Before Winter

We sit together around the wooden table in the dim kitchen,
and you pull the lamps closer.
This is after the ice storm that made it seem
like the city’s sole inhabitants were cyclonic gusts of snow
hanging down like columns from the orange sky.

This is time when heat is precious.

We spend ourselves recalling
the weight of that living summer.
We say, it was like ghost lightning out on the edge of vision.

Seems like it was just weeks ago
that the days opened up like orange flowers on the bean bush.
It seemed like we were stuck inside a story
somebody else was telling
and they were doing a damn good job of it.

The world is a scary place: there are flowers in it.
And yet, most of what we do
no longer reacts to the weather.
Maybe one of us will have to go.

West Virginia: Home, part 2

I just finished a book called The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich, a vivid collection of essays exploring the crooked path of her unexpected life — from a New York City Filmmaker to a Wyoming ranch hand. Something in Wyoming gripped her, and she spends the whole book trying to describe what it is, from the landscape in all its elements of rock and range and wind, to the people living in their individual complexities, sometimes far removed from the story of The West that Hollywood has mythicized.

Wyoming is not West Virginia, but I found I couldn’t help myself from feeling as though she was describing pieces of my life. When I first decided to move down here from Michigan, many of the people I told where I was going responded with reductive comments that I now understand serve to reinforce the stereotype of Appalachia and her people – the story that Hollywood tells us and codified. “Watch out for banjos in the woods!”

It was unsettling. I had read through the website of my prospective job and found nothing but positive momentum towards a stronger food-system; the kind of work that was interesting to me professionally. My interview was no different. As I started reading about the town I might live in, I became even more excited— this was a place where not only could I have access to great natural beauty, but might find good people. The way people talked about West Virginia made me realize I was moving to a place that was likely misunderstood. And not just misunderstood, but complicated. Ehrlich writes about the layers of living in Wyoming:

 “People here still feel pride because they live in such a harsh place, part of the glamorous cowboy past…”

“One of the myths about the West is its portrayal as “a boy’s world,” but the women I met – descendants of outlaws, homesteaders, ranchers, and Mormon pioneers — were as tough and capable as the men were softhearted.”

“The iconic myth surrounding [the cowboy] is built on American notions of heroism: the index of a man’s value as measured in physical courage. Such ideas have perverted manliness into a self-absorbed race for cheap thrills. In a rancher’s world, courage has less to do with facing danger than with acting spontaneously — usually on behalf of an animal or another rider.”

When talking about a place that is not wholly known, there is a tendency to exaggerate, to reduce, to simplify, to leave things out. I’ve been here 8 months and feel like I’m just starting to scratch the surface of knowing. And thankfully, my work allows me the ability to engage with people through food, which, among other things, is a way to start building a common set of shared experiences. Break the bread, share the meal, pass the pitcher. If it’s polarizing, you’re probably doing it wrong.

I had my own set of stereotypes for myself when I moved down here. I imagined myself out in the woods, learning the names of the plants, waking up early and trying to meditate mindfully over a bowl of scalding broth. I imagined exploring the wilderness and my own writing in a way that some of my favorite authors had done. Maybe I’d learn to chop some wood, build a fire, tie a knot. I thought I wanted these things – I thought I was putting myself in a place where this person I thought I wanted to be would have no choice but to appear, to break through my own tightened skin. It didn’t work. But I think I am starting to crack the code for being happy here.

“Living well here has always been the art of making do in emotional as well as material ways. Traditionally, at least, ranch life has gone against materialism and has stood for the small achievements of the human conjoined with the animal, and the simpler pleasures — like listening to the radio at night or picking out constellations. The toughness I was learning was not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation. I thought: to be tough is to be fragile; to be tender is to be truly fierce.”

What does West Virginia offer? Paradoxically, both space and closeness. Wilderness and expanse ignites my desire for connection. Sitting in my living room right now I can hear crickets and frogs, but when there was an art show in Fayetteville in May, 150+ people showed up—it was the only game in town. There is the opportunity to create what you need, a frontier that was not accessible to me in a city that seemed to be running like a top that had been set spinning long ago by some all-powerful force. Here, more than anywhere else I’ve been, I feel as though I am part of a larger but still visible whole. Professionally, yes, but also just living and being myself.

I went back to Michigan recently to visit my family, and found that my perception of what a vacation should be had shifted. I used to crave natural beauty, but now I can’t avoid it — just the other day, at twilight, I drove on the interstate back to Fayetteville from Charleston after a day of rain and around every tight turn there was a newly formed cloud between mountains that looked like an ethereal ceiling. Back in the mitten it was truly “vacation” when I was with my sisters, my family, my friends. We went up to Sleeping Bear Dunes, but it didn’t really matter.

I’ve decided to stay here, at my current job as an AmeriCorps VISTA, for another year. When I tell people this, they say, “So you’re loving it!” but I think it’s a little more grey. Living here has not been easy, but I believe it has been good for me.

“At the point of friction, a generosity occurs. The transition to autumn is a ritual like that: heat and cold alternate in a staccato rhythm. The magnetizing force of summer reverses itself so that every airplane flying over me seems to be going away. Heat lightning washes over and under clouds until their coolness drops down to us and then flotillas of storms bound through us as though riding the spring legs of a deer. I feel both emptied and brimming over.”

West Virginia: Home

I live on a hill. On one side of my house, the hill goes up. On the other, the hill goes down. The direction rain flows is a matter of perspective. Like many of the houses here, my house is relatively new, small, and cheap. We are raised up on cinderblocks, resting on the dirt. Dig too far down in West Virginia and you will find layers of ancient sedimentary stone. Basements are expensive ventures. On the downhill side, our front porch offers a broad view of the surrounding neighborhood: all of the houses are at different elevations, arrayed out in front of us like a hand of cards. To the right, one backyard has a very tall cluster of trees, hinting at the relative newness of this neighborhood. Beyond the trees is the Fayetteville town park, with 2 baseball diamonds, a skate park, and a basketball court. I knew winter was almost over when I started hearing the sound of kids playing little league. Beyond the park is the woods, and within the woods is the New River Gorge, the surging canyon that defines life here.

High spring water seen from Diamond Point. Closer to my house than Kroger.

High spring water seen from Diamond Point. Closer to my house than Kroger.

The New River is the oldest river in North America, 3rd oldest in the world. It flows over the Appalachian range, starting in North Carolina and flowing north, cutting deep through the ridges and into the allegheney plateau. I have seen it now from almost every angle, my feet dangling off of the rim, trudging through the tangled jungle in a descent, wandering through its forest watching flecks of snow set sparkling by the sunset, and set smack dab in the center, on a raft, dropping whitewater rapids so alive they have names that are more interesting than yours and mine: Greyhound Bus Stopper, Miller’s Folly, Dudley’s Dip, Double Z…

The gorge goes to the right and Short Creek comes in from the left.

The gorge goes to the right and Short Creek comes in from the left.

It is a breath taking wonder, and I hope you get to see it. This place is full of giant near-secrets. In the morning, the gorge will often be filled with mist, as though there was a second river on top of the first, made of clouds and light. I’ve sat along the rim on a trail called Endless Wall and watched vultures fly below me, rise, and fly past, near enough to look in the eye. I’ve crept along the hypergreen spring trails that take you close to the base and sworn I was in some golden-lit jungle from a storybook, ferns and vines exploding from all angles, flowers blooming on the edges of sheer rock cliffs, towering hundreds of feet in the air, rivers of moss-covered stones running beautiful with falling water.

It didn’t seem real to me for a long time, and part of me hopes it never does.

A Rhododendron tunnel near my house.

A Rhododendron tunnel near my house, leading to Wolf Creek.

On one of my first days here, I spent an hour before work exploring the nearer trails. Walk 5 minutes from my house and you’re right there. It was a bright day in late November, and a sparse tangle of red and yellow leaves hung valiantly to the trees. Going down a switchback, the terrain quickly changed – large rhododendron thickets towering 15 feet above the path, mountain laurel with its waxy shimmer, and holly, strange and spiky. Pine trees along the border of Wolf Creek. Soon came the sound of water, and I had to stop and think – I am just 10 minutes from my house, from my bed, from my stove, from my fridge…

wolf

The Bridge over Wolf Creek, which flows into the New River at Fayette Station.

Walking along the same path now, it almost feels like a forest within a forest. The trio of evergreen champions shrubs of winter (holly, mountain laurel, rhododendron) are still there, darkly close, forming a low canopy that’s reinforced by countless other newly green things. But above, over everything, is the dense layer of leaves – poplar, maple, oak, birch – that seems hardly recognizable after the long winter.

rhodobloom

Rhododendron in Bloom

I was able to see spring crawl out of the gorge, up the slopes, and into the world. It began at waters edge, slowly growing in intensity until one day it was everywhere. The laurel and rhododendron flowered, and now grow new stalks of leaves, sticky and young like a bleating lamb. I don’t think I’ve ever paid as close attention to a plant as I do with the rhododendron. Its green entranced me countless times this winter, surviving frost after frost, freeze after freeze. It seems darker now compared to all the flashy beauty of this temporary emerald kingdom, but it will outlast them all.

The gorge in early Spring at Hawk's Nest State Park.

The gorge in early Spring at Hawk’s Nest State Park.

Another West Virginia Poem

The Process and Prayer of Motion
Fayette County, West Virginia


There was time before rivers.
Our black disc of earth
learning to spin. Dry stones
in space, boiling with light
and turning new lungs in its
dance. My own carbon, called liver,
written at once: brother to my fat,
sister to your skull, cousin to the moth
knocking against the porch light. Our bodies
before gravity brought them to life,
flecks of my sunburn burned in the sun.

There was time before rivers.
Long years of rhyming magnolia,
bitter dandelion, arrays
of quartz set to order. Nests
of hornets coming back to life––
fractal bodies, riverless wings.
The gorge keeps its own time, 
holds life frozen in hard shadows.

At Wolf Creek, it has just rained. 
I sit on the stone and look up
at the passing clouds. 
Yesterday's Gods are sewn into
the air and they name themselves
inside of me:

The first wakes in my bedroom,
whispering names that tug the 
real thing in the muscle. 
In our unity, we can renew
the skin the same way
we burn coal, heated until
it slowly dies.

The second crawls
out of the water. He breathes
trillium and bloodroot, his
palms rough with rain. 
He steps through the valley,
always north, 
leaving birds in his wake. 
I saw him, his hands peeling
back azalea petals, his mouth
filled with bees, his legs
rooted in the tusks
of the New River.

The third flows upstream,
through cracks in the mountains,
against the current. Throwing us underwater––
she breaks the borders between the senses.
Her chill removes the body,
stole the mirror we placed
in childhood. We make new weight.

We make new weight
ready to be shaped
by new words.

Second West Virginia Poem

Or maybe…another draft.

When I Am Not In My Body

This is time like a frozen shoelace,
my hands folded in the dark around 
blankets, warmed by an electric fire.
You can see my voice like cut grass, 
waiting for the birds. This is time
and there is no time –
we know radiowaves pass through
our walls and that outside, wind cracks
against the gorge in bands. Somewhere,
there is prayer, and bedtime, and arguments
that lift you off your feet. I fall out of my body 
in the morning and can’t quite catch it. I
chase it from the outside of my car. He
turns the wheel with cold hands and 
cackles. The most alive I ever felt 
was listening to my heartbeat at a
gas station years ago in the middle of spring.
Like being born and drinking
in new air. I lose track of what you’re 
saying and fall asleep listening to two
drunk brothers hollering about this
and that, their words smashing against
the cabin walls as if they were already 
saved, like they were holding a cottonmouth
and talking to the golden sky. 
My mind sinks into the space that answers 
to my name. Late in the evenings after 
work I’ve been stretching my legs
on Endless Wall until the light is gone. 
I wish I could explain how the creek
sounded on the way back to my car, 
charging down to the river, alive
and constant. It shook through and 
past the dark that came –
matching the pitch of the tall pines. 
It could be anything out there. My whole
life I’ve been an opaque creek of bone
and blood. I wish I could’ve see my face.

First West Virginia Poem

At least, a draft?

Coordinates

I could read the 38th parallel as a psalm,
a line cutting through the mountains 

slicing the New River, making its way
in perfect truth to Korea,

a place I know nothing about. 
We strung this world tight with demarcations––

calculable angles, predictions waiting to be made.
When I say framework, I am speaking

about rules that are supposed to fit on us like fog;
never distant, nearly solid. 

The music was put together with thought to 
meter and dancing. The lights pulse into the dark 

and the floor is empty for twenty minutes.
Six tipsy people get up from their tables,

spread out over the wood.
I dance easier when the drinks spill,

sliding on my shoes, forgetting gravity.
These parallel patterns, this real math,

topography drawn with real math;
the map gets lost in the rhododendron.

Sounds of water tell us that under the ice
the creek flows, and flows like blood.

I see it pumping through the freeze.
It fogs and refogs, broken spheres heading 

down the broken valley. “My wounds stink and fester 
because of my foolishness.” We step away from geography––

Walking alone in the dark, the frozen sky reaching
with the north star, the dipper turned upside down.

I followed it down the hill, mapless and cold.
This is how I find my way home.

The Northeast: Part 4

6/23/2013 – Burlington, Vermont

My first full day in Burlington was a Sunday, and I made my way down to a well regarded coffee shop called Muddy Waters. They opened at 8:30 – late, I think, for a coffee shop, but the wait was worth it. The cafe was rustic, dark and wooden; the brightest light came from the large windows, which seemed blinding by comparison. I got a cappuccino from the barista – it was okay – nothing compared to Sam’s work at The Espresso Bar – but good enough. I took my mug and book and settled in watching the window, waiting for the caffeine to do what it does – light a roasty fire in me, make me burst out laughing at everything – the sensation of my own exploding cells.

Muddy Waters, double exposure.

Muddy Waters, double exposure.

I read Gary Nabhan’s novel “Coming Home To Eat,” his story of eating regional food for a year. The founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, Nabhan is the keeper of food history for the Sonoran desert. The book is full of explorations of cactus fruits, mesquite tortillas, roasted grasshoppers, almonds, smoked turkey, and other foods that are products of the desert. His prose is beautifully phrased, wavering from the political and analytical science-minded, to prose evocative of Thoreau, Wendell Berry, and Aldo Leopold.

It is an effective read although not without its flaws – the economics of how he does this feat are largely mysterious. Nabhan was the recipient of MacArthur “Genius” grant: this puts him far above most people in terms of his own means. But truly, I don’t want to discredit the book – I love it. It is a meditation on experience, and a valuable and worthwhile goal for us to set on a regional basis if we so choose. Perhaps part of being human should be that who you are is built from foods in your biome. In The Etiquette of Freedom, Gary Snyder writes: “Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting – all universal responses of this mammal body” Eating food – and learning what’s edible, how to harvest it, how to prepare it, from our place can give us a portal into the magic and science of our biogeographical place; allow us to explore our own wilderness.

*     *     *     *

I biked to the UVM Waterman building around noon and checked in. I grabbed some ice tea and immediately went and talked to Vic, who had been our online facilitator the past two weeks. Here he was, in the flesh, PHD in agricultural etymology and all. I was nervous, which expresses itself in a kind of overzealous enthusiasm. But that’s okay, these are all my people. We started to trickle in – I’ll just go through some – Val, a high school skills & nutrition teacher from New Hampshire; Bethy, who studies gastronomy & food policy at Boston University; Sophie, who works at Saxelby Cheesemongers in New York City and also co-hosts a radio show about cheese on the Heritage Radio Network; Kelly and Roger; a teacher/student duo from the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences; Yuting, a recent Wellesley graduate from China who was about to take a job in Washington DC trying to increase food safety standards in China; Erin, a New Hampshire biochemist with an MS in nutrition who chairs a nonprofit called the Food Education Network; Scott, the director of research & strategic initiatives at Project Bread; Mario, who is working to reform the regional food system of the Florida Everglades…the list goes on and on and on.

I know them now, but then it was the beginning, sitting in chairs and listening to Cynthia Belliveau tell us that when she teaches her class in South America, she calls it “cooking as resistance…”

*     *     *     *

The UVM Breakthrough Leaders Program, unsurprisingly, focuses on leadership – with the goal of creating a more sustainable food system; but leadership skills can be drawn out of all parts of society. I am going to break chronology here when it makes sense for me to do so, but what’s a little time travel among friends, dear reader?

I have not thought about leadership. Many ‘leaders’ we spoke to, when asked specifically about their leadership, first exclaimed that they did not see themselves as leaders. So we have a problem of language. What is it that we are talking about? If I am a leader, I see my leadership like the dimmer stars at night – I can’t see them by looking straight at them. But now here is an opportunity for telescopic vision. I have seen leaders that do nothing more than hold on to ideas they feel to be deeply true; philosophies truer than fists and feet, more solid than brick and steel. But not only are these thoughts held, sharply defined and measured like diamonds, they are expressed outwardly. So: doing something, for a reason that makes more sense to you than anything else. A good leader may perceive that they have no other recourse but to invest their lives into what they see as integral.

Good leaders are like mushrooms – they replicate and spore the values on which their work is based into others – clients, co-workers, peers, competitors. Leadership is also keeping your own passion alive and turning it into a communicable form that replicates itself in others. Some people are leaders because they believe in pottery, guitars, clothing, wool, strawberries, cheese, chocolate, garlic, airplanes, outer space, bicycles. These are people whose imaginations have been caught as if on a blade by the shapes, flavors, sensations of the reality they choose to inhabit. Even better leaders – do-ers – thinkers – invest in a way to keep the core of themselves pulsing. Reality is hard: the sun burns our necks; lettuce planting breaks your back; email piles up; projects fail; knowledge is power but too much knowledge overwhelms – you cannot deal with all the impossibles at once: governmental change, revolution, economy, health, corporation, war – the worlds of our interest spin on the shells of these turtles on turtles of structure and paradigm! And so– revitalize, refocus, build feedback and recess and rethinking into process – maintain the structure of the seed that grew the oak openings.

*     *     *     *

Your economy is what you choose to measure. I’m a big fan of outcomes based action. I believe in the scientific method and that means measuring things. But what do you measure? What you choose to measure can be rooted in your priorities and philosophy. Brendan Fisher, a research scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, showed us a study that, among other things, tracked birds and dung beetles. These, he said, were markets of biodiversity in rain-forests. They collected data on these variables for three different types of rainforest: Unlogged, those that had been logged once and replanted, and those that had been logged twice and replanted. They also graphed the dollar value of logging those rain-forests. The markers of biodiversity did not decrease that much – what did decrease, drastically, was the dollar value of those rain-forests. This means that an organization which keeps conservation as a core tenet can purchase once or twice logged rainforest that is still surprisingly biodiverse at a much lower cost than unlogged forest.

Your metrics should reflect your core philosophy. Over and over we saw this – to build a system from the heart of belief that will check itself against the values you hold. And, in determining your metrics, you get to ask that necessary question again – who am I? Why am I here?

In systems like the food system, we can easily understand that change in one part of the system has tradeoff effects in another part. We can simply this using the SEED model – Social, Economic, Environment, Diet/Health. Much of our food system is focused on maximizing the returns of the economic portion of the equation, and the tradeoffs of that wide-scale aggregate choice are evident throughout the other areas – inequalities between large producers and distributors such as Wal-Mart and its supplierswater pollution, the disturbing nature of industrial pig farms, antibiotic resistant microorganisms from the use of antibiotics in livestock, an obesity epidemic, a diabetes epidemic, and all of these poor health outcomes occurring earlier and earlier. Tradeoffs are inherent in any system.

We ended the classroom portion of the day and went upstairs to dinner. It’s always fun to try to figure out where people go from strangers to becoming friends. It might have happened there, in the midst of talk about metabolism, baby names, nicknames, and how we all wanted to change the world. It continued as we left, found ourselves walking down the hill toward a local Vermont brewpub in the middle of downtown, and later to the waterfront, which was dark and quiet. We had forgotten it was a Sunday.