Posts Tagged ‘beauty’

Plenty Alive!

The Greensboro Ice Fishing Derby on Caspian Lake this past weekend was a story I’ll be telling for a long time.  A good friend was visiting me from out of town, I was reporting for the local newspaper, and neither of us could have imagined a better way to spend our Saturday morning than tromping through the snow, over the ice, from shanty to shanty.

We met fishermen and firemen, dads by their stoves and drunks by their tailgates, teenagers with snowmobiles, 10-year-olds ready to sit by a hole in the ice from 4am until 2:00 in the afternoon.  We learned the language as we traveled the lake – tip-ups and jigs, flags, augers, lakers, shiners, smelts.  We learned the rules of the game, the hours, the baits, and the best times for biting.  We saw the clean aquarium look of a live well, the red bubbles on fish with the bends, the black tint of the second and third feet of ice below our feet.  For the hundredth time in the last four months, I wondered what I would be like, if I had been one of the kids we met there, growing up in Vermont.  Having grown up in Massachusetts, California, North Carolina, Italy, and Brooklyn….I’ve had a good life.  But until this weekend, I’d never gone ice fishing.  Nor eaten venison, nor even heard of a deep fried turkey.

At least, for that matter, I’m growing up here now.

When we arrived at 7am, John showed us how a tip-up worked, how the flag whipped up as the wheel turned because the line was being pulled.  He showed us how the power auger drilled, in his case, an 8-inch hole in the ice, big enough to fit any fish, small enough to catch a toddler from falling through.  His son played in the snow while his daughter warmed water on the stove for oatmeal.  He told us how people had arrived for the derby long before the 4am start time.

Russell cooked up pounds of venison sausage at the grill in his shanty, placing the cooked meat beside a plate piled high with bacon from the morning.  He handed us a few hot patties in paper towels while Peter showed us how their car had gotten stuck the night before (when they arrived on the lake, straight after work), and how the ruts had conveniently forged their live well.  “Come back at noon!” he and his buddies offered as we began to walk away.  “We’ll be deep-frying a turkey!”

Chuck, who had plowed the snow on the lake (and who plows the snow everywhere, will pull your car out of a ditch anywhere within a 10-mile radius, do your logging, mow your lawn, and come to your barbecue) gave us little Snickers bars as he drove us across the lake to a few fishermen who in time handed us beers and cleaned a trout for us to have for lunch.  They were the only real fishermen whom we met, not just out for a day, for the party, the competition, or the family time.  They were out to fish, and had caught seven trout by the time we met them at 10am (at which point we indeed found ourselves drinking beer).  They could tell you what bait to use, what time to come, what spot to choose on the lake.  They had just come from a 4-day ice-fishing derby on Lake Memphremagog.

Around 11:30, we brought the laker home and baked it in the oven according to the fisherman’s mother’s recipe.  A splash of milk in the pan, butter, onions, and garlic in the cavity, heavy salting.  We warmed up, over our break from the derby, at home, eating the trout, with fresh bread and salad.  Try and tell me the story of a better Saturday.

We returned by 2 o’clock, to learn that the best fish of the competition was a 27.5-inch brown trout caught in the Black’s Cove section of the lake at about 7am.  We learned the largest fish ever caught at a Greensboro Derby was a 34-inch laker in 1989.  We learned that one of the firemen’s sons had caught the first legal fish of the day, an 11.75-inch perch.  We were reminded to write in the local paper that this was a catch-and-release event, and always had been.  Amidst the primarily male crowd of green camouflage and black carhartt jackets, baseball caps and furry hunting hats, and the occasional neon orange scarf or royal blue beanie, little boys shared their triumphs of the day with the old-timers of Greensboro, who knew all of their names.  One loud-mouthed two-foot tall redhead couldn’t keep his mouth shut.  “I caught a pretty big perch out there!” he announced proudly.  “And he was plenty alive!”

The only publicity I saw for the derby was a note with the details in marker taped to the outside wall of the local general store, and a small blurb in the proceeding week’s local paper.  The cash prizes and the equipment raffled off at 2pm were funded by businesses in Greensboro and surrounding towns.  The Greensboro Fire Department organized the event, taking over for a family that had put on the derby for the past 37 years.  Three generations of that family were there, fishing.  If there is a more beautiful, low-key, locally supported event, anywhere, I have yet to see it.

The derby was not an agriculture-related affair.  It was not the kind of event an essay here might have covered in the past.  But it was the kind of thing I’ve come to witness, having visited and lived in a few rural places, just in the past year or so.  The derby made for the kind of day that I crave – one based on a mildly crazy concept (to sit out on a frozen lake for ten hours), which doesn’t cost a lot of money, and doesn’t explicitly represent any world-changing effort, and yet which generations of people appreciate and enjoy, together.  I’m not quite sure what to compare it to.  The atmosphere at the derby fit right in with the questions and debates of the annual Town Meetings that took place in each town across the state last Tuesday, and with the basketball game in Plainfield this weekend where three generations of women watched their daughters, granddaughters, and older sisters play at the local high school.  The derby was one more ridiculous, colorful day that built upon the white landscape where I have come to farm.  It was one more event that reminded me, after the millionth inch of snow fell and the temperature dropped below zero yet again, that life in Vermont can be plenty alive.


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My sister was concerned that an essay based on political theory and poetry might turn out a little heavy for Thanksgiving. The sources of my thoughts today are theoretically Hannah Arendt and Wendell Berry. Arendt was a German Jewish political theorist, and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Berry is a farmer and prolific writer, the poetic voice of modern agrarianism. They are not so heavy. I hope I might convey something of the weightless depth with which they write. And while I will work with the words of Arendt and Berry, I consider them now only because of the beauty of the trees on my street this morning. Before going home to the soups and the bird and the pecan-laden pie crusts, and the coma of gluttonous fullness only cured by a walk in the crisp late-night air…it seems appropriate to write of unprepared, under-analyzed beauty.hannah.gif

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote that Aristotle “distinguished three ways of life which men might choose in freedom.” These three ways of life had in common that “they were concerned with the ‘beautiful,’ that is, with things neither necessary nor merely useful: the life of enjoying bodily pleasures in which the beautiful, as it is given, is consumed: the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds.”Arendt wrote also on the way Greeks viewed mortality, in their cosmos where everything but humans was immortal. “This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line, in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.”wendell.jpg

Upon returning to Kentucky after six months in California, Wendell Berry wrote Notes from an Absence and a Return. He wrote of walking on the woods floor, and being reminded of “the sense, joyful if anything is, of time passing beautifully, of time passing through beauty, fulfilled in it in degree and detail beyond calculation, and so not wasted or lost. Walking among all these flowers…One is aware of the abundance of lovely things – forms, scents, colors – lavished on the earth beyond any human capacity to perceive or number or imitate. And aware of the economy, the modest principle of the building earth under the dead leaves, by which such abundance is assured.This is the enemy in man’s ‘war against nature.’All these places of unforced loveliness, whose details keep touching in my mind the memory of great paintings, now lie within the sound of the approach of an alien army whose bulldozers fly the flag of the American economy (hardly the economy of the topsoil). This country is an unknown place suffering the invasion of a people whose minds have never touched the earth.”Berry wrote that the redeeming aspect of his sense of involvement with and responsibility to the earth “is that it does not stand alone, but is only part of a process, a way of life that includes joy. Not always or necessarily or even preferably the dramatic joy of surprise – though that is one of its possibilities – but the quiet persistent joy of familiarity.”ginko.jpg

Walking down my street this morning in Brooklyn, where the fall yellows and reds shown bright and clean from an overnight rain, the thoughts of Arendt and Berry drifted round me, as though sounding quietly from the two books in my backpack. “The life we want is not merely the one we have chosen and made;” Berry wrote, “it is the one we must be choosing and making. To keep it alive we must be perpetually choosing it and making its difference from among all contrary and alternative possibilities.”What I heard, in these words, on my street,was that we may choose and make a life concerned with the beautiful, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds. Man’s war on nature is a result of the rectilinear life that we choose instead, in which we value only that which is necessary and useful. Our sense of involvement and responsibility need not be a battle, as we so often frame it, the activist struggle of strength and victory. Our involvement and responsibility is a way of life, that includes joy. This quite, persistent joy of familiarity may be one we feel at the Thanksgiving table tonight, or it may not. But I write in the hope that this joy, as the familiar beauty of the trees on my street, might remind us we have a choice: to join the immortal cycle acknowledged by the Greeks, and live in its dance, of unforced loveliness.

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An Ode to Metaphor

This little essay was written for Metaphor and Meaning, a class at Gallatin taught by Stacy Pies. While the subject of “metaphor” is not typical for this site, the setting of this piece fits here. That is: the farm where I first started putting thoughts on the table.The Dancing Hummingbird: A Reaction to I.A. RichardsThree years ago, during these months of the fall season, I was living and working on a small organic farm. My hours were spent bottling and corking wine, picking olives from not-so-high-up in the trees, and cooking for the family into whose home I had wedged myself and my perspectives. There were a few weeks when the work was slow, and I could relax after lunch for a few hours. In the evenings too, the family would occasionally leave me to myself while they went to bed early, or when the boys were especially busy with their homework. So I ended up reading several large books while I was there, and writing many long letters as well. I have just scavenged out my old notebook from those days, stuffed with maps and photos, and in which most of the original pages have been ripped out, to be mailed away. The last page, however, remains, with a penciled list of birds, and then cheeses, beside my family’s names. Mary is a Peacock, I wrote, Katie is a Bluebird, John is a Rooster, Peter is a Red-Breast Robin (or an Owl), I am a Hummingbird, and Lizi will soon be a Swan. Mom and Dad are Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, for lack of creativity. I left a line blank and then wrote, Mary is Gorgonzola, Katie is Ricotta, John is Goat Cheese, Peter is Mozzarella (di Bufala), I am Pecorino, and Lizi is Parmiggiano. Mom and Dad are Brie and Cheddar.hbird2.jpg According to Richards, we mustn’t assume that if we cannot see how a metaphor works, it does not work. Believe me, I have a hard time seeing a Red-Breast Robin in my brother Peter these days, and I stumble over the way Brie and Cheddar don’t particularly go together, considering my parents have been married nearly thirty-five years. Still, reading the simple metaphors makes me laugh at the way I considered my brothers and sisters, and brings me to desperately want their company, even for a moment. Feeling this reaction in myself, I remember why I wrote the silly metaphors, at the age of seventeen. As Richards points out, metaphor need not be (in fact should not be) about visualization. “The language of the greatest poetry is frequently abstract,” he says, and not, as Hulme (and Aristotle) demand, “accurate, precise, and definite.” My family is neither bird nor cheese, nor ever was or appeared to be. But as I wrote them letters from the farm, I faced a strange dilemma: I was living a dance they had never learned. The olives and the grapes, the pastas and cheeses, the chickens and their eggs, the sheep and their lambs (newborns in November!), the dinners and cigarettes and sounds and smells of living on the farm, were all part of a natural and comfortable cycle, of life and work and pleasure. The cycle, or the dance, was one my family had never witnessed. To connect with them, to write them a letter they’d understand, I remember wanting to fit them in, to abstract them into figures of the dance that reflected their characteristics, so that I could write to them about myself with a perspective on what they would see and hear, how they might read what I wrote. Just as “words are the meeting points at which regions of experience…come together,” so I used metaphor to bring together parts of my life that would never meet. The words were the “means of that growth which is the mind’s endless endeavor to order itself.” I was relieved to read Richards’ statement, in slight contrast to what we’ve read until now, that “Words are not a medium in which to copy life. Their true work is to restore life itself to order.” Somehow (but with just this purpose), the imagination of my metaphors rendered me sane and connected, and with complete irrationality, kept me in order.

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