a black like the night Percheron (15 hands, too).

Andy

Horses are a unique animal. They’re a flight animal: when they scare they fly. But they’re social, too, and want to trust. A huge horse, like my Belgian, can feel the touch of a fly on his rump. The horse is sensitive; it needs to be approached quietly, slowly but with a kind of strength and security that it can trust. Much like students. If a teacher is too agressive, the student flies away, literally and figuratively. To get to where the heart is, which is all that matters in teaching, really, particularly if we’re wanting students to be self-actualizing citizens, we have to proceed with great imagination, treading lightly, finding our way in their worlds — but with strength, a secure touch and resolve. A horse is like this. I listen better because of my horses. I see better too — perhaps because I spent years learning the horse’s language, the twiching, the movement of the ears, the eyes.

Virgil Rocket, the Belgan

My teaching and my farming have expanded together — and become one.  My education is pretty traditional. I have a PhD in American and English Literature from NYU. I wrote my dissertation on Henry James and aesthetic decadence — and Emerson featured heavily. But mysteriously, adaptively, I teach classes in literature, composition, education studies and, now, environmental studies. I’ve been teaching since 1985, and have done so in poor schools, rich schools, private schools, public schools; I’ve been fortunate enough, given the kind of academic work I’ve done, to have spent time with students in every single grade, K-16, and graduate students. I’ve done projects, assignments, courses in each and every level. I’ve had to learn to adjust quickly; it has forced me to learn — a lot — from various disciplines, which is usually not the norm for a college professor that, even as far back as undergraduate studies, s/he works in silos.

I, on the other hand, can argue that Emerson really begins the technological revolution we’re experiencing today; it could have happened no place else but here, in the USA. What does this mean? It means that my life, as I see it and understand it, has been a series of adjustments — call these adaptations.   Adaptation is how we all evolve.

In The Location of Culture Homi K. Bhabha contends that, “Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the boundaries of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.”

Don’t we feel this? Don’t we feel this “living on the boundaries” of this or that, “in the moment of transit” and complexity, so much so that we’re unsure of our centers?

The farm centers me. I understand that now. It protects me. I’ve abandoned myself to its life, its subtle language. It’s more powerful and significant then I am. But it’s hard, very hard.  “Let’s face it,” says Ben Hewitt, author of The Town That Food Saved“Farming is damn hard work, typically done for damnable pay … You don’t get to sprawl across the sofa masticating rinds and watching American Idol unless someone else is growing the food.”

FrankyAlmost a year ago this coming January, Franky, our Holstein, had to fulfill its promise.

The hand-raised, docile steer — all 750 beautiful lbs — is feeding our family, others too, friends and so on.

That was the mission, the goal: what can we produce to sustain ourselves, while looking to sustain others? What can we do organically, working with the land’s language, learning it, and letting it help us use it, but making sure we were nurturing it?

These questions were our early business plan, a design for a different future. I was trading in my Henry James for Wendell Berry and Joel Salitin, for Ben Hewitt that, up here in Vermont, is showing us how we can change, how we can live embracing a fortified self-reliance.

Garde

Sustainability requires we come into dialog with death. Eventually, it comes. It has to. Death is always present on the farm; it’s always also present in life outside of the farm, too, but we have so many distractions — particularly those mediated ones that profit from death, cover death, excite us through images of death — to help us repress this most creative of realities about life. Life is death. When we look at the fast-moving hands of a clock, is not that a reminder of the end of things? When we look at photographs taken yesterday, a month ago, several years ago, are these not meant to excite memories of a time lost, gone, left behind? In museums, what are we looking at?

The notion that we have to abandon one thing for another, constantly, is something I’ve come to accept. The challenge is to not abandon yourself and keep to a view, a wide view.

On the day of his death, I slowly walked Franky out of his stall. I had him on a rope halter and he looked at me playfully, as he’d done thousands of times before when we played in one of the paddocks. I’d chase him. He’d stop and face me. We’d challenge each other. He’d half – charge, as if he knew his power would certainly crush me. Eventually he’d settle and I’d sratch his huge head, the one that I would eventually carry to the back of our property and bury in the cold.

In January it will be a year since we put him down. We’ve enjoyed him immensely since. “Go get Franky,” we say to each other when we want a cut of him waiting in the freezer in the basement. We say, “Thank you, Franky,” when he graces our table. Franky was the first. It’s taken me a year, almost, to write about this, to come to terms with how I feel about what we’re doing, but on the day of his death, I was okay. It was natural, a course that he and I were on. We both had a purpose; there was order; we’d helped each other — and he was going to carry on, help all of us through.

I slowly walked him into the barrel of gun. In a split second it was over and we were raising him up to prepare him for the butcher.

I put my hands inside him; it was warm, soothing. As he hung there, I was in awe of his beauty, his mass, his gift to us. This is what moved me to look deeply into his dead eyes that were once so playful. I wanted to reach for him, thank him, tell him, Gracias hombre. Like that, in Castellano, like my campesino grandfather must have done before me — and before, his father, and before  that, Pierre. Backwards and forwards like that, the same human action, the same human urge to produce, to nurture, to sustain inside the cycle of an indifferent nature. Ironic. How indifferent nature is to our wailing at windmills is always ironic. In such irony, the most intimate relationships, even with an animal — or perhaps especially with an animal — are what matter most. There’s the possibility of changing anything with intimacy.

I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real — life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted.

Sheep with Chief

The Ever-Receding Future

Dedication: For My Students @ Middlebury

To say it less sublimely, —in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life

Common myth says that a person doesn’t choose a horse—the horse finds his owner.

We’re unsure when or how our accumulated knowledge becomes our very own signature—nor if it ever becomes so since our antecedents are eternally lurking, ghosts whispering in our ears; we are not even sure how much experience and study will be required for us to lay claim to the recognition that this or that is known, completely ours.

So what we do is wait—we prepare and we conjecture and we project, we assume, and we wait for the dawn of the day when we’ll rise and pull open a curtain on to the universe we’ve imagined and suddenly there it is, a slight tug, a pull, a subtle but simple realization that everything we do is somehow interconnected. And we smile—but we don’t know exactly how we got to this point, to this intimate acquaintance with ourselves, a state of familiarity with everything we do, every gesture. Since we have been so used to waiting and projecting, so accustomed to assuming what might be us, when a moment of certainty comes we mistrust it. Take you as ‘twere some distance knowledge of him, says Shakespeare in Hamlet. We see a ghost of ourselves—a version of some imagined being; we’re not quite sure what to make of what we see and feel then. We look to the poets and philosophers—are they the true antecedents to who we are? —to help us along and fill us in on what we may be silently feeling and thinking. W. B. Yeats tells us that the “aged man” is nothing but “a paltry thing”; nothing but “a tattered coat upon a stick.” What hope is there when the single most significant recognition we can lay claim to is that life has passed us by much too quickly? That the world is moving much too rapidly for our desperate need to recognize ourselves in it all—the trees and the birds; the oceans and the sky; the people; the mountains and the deserts; the buildings and the bridges, the made-made wonders of iron, steel and plastic; the bits and bytes of our metaphorical expressions of ourselves?

We have to be ready for it—the ah ha moment; be alert and aware; sense ourselves in the world. See the world for what it is—and what it’s not.

But our world—fast-paced, information driven, globally networked through fiber and nature and plastic mechanisms—works against our need to attain knowledge through time—time enough to be aware, time enough to realize ourselves within a moment in history and define its relevance, and time enough to be, simply to be in it, the world, and thus define who we are.

To be knowledgeable is to possess a great deal of awareness. This suggests that intelligence is achieved through maturity—the condition of being ripe or fully grown, especially mentally or emotionally. For this we need nurturing. Our age, though, is really about setting forth, being independent, growing up fast and furiously, consuming early. “Every spirit makes its house,” says Emerson; “but afterwards,” he tells us, “the house confines the spirit.” The houses we’ve built protect us, we assume—but they also confine us and create border conflicts among us. We appear destined to rebel against our very own architectures. There is something there that does not love the confinement of our house; it is the knowledge, gained almost too late, that what we have erected is marred by ways to obfuscate and avoid, defer and repress, alienate and accuse.