Sand County Saturdays - "things natural, wild, and free"

There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.  These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

Thus begins the Foreward to Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, a work I recently posted about as being one of the most life-changing in my experience thus far.  I have decided to reread it in preparation for a documentary film screening upcoming in February, and I am hoping to make Saturdays until then an ongoing commentary on my reading of it.  Today begins my return to Sand County.

In the foreward, Leopold says, "Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.  Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free" (vii).  This question is even more true today, perhaps, than when Leopold penned it in 1948.  Leopold divides this work into three sections: the first focuses on his family's "refuge from too much modernity," known to them as 'the shack.'  Of the shack, he writes:
we try to rebuild, with shovel and with axe, what we are losing elsewhere.  It is here that we seek - and still find - our meat from God. (viii)
Undoubtedly, this book had a profound impact on me almost 15 years ago, and I have a smallish collection of quotes from it copied down in a little wire-bound notebook.  This passage is not among them, and I'm certain it resonates with me now because of the differences time and life have brought since then.  One of the reasons we are moving again is, in a sense, a part of seeking refuge, seeking the kind of "meat from God" that I believe comes through investing in, engaging with, and giving back to a place.  We have been missing that kind of investment for awhile, and though our current situation has brought many blessings, it is this kind of commitment to axe and shovel that has me so energized about our upcoming transition.

Leopold closes the Foreward with a brief explanation of what is meant by his land ethic, and I quote it rather lengthily here because I truly believe it could not be more important nor more true.
We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.  ... That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.  That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.  These essays attempt to weld these three concepts.  Such a view of land and people is, of course, subject to the blurs and distortions of personal experience and personal bias.  But wherever the truth may lie, this much is crystal clear: our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.  The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build then, or even to turn off the tap. (viii-ix)
In section 1, Leopold divides his essays by the month and organizes chronologically, and though I will not stretch my reading of this book over the whole year, it makes a tidy kind of sense to be starting in January with him.


Jean Ritchie

Often, I don't comment on my work-related reading because I don't want to alienate people who just are not that into Appalachian Political Economy or Rhetoric & Composition Theory or whatever rabbit trail I might find myself bouncing down.  But occasionally, I find my academic reading and my personal reading so well-entwined that I must share.  And though checking out ANOTHER library book when I'm supposed to be reading down my TBR shelves is not so much in the helpful department, I couldn't resist Jean Ritchie's Singing Family of the Cumberlands.  Ritchie is an amazing folk singer from Kentucky, an activist and act-upper from way back.  If you want to know more, feel free to wikipedia to your heart's content.  Suffice it to say that her musical and political legacy is long and sweet.  Here she is singing one of her most famous songs.  And though her voice is poignant, it is her memoir that has me the most captivated.  It doesn't hurt that Maurice Sendak has provided small sketches to illustrate the memoir.  Or that this description of the mountains comes in the first chapter:
To stand in the bottom of any of the valleys is to have the feeling of being down in the center of a great round cup.  To stand on top of one of the narrow ridges is like balancing on one of the innermost petals of a gigantic rose, from which you can see all around you the other petals falling away in wide rings to the horizon.  Travelers from the level lands, usually the Blue Grass section of Kentucky to the west of us, always complained that they felt hemmed in by our hills, cut off from the wide skies and the rest of the world.  For us it was hard to believe there was any 'rest of the world,' and if there should be such a thing, why, we trusted in the mountains to protect us from it. (5-6)
Love this beautiful and oh-so-true talk about what it means to be in and from and of the mountains.  And looking forward to what else she has to say in this wonderful story of a life.


Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

It has been several years since I saw Chocolat.  So long, in fact, that I had actually forgotten Johnny Depp was in the movie.  This, mes cheries, is why I keep a book blog (formerly known as a journal): I forget everything.  Besides the beautiful JD, I am sure the whole French thing had something to do with my appreciation of this movie.  Whatever the reason, it was enough to get me to pick up Joanne Harris' Five Quarters of the Orange - also set in France - at the used bookstore sometime in the last year.  Harris wrote Chocolat, which I have not read, but I have had this one on the shelves for awhile.  Ooh.  Remind me to tell you more about my TBR shelves later.  Don't let me forget.

So.  Food.  Harris likes to build her tales around it, I presume, as there was all that chocolate in Chocolat and a lot of other deliciousness in Five Quarters of the Orange.  In this one, though, food plays a prominent while still bizarrely understated role.  The narrator, Framboise, (like her mother) is an excellent cook; there are several restaurant owners and chefs in the family; a recipe book plays an important part in the unfolding of the plot; several characters are named after foods; and the narrator's mother has a neural or psychological disorder that causes her to smell oranges just before the onset of crippling migraines.  But there is very little enjoyment taken in all this attention to food.  It is mentioned constantly, but it is just mentioned rather than savored or lingered over.  Put it this way: I did not read this book and feel inspired to cook.

It is a dark tale about the narrator, her mother, her siblings, and their German-occupied town during the war.  The story unfolds haltingly, by design, because Harris wanted to mimic the reluctance and burdensome nature of telling these secrets the narrator has been holding for so long.  Something happened in that town for which the narrator's mother was blamed, something which has become well-known, making her mother somewhat infamous.  These things we are told on the back of the book.  But what we aren't told is the reason for the whole book, and Framboise takes her time getting there.  Though the telling of the story in that jerky fashion makes sense, it did not help this reader invest fully in the story.  Even immediately after finishing it, I wasn't sure why the mother would have become widely known for what happened.  Though dramatic on a personal or familial level, I can't imagine anyone caring that much about it very many years later.  I also didn't really understand the narrator's relationship with Paul.  The author tries to explain how he could seem really dumb, borderline mentally disabled, but sometimes he was a thoughtful, complex, and intelligent person.  How does that work exactly?  I didn't understand why Framboise didn't appreciate him more from the beginning, and I really didn't care very much once their relationship began to grow.  It just didn't gel for me.  Perhaps it was more complex than I was interested in at this point, but I'm afraid it is more likely to have been more complex than the author was able to make work.  So this one will find its way back to the used bookstore sooner than later.

On that note, I have an announcement:  we're moving.  Again.  We're finally going to finish the renovations on our house and make the big move early this summer.  And yes, I know that it is only January, and yes, I know I already had this conversation about NOT moving all those unread books until I went ahead and moved most of them 2 years ago, but this time, I'm serious.  I am making a serious, public commitment to reading more of those TBR books between now and May.  I am making an even more serious commitment to not buying any more books before the move.  Is that possible for me, you think?  I did just order a copy of A Sand County Almanac today, but that one is definitely a keeper.  So, that's it.  Just me and the TBRs until May.  God help me.


Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold

Yesterday, the mailbox gave forth the latest issue of Garden & Gun magazine, a publication I resisted for some time (mostly because of the gun thing) before realizing it was a treasure trove of Southern culture and intelligentsia.  I made this realization after the first issue I saw featured Eudora Welty, and this realization continues to unfold with each month's delivery.  This month, I've only made it 26 pages in before having to take note of two or three different things, including the new book of photographs by Shelby Lee Adams called Salt & Truth and a Georgia farm making extra-virgin olive oil.  After being urged to the new and improved G&G website, I came across today's most valuable jewel: "Wendell Berry's Wild Spirit."

Regular readers know how much I admire Wendell Berry.  I am an unabashed fangirl in the face of his vast wisdom, wit, and words.  This relatively brief article highlights some of the reasons for my admiration.  The first page has Berry mentioning The Slow Communication Movement.  The article linked here indicates the idea has been around for awhile, but it sure is relevant to me today.  Case in point: our cordless phone died last week, so I plugged in an older (but not antiquated) corded phone in its place.  Since then, I have relished the uncommon practice of sitting still while on the phone.  So often, we communicate on the go: walking or driving while talking on the phone, texting while doing just about everything else, emailing in meetings or movies or even at dinner.  Allow me to suggest that being "tied down" is unbelievably freeing.  Even as I was growing frustrated while on hold for several minutes yesterday (all the while thinking I should be in the kitchen getting something done), I was reminded of how nice it is to be doing just this one, mindless thing in that moment.  That kind of intentional stillness is something I have long praised and sought in my life, and Wendell Berry is definitely one of the reasons for it.  Never read Berry and want to get a taste of his particular fervor?  Please read this great diatribe "Compromise, Hell!" published in 2004 in Orion.

Another of my environmental and literary idols is Aldo Leopold.  I remember the summer after I graduated and before I married, returning to my parents' farm.  I worked hay with my dad, me driving the old blue tractor that pulled the hay trailer, my dad using the newer tractor to lift the round bales onto the trailer.  It was a mundane job of stop and go, and most of my time was spent idling while dad was loading, so I took my library copy of A Sand County Almanac and literally felt my life being transformed as I read.  It was there that I first began to formalize my own land ethic and to become the person, the thinker, the environmentalist I am today.  I moved beyond my natural love of the mountains, the trails, and wild places and learned how to articulate the importance of those elements to society at large.  I'm thinking about Leopold today because I just found out about a documentary a colleague will be screening next month called Greenfire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time.  I'm looking forward to the film but am perhaps more excited about rereading A Sand County Almanac in preparation for that screening.  It has been almost 13 years since I read it first.  Will I find it changed?  What will it find changed in me?

In the last section of the Wendell Berry article, the author quotes Berry's 1971 essay "An Entrance to the Woods":
A man cannot despair if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.
My new class on Appalachia is focusing on the history of rebellion, protest, and activism in the mountains of Southern Appalachia.  My greatest hope is that my students will begin to understand these words of Berry's in a real way, that they will find the things which arouse their passions and which they deem worth fighting for, that they will imagine a better life and begin to enact something of its possibility.  Watching them take those first steps is like watching myself back on that tractor, feet propped on the steering wheel, book in hand, motor idling, life changing.


Book Snobbery vs Inspiration

I've had an interesting confluence of reading events lately:

First, I've had several conversations about The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins.  I finished Catching Fire last night and started Mockingjay, which I hope to finish soon.  Perhaps because people know me to be a book snob, I've had to explain my reasons for reading these wildly popular books.  See, if everyone else is reading it (I'm looking at you, Oprah!), I tend to shy away - at least for awhile and sometimes for good.  There's a Walmart mentality that takes over, and the rebel in me just does not want to do what everyone else is doing.  I think there is also a tiny smidge of truth to the thought that if everyone is reading it, it can't be very challenging, intellectually or politically/culturally/socially.  We just don't all agree on those big issues, and when books push back against our norms, many people simply refuse to engage with them.  For me, the pushback is one of the most important components of a successful reading experience.  I've said it before (and I'll say it again): for a book to reach the upper echelons for me, it needs to change me in some way.  I want to be challenged, intellectually and personally, and most of the time, the most popular books simply will not do that.

Conversely, a quick stroll around the bookblogahood this morning reminded me of what happens when readers recommend books to other readers.  There is, of course, a matter of personality and experience.  If you love murder mysteries, and I don't, no amount of praise is likely to get me to pick one up.  However, where those elements of personality can be blurred or set aside, we can really make room for some wonderful reading experiences courtesy of others.  This morning alone, I added 4 books to my list of things I'd like to read this year:  The Thorn and the Blossom by Theodora Goss, reviewed by Nymeth at things mean a lot; What it is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes; From Margin to Center by bell hooks; and The Submission by Amy Waldman. 

These last three came about from the conversation started by Rebecca at BookRiot regarding a universal required reading list.  Though it would be impractical and dictatorial in reality, the dreamy version of everyone being required to read certain books at different points in life would make the world a resoundingly different place.  Of course, my suggestions would draw from my relatively Anglocentric reading experience, but imagine if readers the world around could actually come together and make a Reading List, where we could learn from each other's artistry and cultural issues, where we could see the other and ourselves through different lenses, where we could, as the original post discusses, just have something to talk about over coffee or on a train?

Contrary to my first instinct, I think my suggestions for The List would be more contemporary than Classic.  Yes, it is important to understand from where we have come, and there would be some there, but the books that I would rank as being most important for everyone to read would be things like Michael Pollan's work on understanding where our food comes from today or Jonathan Kozol's work on the (relatively) current state of public education.  I would want adults everywhere to understand (although not necessarily agree with) the tenets of the world's major religions, so the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah would be on there.  I would include books that show us the humanity of other peoples, that inspire us to improve our communities, that help us talk about the difficult and universal truths of death, love, family, and place. 

What do you think?  And what would you add?  Make me a suggestion, friends. I'm apparently starting a List.


Happy New Year

I said: 'The wonder that I feel is easy,
   Yet ease is cause of wonder.  Therefore speak:
   I may not comprehend, may not remember.'
And he: 'I am not eager to rehearse
   My thought and theory which you have forgotten.
   These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
   By others, as I pray you to forgive
   Both bad and good.  Last season's fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
   For last year's words belong to last year's language
   And next year's words await another voice. (108-119)

-"Little Gidding" T. S. Eliot