Thursday, November 15, 2012

Newness of Life

As of this September, I'm carrying a column in Purpose Magazine - sort of a Mennonite Guidepost -the kind of thing you'd find on the coffee table or in the bathroom of a nice Mennonite home. You can check it out at if you're interested.

The good folks at Purpose said I could post articles here once they were out in print. This one was under the theme of "redemption":

Newness of Life

I've been to visit the Orthodox Mennonites a few times now. They fascinate and compel me, these "plain folk."

The barn-raising I came out for still stands as the deepest sense of "we" that this recovering member of a "me" generation has yet to encounter. It had all the team spirit, the physical strain, the risk of injury, the strategy, and the bravery of a major sports event--that last unitive sacrament of my culture--without any of the aggression; we were profoundly together, without being against anyone else.

 On each visit, their minister takes pains to explain to me that the point of using horse and buggy or hand tools or wearing plain clothes is not those disciplines in themselves, but to "walk in newness of life." Funny, that this fellow with the big salt-and-pepper beard, the quaint Germanic accent, the house, clothes and mannerisms of yesteryear should commend his way of life to me as a way of pursuing "newness."

In my culture, there are endless products and services aimed at selling me that elusive sense of newness, of being reborn: the home renovation, the makeover, the Go Away to Discover Myself trip--all ways of achieving "the new you." In my case, I got suckered trying to reinvent myself by spending thousands of dollars on a triple set of caps and gowns, if you know what I mean.

But what is it that truly frees us to walk in newness of life? The Orthodox Mennonites have decided that beyond sharing ideas and words, Christ-followers need to share life. They fear that the individualized Christian is like the seed sown among the thorns: "The cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing." I fear I have little evidence to counter them.

When I get back in the car and drive away from the horse and buggy folk, I'm left asking myself: How do the technologies I use (or don't), or the standards I aspire to (or disregard), facilitate my walking in newness of life? How do they build up or weaken the "beloved community?" What bodily work is spiritually healing? And perhaps most importantly, am I asking these questions and choosing my disciplines alone, or with soul friends?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Unequal Yokes

Well, the garlic is planted, the pigs are in the freezer and the tomato cages are finally pulled and stacked aside (Thank you, Jenn!). Darkness is falls fast these days; the land is falling asleep. Action gives way to reflection. At last.

I don't know if anyone out there has missed my writing. I have. The process, I mean. It's a more careful way to think.

So, as promised, about the oxen:

At my last oxen-related post, I had one sweetie-pie of a calf named Oscar. By now I have a team of two junior oxen, selected out of a group of four candidate bull calves we tried out this summer. They take a yoke, stop and go and turn when I ask, and pull around a small load on a little sled. They are calm and friendly and really do seem to try their best for me.

It's still mostly fun and games. But the working relationship is real, and every time we do a drill, I'm a little closer to really counting on my boys, Oscar and Ben. I can already see them being a big help hauling firewood out of the bush this winter .

I have to say I'm surprised how natural it has felt to start working with the team. This is a confession as much as it is a boast. This summer I learned that I really do like to be the boss. The word boss, as I have learned, shares its roots with the verb "to beat" originally referring to the one who has the right to give subordinates a beating.

As a stay-at-home Dad of two precocious girls who have learned well to question authority, I have moments when I am wistful for a Father Knows Best household. It would be a lot easier. As a Jesus-disciple, I try to be a servant rather than an overlord in my family and my politics. My efforts are consistently clumsy and at odds with my dominant instincts. But Oscar and Ben don't understand servant-leadership, so with them I am unequivocally the Boss. With animals that will grow to be 2400lbs each, I have to demand absolute respect for my authority. And this is the interesting thing. Although I have been culturally conditioned not to, I found that I knew exactly how to be that kind of guy. What's more, I like being that guy.

I reflected often this summer on the stories of corporal discipline I remember hearing from my mother. She knew her father as a man of great tenderness and love, but she also feared his big hands. There were lines that were not to be crossed, and a price she would pay with her heiny if she did.

That's how I was with my boys. I bottle-fed them, I led them by green pastures, I rubbed and scratched and spoke affectionately to them, but when they didn't listen to commands, I hit them with a stick. Sometimes hard. Sometimes in the face. Just enough to let them know that my commands were non-negotiable, and then when they obeyed, back to the soothing and the petting and the praising. James Dobson would have loved it.

And they got it. The commands were simple and consistent, and introduced with physical cues easily intuited by non-verbal creatures (follow but do not pass your dominant animal; move away from taps and prods; stop if there's a stick in front of your face). And they didn't hold the beatings against me. I remember how grateful I felt when they didn't pull away from my affections after the first time I really had to let them have it. But then I shouldn't have been surprised. I only have to look at Helen and Reba, our two beef cows. Helen used to ram her huge head mercilessly into Reba's side in disputes over prime hay, then later the two would be lavishly licking one another's fur. Today, Reba is dominant and uses her horns to keep everyone else in the herd in line.

Dominance relationships established and maintained through force are the most natural thing in the world. And unlike Christian mutually submitting relationships, I know instinctively how they work. I know intuitively, genetically, how fathers kept families together with a firm hand. I know how kings held kingdoms. I know how masters kept slaves. And I know how a Father, a King or a Master could be at the same time potent and benevolent. It's a queasy thought for a liberal.

The irony is that I have become a "boss" on a quest for a humbler, more peacable way to live on the earth. I'm reading a book right now called The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude by Andrew Nikiforuk. Nikiforuk deploys a powerful metaphor: the oil economy is as morally problematic for us today the slave economy was for our ancestors, and calls for a new global Abolition Movement. He's spot on.  There are plunderous wars, ruinous pollution and corrupting politics all down the supply line of my oil addiction. I want to work with oxen because I desperately want to kick my oil dealer out of my food system, at least.

So have I just traded in one level of violence for another? Me beating animals with sticks instead of US troops kicking in Iraqi doors for my energy requirements?

Well, I don't know. I really do love my boys. There may be army chaplains out there who are counselling Christian soldiers through some convoluted this-is-how-we-love-our-enemy psychology, but I'd be ready to argue that such love is perversely disengenuous, while what I feel for my oxen is not. It is love of an older order. Spare the rod and spoil the ox, as it were. Is there is a place for such relationships even on the road to new order peaceable kingdom relations, where we learn, as the Bible says, to "break every yoke"? Strangely, I think so.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

in the furnace of this afternoon

These are hot days. The earth cracks open in a prayer for rain. Every day the wounds gape a little wider. Sometimes deprivation ensures that when the blessing comes, it will reach the deep, dark places inside us. Sometimes it engenders a desperate neediness, a greedy draining of the blessing that stops even a drop of goodness from spilling over us to run back to the river. These are the two parables the earth confesses under my feet while I scythe hay in the furnace of this afternoon. I need them both.

It is to me an unfortunate irony that after hundreds of years of the prophets tying drought to holy judgement that today, in a climate crisis for which we are demonstrably to blame, we have lost the imagination to hear God's word in this drought, telling us some things we'd rather not hear about ourselves. That so many of my co-religionists are at the forefront of denying the signs of the times is painfully sad.

At least it has gotten oppressively hot enough that the city newscasters no longer broadcast an outlook of uninterrupted sunshine as if it were a proclamation of good news.

Monday, June 18, 2012

My Boy Oscar

Here's a baby picture of Oscar, shortly after he got here in mid April. One half Milking Shorthorn, one quarter Brown Swiss, one eighth Jersey, one eighth Holstein, all pretty boy bull calf.

I couldn't say if that feeling welling up inside me was due to his gorgeous dark eyes, or the thought that finally, I was beholding a way of farming that would not give me that sick little feeling every time it ran out of fuel.

More to come.

In the thick of things

O, Dear Reader,

Spring came upon me and had to be lived rather than blogged. Here it is mid-June and I never found time to write about the crazy burbling of the Bobolinks, or the mossy blooming of the oaks, or the goldfinches and the Harris Sparrows and the Cowbirds and the Tree Swallows showing up all at once; I didn't write about the poplar leaves the size of nickels and the potatoes in the ground; about the surge of life and the blue of sky and the gold of finches, dandelions and marsh marigolds; about the mind-clearing balm of Gilead in my nose and the exuberant orange of Orioles in my eye.

God, the world is beautiful and busy in the spring. What an adolescent season. All of life clamoring and competing to happen and to be noticed and to reproduce and suddenly it's June and all those baby plants you started need to be weeded, row upon mundane row.

Anyway, just wanted to say hi.

By the way, Matthew and I did buy a pair of bull calves, Oscar and Ben. I love them. I promise I will tell you all about them when I get a chance.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ballad of the Brokenhead

I've referred to this story obliquely in this blog's title. I thought it high time to include ithere. The story came to me thanks to local historian George Lalor, the insights about the impact of the shift from subsistence hunting to fur-profiteering came from the late Cree elder Percy Bird, the melody and the rhythm for the verses came from Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," and the rhymes came from staying up too late one winter night.

Ballad of the Brokenhead

I live on the banks of the old Brokenhead,
A river with a name and a story of dread.
Long before you, and long before me,
These banks were the home of the Little Poplar Cree.

One day a trav'ler brought news from the East
Of the pale white faces, hairy like beasts,
Who traded in goods indescribably rare;
Their long sticks of thunder could fell prey anywhere.

Their blades and their pottery never broke, never burned;
But to trade for this prize, a new way must be learned:
To kill every beaver, every otter and mink,
To pile up their hides, and let their meat stink.
What can't be undone
is oft left unsaid
What can't be undone
is oft left unsaid

They'd have to kill more than their families could eat;
What would this do to the harmony sweet
Of taking from the river no more than you need?
The old ones feared curses and sorrows of greed.

The hunters grew restless as questions were raised;
The young men had expected their ambitions be praised.
"But what of the women, the old and the young?
Who will protect us when you go for the gun?”
"When the willow's in bud, we'll leave you alone;
when the willow leaves fall, our canoes will come home
Then should ever our foes trespass on our lands,
We'll reach out and fell them with fire in our hands.

And in the fall it was true, as the willow leaves fell,
The men sighted their homes, but caught no homely smell;
No fires were burning, no children were heard;
From the inside their lodges came no greeting word.

Dread warriors of the Sioux the camp had detected
And made easy prey of the Cree unprotected.
The white sand had swallowed the flow of blood red,
Where scattered and shattered lay the Cree's broken heads.

Now I'm haunted by spirits here long before me
I'm haunted by the cries of the Little Poplar Cree,
I'm haunted by the words of the old ones who said,
“Take no more than you need from the old Brokenhead.”

Brokenhead, Brokenhead
What can't be undone is oft left unsaid
 Take no more than you need from the old Brokenhead

The Little Poplar Cree who hunted these shores,
Where the otter still plays and the eagle still soars,
Are gone like the mist that lifts in the morning
From the river whose name is a chill mournful warning.

Brokenhead, Brokenhead
What can't be undone is oft left unsaid (x2)
Take no more than you need from the old Brokenhead (x2)

Brokenhead, December 2010


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Titanic Metaphor

The Titanic disaster was the bursting of a bubble. There was such a sense of bounty  in the first decade of the 20th century. Elevators! Automobiles! Airplanes! Wireless radio! Everything seemed so wondrous, on an endless upward spiral. Then it all came crashing down."

- filmmaker James Cameron

This mother of all shipwrecks, is, among other things, a motherlode of metaphor: the sinking of the "unsinkable," the flagship of industrial engineering and fantastical luxury, the very vessel of technological hubris; the once largest moving man-made object on Earth, too massive and cruising too fast to pull out of a collision course with a large, cold, hard fact of nature, of which the humans could only see the tip.

A hundred years and hundreds of dives later, this ship still holds many haunting metaphors, depths to be plumbed. I want to spend this anniversary thinking about the lifeboats.

A lifeboat is an interesting presence. A reminder that the much bigger boat on which it rides could fail, and that survival could depend on this much simpler, radically scaled-down version of the big ship. What other institutions carry such overt warnings and preparations for their own demise? Imagine a school, or a government, a business or a church openly prepping its students, citizens, customers, parishioners: There is a chance that this will all come undone. In the event of our institution's collapse, the essentials needed to preserve life are the following....

Noah built a boat like that once, much to the ridicule and chagrin of his neighbours. The ark was an embarrassment to their civic faith, their belief that their society had grown too big to fail.

But the sea suffers no fools, and sailors have learned that times do come to abandon the big ship, and get into those little boats.

The Titanic, famously, had far too few lifeboats. The White Star Line gave meticulous attention to the design of the Turkish baths and to the ten course dinner menus on their luxury cruise ship, but not to the essentials of preserving life. In the more than two hours it took for her to sink, desperate, painful decisions had to be made. Some women would not to get in the life boats, refusing to leave their husbands, for whom there was no room. One man dressed as a woman so he could jump the cue. Few third class passengers, male or female, ever made it onto the boat decks.

Now that I think about it, the interesting thing about the Titanic lifeboats is not that there were too few, but that there were any at all. There persisted a seafaring culture of caution, a humility before the sea, that even the opulent and overconfident "unsinkable" Titanic could not completely cast aside.

What are the traditions still carried in the DNA of the wider culture that caution and prepare us for cataclysm? Well, the biblical tradition, handmaiden to Empire though it has admittedly been, is really one of the most honest and sober accounts we have of the corruption and the collapse, again and again, of Empire: the Egyptians, the Syrians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans - sometimes their machinations benefit the Jews, most often they hurt them, but never do they last.

The Bible contains a history of the Fertile Crescent's "cradle of civilization" as seen from the underside of the great powers. From this view is revealed not only the ugly violence of these grand civilizations, but also their vulnerability. Even Israel's own national history is often told in a way most unflattering to its officials and their schemes. Again and again, the Bible warns against seeking security in the designs of "the nations." Security, counterintuitively, is to be sought in an unseen God, and in compliance to a covenant of justice, drawn up with a people much smaller and poorer than their come-and-go imperial neighbours.
Is this our culture's lifeboat?

Wes Hartley, the leader of band that played on while Titanic went down, at first played showtunes, at the captain's behest, to mollify the nervous passengers. But then, when the unthinkable turned inevitable, he turned to hymns. The final song, with which Hartley prepared himself and the others left on board to enter the deep was, "Nearer My God, To Thee."
I was thinking about the Titanic nine years ago, when Ploughshares Community Farm was not yet a place, and barely a notion. Drawn to do something rural and agrarian, and ready leave behind more urban, more activist pursuits, I journalled, “I am giving up on shouting over the orchestra or winning the ear of the captain. But maybe some of us could see about improving the seaworthiness of those lifeboats.”


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Big O, little o... (Part II)

At the very end of Judah's existence as a kingdom, when its defensive and diplomatic stratagems were all played out, the prophet Jeremiah hoisted the yoke of an ox to his shoulders and walked the streets of Jerusalem, in a dramatic enactment of Judah's future. People were appauled.

I think about this story as I contemplate yoking oxen to work our fields. The very idea is an affront to the narrative of progress.

The official court prophet Hananiah grabbed the yoke from Jeremiah's hunched shoulders and angrily broke its bars. Jeremiah's "word from the Lord" predicted a future of servitude under the Babylonian Empire. Hananiah's "word from the Lord" insisted that any such humbling would be brief; that Judah's manifest destiny was to carry on the Davidic line in an unbroken trajectory of growth and success. Servitude could never define the throne of David. It was unthinkable that the Lord could let a son of David - his Annointed One - suffer the humiliation predicted by Jeremiah. History (and Jesus) showed Jeremiah the true prophet.

Gas prices went up by 8 cents a liter this week. Already there are those arguing that this jolt to the economy is artificial and uncalled for. It is the result of market "speculation." Suddenly, rankled Americans are borrowing arguments from the despised socialists: these out of control gas prices need to be legislated down. A few lone voices in the wilderness offend us with a more blunt assessment: Oil is finite; so oil-eating cultures must be also. We cannot make cheap again what we are busily making scarce.

Back to the oxen, then. Here's what I've learned:

When compared with horses, there are a number of reasons why oxen have historically been the traction animal of choice for small-holders. Cattle offer the triple benefits of milk, muscle and meat. Of these, milk and muscle power improve the livelihoods of poor farmers far more than meat. I remember reading a sociology paper that argued that this was the root of beef-eating taboos in India. In a hungry year, an Indian peasant might be tempted to slaughter his cattle to feed his family the rich protein walking around in his bare fields. But the short-term gain is far outweighed by the long-term supply of milk protein and work-energy offered by a dairy-traction animal.

Another advantage is that an ox yoke is a simpler and cheaper device than horse harness. Harness is tricky to make: lots of precise measurements and lots of stress points that need excellent fastenings. A yoke is basically a (carefully shaped) thick wooden beam with an iron loop or two. A lot of the simplification is possible because an ox has horns. These prevent the yoke from slipping forward over the head of the animal when braking or walking downhill.

But the biggest selling point for me is that the typical fear response of oxen is opposite that of horses. Horses tend to bolt, oxen tend to balk.  Picture a stampeding herd of wild mustangs fleeing their predators, then picture a group of musk oxen circling tight around their young and holding formation against nipping, harassing wolves. Scared oxen stand still.

As a novice teamster and father of  two girls I want to involve in my farm adventures, I would much rather deal with an animal that is occasionally difficult to get moving than an animal that one day takes off with me, with sharp and heavy field equipment clattering menacingly behind.

As for breeds, I am learning about "dual" and "triple purpose" cattle. Cows, like everything else in the industrial economy, have become single-purposed specialists. Holsteins put everything in their body into milk; Angus put on meaty pounds, quickly.

For oxen, the ideal is a mix: animals with the easy handling of a dairy animal, but the bulk of some of the beefier cattle. I am learning about old breeds: Milking Shorthorns, Dexters, Brown Swiss and Gelbvieh - breeds more befitting an ancient, energy-constrained, small-farming future.

I should acknowledge somewhere soon here that I could not be contemplating this transition to a more ancient normal on my own. What I am learning about oxen, I am learning with the help of friends. I have the strange privilege to have as friends two graduates of the Tillers International ox-farming school, Russ Dyck and Bernard Cook. And here at Ploughshares, I have Matthew as a co-conspirator on oxen. Everytime I make a phone call or read something new, Matthew matches me stride for stride with his own research and enthusiasm. Alone, I would not have the hutzpah to try this. But together...we seem to be, as the saying goes, equally yoked. Together, we might pull this off.

There's a pair of Shorthorn-Brown Swiss calves expected in Vita, that, if they're both male, and if another regular buyer opts out, could be ours for $75 a piece.

Why do we want to farm like peasants? You might say, I suppose, that we are actually coming to believe in a kingdom wherein the meek inherit the earth. In the land of progress, this is heresy, we know. Please don't be angry with us.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Big O, little o, what begins with O? (Part I)

On the front cover of the most recent issue of the Canadian Organic Grower is a photograph that fascinates me: two Milking Shorthorn oxen standing in yoke. Somehow, they are the picture of both humility and of tremendous power, all in one: Their heads lowered, their shoulders massive, their horns straight ahead, obediently bearing the burden their teamster has laid on them. They could gore him with a single flick of the head; instead, they quietly work his field.

This image, and the accompanying article, speak to me of a parallel tension in the organic food movement, a tension between the way of power and the way of humility. Oxen, as the article makes clear in the first sentence, represent a radically downscaling approach: "Cattle have always been, and continue to be, the most common source of traction power on small farms throughout the world." (Read: this is how the little guys do it everywhere other than the wealthy West.)

Organics is at a crossroads. Go big or go home. There are the Gary Hirshbergs of the world - CEO of Stonyfield Farms, which sells its line of organic dairy products on the shelves of Walmart - who warn us that for meaningful decreases in pesticides, growth hormones and carbon emissions, we have to convert the big food system to organic practices. To fret about the grassroots, small-scale, local, "small o" organic movement losing its soul is to "make the perfect the enemy of the good."

You can bet Tractors to Tonka Trucks Stonyfield Farms are not tilled by oxen.

In many ways, Canadian Organic Growers has championed the Big O approach in recent years. The push for a national organic standard, the legal protection of the "o" word only for those with official certification has caused many of my "little o" organic, locally oriented farmer friends to distance themselves from COG and its associated certifying agencies. We ourselves have decided to drop our certification this year. We may re-certify in future, but for now, the paperwork and the financial cost of certification is not justified by our small-scale enterprises, and means little to the friends and family who buy from us.

So, is COG really serious about promoting oxen-scaled farming? Or are the oxen on the cover of their magazine like the little red barn on the logo of Stonyfield: a notional image, a marketing fiction designed to create a romantic association, and obscure the very destruction of this way of life which industrial upscaling entails?

Which raises another question for me: How serious am I about reading up on oxen? Is this a romantic dream for me, a pleasant diversion from "real" farm planning, or is renewing this ancient tradition, as the article concludes, a way of "closing an energy loop on the farm?" Does the climate/energy crisis reveal tractor-farming as the actually soft-headed and rosy future vision?

We have friends who farmed with water buffalo oxen in Burma all their lives. Our Karen refugee friends tell a creation story about the this animal that reveal its centrality in their economy:

Once, God summoned the water buffalo to deliver a message to the people. "Tell them that this is how often they can eat: Adults twice a day and children three times a day."

The water buffalo went to the people, but when he reached them, he told them, "This is what God says: 'Adults can eat three times a day, and children can eat as often as they like.'"

Upon the water buffalo's return, God asked him. "What did you tell them?" When the water buffalo told God what he had told the people, God became angry with the water buffalo for changing the instructions: "If you want to make big promises like that, you will have to help deliver on them. Now you must spend your life helping the people with their crops, so they can eat that often."

And that is how the water buffalo became a beast of burden.

There are many-layered teachings in this agrarian wisdom-story:

  • There are sacred limits on how much one ought to eat.
  • Humans and the creation are bound together in divinely ordained interdependent relationships.
  • There is a tendency to tell people what they want to hear, rather than a harder truth.
  • The difference a water buffalo ox makes is the difference between a life where adults eat only twice a day and children three times, and a life where adults eat three square meals and children can eat as often as they like. As our friend Naw Kay Seng says, "a simple life, but a good life."

I am reminded here of an echoed wisdom, this time by way of Wendell Berry, another farmer-sage:

"Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies....The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits." (from The Agrarian Standard)

How does a culture that honors limits: the limits of soil, of animals, of workers and watersheds, help turn around a culture founded on defying limits? By getting out in front and proving we can play ball with the big boys, that we can ramp up, mechanize and standardize organic food to penetrate the mass-market?

I suspect the limits will assert themselves. I am grateful to the Big O movers and shakers, for blunting some of the damage being done by the industrial food system. But when the real limits of cheap energy, of ecological carrying capacity, soil depletion, etc. do assert themselves, any peacable future one can hope for will count on humans who have learned to imagine, then live, "a simple life, but a good life."

I imagine the farmers among those humans will be working their fields with grass-, rather than oil-eaters.

My next post will look at some of the practical considerations I'm gleaning on ox-farming, mixed with some biblical tangents.

Until then....

Big O, little o, what begins with o? Oxen on organic outposts getting off of oil, that begins with o.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


March 13, 2012. Snow and ice are still everywhere, but melting fast.

I scramble down the embankment, off the gravel road and away from the cultivated field into the woody swamp that has become one of my favorite winter places here. The embankment, I have come to believe, is the long-ago western bank of the Brokenhead River. (A hundred years ago? A thousand? Ten thousand? My mind cannot fathom the lifespans of river courses, the eating away of clay here, the slow silting-settling of new soil there.) Below the embankment, an elegant forest of tall, straight black ash rises out of the low-lying little delta that stretches east toward the riverbed that has been curving away from us and leaving itself behind all these years. I am going down to mine its soil.

Long before potting soil mixes were ever made available on store shelves, gardeners got their best starter soils from the forest floor. That's what I am after. I am in a hurry. Today I can still haul a heavy tobaggan load up the little logging trail I have carved through these marshy woods. In another day or two the smooth snow trail will be gone, leaving behind a tangle of sticks and water and mud unfriendly to two-leggeds and their loads. Old Man Winter makes some work a lot lighter, truth be told. I'm a little sad to see him go so soon this year.

I find a spot under the trees with minimal grass poking through the snow. Just leaf litter and rotting branches. Under the snow, I am surprised that the frost is completely gone already. The shovel cuts out slabs of soft, rich brown soil, moist and glistening like fudge. I look up at the ash in front of me and realize I am taking something from it. And then realize that there is no bite I have ever taken that was not sacrificial. It has always cost someone something to feed me. Am I "eating unworthily," as the New Testament puts it?

Funny how these thoughts do not occur in the garden department aisle, eyeing a plastic-wrapped bale of potting soil.  These products seem to be spontaneously created, out of noplace, and their presentation casts a spell of limitless supply. Beneath this mighty ash I am thinking, how much can I take from here? How long did this soil take to build? How deep is this well? What are the needs of trees? Can I keep coming down here year after year for more?

"Eating unworthily" is the concept of a violation of a sacred meal in a sacred circle. In Corinth, early Christians ate "unworthily" the love feast of Christ by disregarding the poor among them. The sacrament of communion is a holy rite of careful, attentive sharing, borne out of a vision of community in which the needs of all are considered and no one takes more than their share. When certain members of the Corinthian "body of Christ", accustomed to richer fare, glutted themselves to the exclusion of poorer members, Paul warned "If you eat and drink without discerning the body, you eat and drink damnation upon yourselves."

I had better be careful out in these woods.

The earth-laden tobaggan glides in heavy stops and starts over softening snow. I am hot, even in a T-shirt. I realize that I have not drunk enough water today. I pull, I thirst, I pull, I thirst. Thought settles and simplifies, body works.

I come up out of the bush and up the slope of the road, past the maples I tapped two days before. I pull toward them, just to see. The effort of leaving the trail is too much. I untie myself from the tobaggan and make the last three steps, unburdened. There is a cupful of clear liquid in the bottom of one of the milk jugs hanging off the tree. About a quarter teaspoon worth of syrup. But a cup of water. I hesitate only a moment, then reach out and drain the jug. It is cool, ever so slightly sweet. It tastes like snow. The water poured out of the side of this tree enters me and becomes me, runs down my throat and through my veins.

A black-capped little friend draws near to have a look-see. "Check out the Deity," he sings.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Come All Ye Pagans

This one's from the early years on the Brokenhead. An experience and a meditation I wanted to put out into the universe several years ago, but didn't know where to launch.

I am just crossing the river, coming back from the neighbours, when a bald eagle flies close over my head, heading downstream. I can hear the air pushing through his great, dark, outspread pinions. For a moment, his nearness makes him so solid that the fact of his gliding through air seems pure sorcery; it is easier to believe that eagles are real when they are far away than when they come close. And then, in one sharp intake of my breath, he is gone again, around the bend of the river, and I am suffused with joy.

And I am struck, struck that this place of reverence is exactly where I try so hard to take people as a worship leader. I spend hours poring over songs and scriptures, crafting prayers and poetic turns of phrase to construct the road that will lead the faithful exactly here: Awe. Self-transcendance. Holiness. Joy. Here I have been waylaid by it, entirely without human contrivance or effort. I can understand why Christian priests of old were suspicious, hostile even towards pagan spiritualities that drew people out of the pew and into the woods. It's pretty hard for us to compete.

But then, why would we think it was a competition? Why would we think that the God people meet in the woods would draw people away from the God they meet in church? My friend and neighbour, Jonathan Sears, was telling me about a distinction some have drawn between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that seems to speak to this question. Lewis, even in his fiction, never veers off message, never strays far from the the skirt hems of Mother Church. He may lead you through a magical wardrobe into another world, but the allegory always carries a Christian apologetic that is obvious and familiar. Tolkien, a friend of Lewis, also a deeply convicted Christian, leads us into a more mysterious and subtle world, much more frightening and beautiful, and more convincing than Narnia. Tolkien might not be a pagan, but he clearly is acquainted with their ways and loves the land they inhabit. The difference between Lewis and Tolkien is one of confidence. Tolkien trusts that his whole world is steeped in Christ. Those with eyes to see will see.

These are days when Christian confidence is taking a bit of a beating. Mainstream churches continue to dwindle, whether they try to water the message down or try to cement it in dogma. And although evangelicals still attract the masses for the moment, the certainty they proclaim increasingly carries the shrill ring of denial. Is this a celebration or a sales pitch? Somewhere along the line, the logic of the market took over in our sanctuaries: create a desire, provide a product.

I've read the words of an aboriginal elder criticizing his own people for commercializing and marketing their sacred rites and objects: "once you sell a sacred thing, it isn't sacred anymore." To sell, to push, is to make a desecration of the holy, and cynics of us all. It is not an invitation to faith. It is an inoculation against it. It creates an allergy to religious awe. How hard it is for us to speak to one another of wonders now, and not suspect a hidden agenda. Our souls are guarded, wary of being sold a bad bill of goods.

Perhaps this is why I could respond to that encounter with the eagle as a sacred moment. He wasn't trying to sell me anything.

And maybe that's why I love Jesus too. As far as I can tell, he isn't trying to sell me anything either. In the Gospel I read more warnings about the trouble I'll see if I sign on than boasts about the great benefit package or the eternal retirement plan. And his love is just there, free and pervasive as air, whether I sign on or not.

Unlike him, and unlike the eagle, I have a hard time freely offering up the sacred. I want something in return: Affection. Influence. Stature. Money. Hey, I've got a family and an ego to feed too, you know.

Ah yes, the altar call and the collection plate, the blessed one-two punch, be it strong-arm or survival tactic, of every priest, every shaman, every rabbi, every preacher, every imam. Perhaps that's why the poor have often been pagans. There are no collection plates in the woods. Or, at least if the shaman does pull one out, it's a lot easier to disappear into the underbrush. Jonathan pointed out to me that pagan simply means "people of the land." A pagan is someone who seeks the sacred in an encounter with the land. If you're in the business of packaging and selling sacred encounters, they make lousy customers. Kind of like selling ice to eskimos, as the saying goes. Which I suppose would be one reason why shamans hit an income ceiling a lot sooner than the figureheads of megachurches, and why pagans are still on the must-convert list for most organized religions.

We've driven them nearly to extinction by now, those people of the land. Which is perhaps why, like the Mountain Lion or the Timberwolf, they charm us now. I count as good friends some folks who would be honoured to be called pagans. Born-Again-Pagan is in in the Mother Earth-lovin', back-to-the-land movement I'm so drawn to. Christianity is the house of the overbearing and controlling parent they've finally moved out of. I can understand the urge to bolt.

But, God help me, I do want to win back the neo-pagans. Or at least, as Jesus did, to sit at table together and swap some parables. That eagle, as swift and majestic as he is, might be able to ride the wind all the way to Mount Doom to carry Sam and Frodo away from its angry fumes, but he cannot explain the foolish wisdom, the power perfected in weakness, the vulnerable love that bore them there, that pinned all the hopes of Middle Earth on these unlikely saviours.

And so, with as open a hand as I know how to extend, I make this invitation: Come, all ye pagans. Let us speak of eagles, and let us speak of Christ.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Taking Life

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot
a time to kill and a time to heal.
               (Ecclesiastes 3:1-3a)

This week, the first of David's dairy goats birthed three kids: two bucklings and one doeling. They are as adorable as such things can be: cuddly, curious, pick-upable tender young things. Soft, curly-haired, small-faced and big-eyed. Tentative-moving, wide-stanced, toddling and learning fast.

David will keep the doeling, but the young males he will turn into goat-veal, so to milk their share of their mother's milk out for the humans here.

One of the things I've noticed about rural life is the euphemisms for killing animals.

We rarely say "kill," or "die." Most commonly, folks use that most euphemisable of verbs: "do."

"We're going to do our chickens Saturday."

"When are you going to do your hogs?"

"I like rabbits because if I have less than an hour, I can still do two or three."

Other, more honest terms are "butcher" and "slaughter." Then there is "process" - more specific than "do," and nice and clean and sterile.

But we don't like to say "kill."

Why not? Is it our shyness of Death? The same motivation that makes us say, "the dearly departed," "the deceased," "those who have passed on," but never "the dead?"

Or is it the human tendency to veil our violence? Is it like the double-speak of war? "Friendly fire," "casualty," "collateral damage" -  never acknowledging the victim with a name, a face and a voice.

I suspect both these tendencies have something to do with it, but there is something else in that halt, that pause we make when we verbalize our carnivorous ways.

In that delicate transition from animal to meat, we are touching a mystery. We care for these creatures we kill. Good farmers have genuine affection, real empathy for their animals. We must care for our animals in order to do the work of husbandry justice. 

And at some point, we kill them, to make way for the young they sire, and, more essentially, so that we can eat. To farm well, we care, and we kill.

This caring-killing stretches our language, even though the ritual is ancient.

I think I am going to start saying: "taking life." For that is exactly what I do. I take the life of living things into myself, where their life becomes my life. I take the life of rabbits, of trees, of potatoes and of pigs, of carrots and of cows, and their energy becomes my energy. It is life, and I do take it. They do not choose. I choose. I take.

I take lives; thus I live.


The Grace of Trees

O, let us own the grace of trees:
Postures of praise and quiet peace.
No two alike, they all are one
In their adoration of the sun
In our adoration of the Son
Make us one.

When wintry and bare, still let us raise
These empty arms which yet will praise,
Lift deadened limbs our Lord will green,
Stand unashamed of our poverty
In anticipation of the Son
And new songs sung

And when Life's Joy returns once more
And our beings flower as they adore,
Stretching and spreading out to be-
come houses of hospitality
In our transformation by the Son
Our arms wide flung

O, let us own the grace of trees:
Postures of praise and quiet peace.
No two alike, they all are one
In their adoration of the sun
In our adoration of the Son,
We are one.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love your Neighbour? Love your Wife.

Today, on Radio Q, the CBC arts and culture show I love/hate, the Q Panel was to debate the question: "Is Monogamy an outdated institution?" Following this, an exploration of the topic: "Sex with Robots: what are the downsides?"

Happy Valentine's Day, Canada.

When host Jian Ghomeshi asks such questions with his smooth and charming voice, they sound almost reasonable. I must confess that I turned the radio off. How unsophisticated of me. But the dishes were done, the house was tidied, and what's more, Jenn and I had it to ourselves (thanks, Dad). So we forwent our education on the new choices available to us in the post-monogamous, robot-sex world, and celebrated Valentine's Day in the most traditional way humans have. That's right, girls: Mom and Dad exchanged pink and red construction paper cards and after that, we ate heart-shaped chocolates.

Consequently, I missed the rest of Q, so I cannot comment on the content of the debates. What struck me in the intro, however, was that the questioning of monogamy, and the exploration of the sexual potential and pitfalls of (literally!) robotic partners, both exist on the same continuum: that of the industrialization of our lives, to the point of absurdity.

Sex has the power both to bind and to loose. It can be the reason to stay home, or the reason one has to leave it; it can be the cause of home's unmaking. The predominant industrial economy, in which we now all live, move, and try to retain our being has been "incentivizing" the abandonment of home for a good while now. The Boom and Bust engine that drives the "global" economy requires highly mobile labour units, ready to be dispatched and displaced quickly, to wherever the market says. Who are families and communities to quibble with the free market's wisdom?

And so, we have obediently learned to define our freedom in precisely the way most convenient to the global economy: Our freedom equals our atomization, the breaking of bonds to place, to inherited identities and traditions, and to deeply rooted relationships.

I am trying to live in a place. Or, should I say, in a place that is trying to become a place. Ploughshares Community Farm, as elusive as it remains to pin down with a narrative or a meaning, is becoming a place. A place where three families are sharing land, growing food, building homes cooperatively - or at least, more cooperatively than is typical in the placeless, atomizing culture we are resisting at least a little bit, by choosing to be here, together.

This is the context in which Jenn and I practice monogamy. And I can say this much about its importance here, in community: If the bonds of marriage were not sacrosanct is this place, it would poison the waters.

I am a man. I am not immune to covetous and unfaithful thoughts. But such thoughts are easily doused when I begin to imagine the hellish jealousies, bitterness and enmity we would call upon ourselves if we were to start "fooling around" here.

Perhaps at the level of mass society, monogamy is "an outdated institution." But here, at the level of neighbourhood, fidelity to married life safeguards not only the peace and well-being of family, but of the whole community. Here no relationship is uni-functional, as they are in the industrial economy. Our connections are complex and interwoven. Business partner is friend is workmate is wife's friend is friend's wife. There is no one here with whom I could possibly have "casual" sex. Here, in this place, infidelity would blow us apart like an atom bomb. Here, I know without a doubt, that to (agape) love  my neighbour means to (eros) love my wife, and her alone.

Maybe in a world where no one belongs anyplace anymore, where careers are consuming and brief and hypermobile; where advancement begets separation and separation begets advancement; where you can have a thousand online "friends" whom you do not actually know; where you can see a girl take off her clothes for you, and you can stare at her all you like without making eye contact; where the heralds of freedom disciple us into attachment disorder; maybe in that world monogamy is irrelevant.

But I don't want to live in that world. I am trying, albeit inconsistently and hamfistedly, to free myself and my family from the most dis-integrating influences of that world. That's why I live here. That's why I stay home and teach my children at home. That's why I stay in the home I've made with Jenn.

I know there are a great many people who are not as free as I have been to pull away from a world that makes stable, life-long unions terribly difficult to sustain. Can I blame any of my friends who have split up? Can I judge divorce as the moral failure of couples, in an economy fueled by discontentment and mobilized by displacement? Can I judge the craving for touch, for warmth, addressed in brief and transitory encounters between increasingly homeless humans, or the relieving of those urges through sexual facsimiles?

I dare not judge. I know my own frailties well enough. There but for the grace of God go I.

I cannot judge, but on this day I do want to celebrate: St. Valentine.

According to one tradition, Valentine was martyred for an odd crime against Empire: performing marriage ceremonies for soldiers. The Roman military knew all about the encumbrances of monogamous unions. Marriage was forbidden for soldiers, unattached men being more efficient and single-minded in their conquest and pillaging of foreign lands. Sex robots were not yet invented, but practitioners of the world's oldest profession could be found at the frontiers to relieve men's urges without the inefficiencies brought on by home leave.

In this context, binding soldiers in the Christian sacrament of holy matrimony was not only countercultural; it was treasonous.

It turns out that what is good for mass society and mass culture is rarely good for localized relationships.

And the reverse is also true: the more rooted one becomes with a particular life-mate, in a particular neighbourhood, in a particular tradition, the more one becomes a troublesome, non-mobile, non-interchangable consumer/labour unit for the global economy. Jenn and I move less dollars through the Canadian economy now than we ever have. Sorry Stevie. Homegrown food and a stay-at-home parent works good for us, not so good for you. Maybe I should buy some shiny new machines so I'll have more incentive to get an off-farm job and be "productive."

Sex robots are but the latest, and an astonishingly bald advance in the age of the machine, in its campaign to subvert the blessed ties that would bind us uniquely to each other and support lifelong pairings, which beget families, which beget communities, which resist displacement.

The logic of sex with robots is the final and fascist logic of total mechanization: Be a unit. Engage and disengage with other units as opportunity and economy suggest. Network; plug in; swipe and withdraw your card, thank you.

No, thank you, very much.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Suffused with Light

Today is finally a classic prairie winter day: fiercely cold and blindingly bright with sun and snow. It reminded me of a day I journaled last winter. I'll post it now and go outside to cut wood, by hand - a discipline I practiced better last year, and have let slide a bit....

Dec. 1, 2010

Sometimes this time of year is characterized as a time of darkness. It is true, the sun is up so briefly now, for those who must leave their homes to work at jobs that keep them inside, people drive out in darkness and return in darkness.

But I am blessed to walk out my door in the middle of the day into a world suffused with light. O God, I'm thankful for that light. The light these days is brief, but it is total. Every surface is white with snow now, and the light reflects and reflects and reflects. It is like I have stepped into that world that fascinated me so endlessly in the bathroom mirror of my childhood home, the world where the mirrors faced each other; the world that drew me out into infinity, becoming a smaller and smaller and smaller version of myself, lost in space and light.

Except this world is too crisp and cold, its impact on my body too immediate to become lost in abstraction. I went out to cut wood. We are eating through our woodpile very quickly all of a sudden.

I have been cutting with a handsaw lengths of wood that I removed with a chainsaw from the woods in sections just short enough that I could carry. The chain saw is sitting in the wood shed now. I could use it, and in an afternoon cut up all the stove length pieces I might need for the rest of this winter. The logic of industrial efficiency would find my handsawing insane. But going outside and cutting wood in the afternoon sunshine is seems to help keep me sane these days. My body wants something to do outside. My muscles want the exercise, my brain wants the oxygen and my soul craves the light that is in this silly, industrially superfluous activity.

A while back, the girls and I were cutting wood together and we heard the "keeee, tweee, keeee, kek kek kek" of an eagle coming from the river. We put down our saws and hatchets to go investigate, and got a sight of a big immature eagle flying round the bend, calling to an adult sitting in a tree a little further down. It was one of those moments of gratitude and wonder that confirmed in us what we came here for. What if I had been using the chainsaw? The girls would have never been with me, because of the danger, and none of us would have heard any eagles, because of the noise.

I think its fair to say that we are at the tail end of the industrial age. The age of the machine brought enormous opportunity for leisure, culture and knowledge. High technology and cheap energy offered a bevy of choices and "lifestyles" unimaginable to previous generations. It also taxed the world beyond its carrying capacity. We still have a lot of choices, although who knows for how long.

I am finding meaning, and joy, and contentment in certain specific renunciations, like cutting stovewood without a chainsaw. I'd like to think that it could remain possible in future to still use a gas-powered chainsaw to fell trees. I'd like to continue to be able to use labour-saving technologies enough to still have time for writing, for visiting and enjoying friends, or for having energy and resources to give beyond myself. But I want to become discriminating about using any machine that removes from my life activities that make me work my muscles, be on the land, or cooperate with friends.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Superbowl XLVI: Rene Girard vs. the Sacrificial Cult

This week my friend and neighbour Victor forwarded James Howard Kunstler's cunning Superbowl commentary "All Screaming Id, No Brains, No Honor" ( Kunstler's brilliant lampooning of this cultic national moment first thrilled me, then left me reaching for my copy of "Violence Unveiled" - Gil Bailie's "reader's digest" of the revolutionary insights of Rene Girard, on violence, culture and the scapegoating mechanism. I suggest you check out the link to Kunstler before reading on. If you find any of my commentary useful, I suggest you buy a copy of Bailie's book.

Oh, Victor.

I laughed, I groaned, I cried.

As the saying goes, you can't make this stuff up.

And then after I was done my cathartic chuckles, the voice of Girard was in my head again.

What Girard would want to point out, I think, is that there is nothing remarkable about a culturally unitive sacrament wherein "all the problems of life are depicted as coming from outside our society (or world)," or wherein peace is construed as a reality to be enjoyed "by a few human remnants...after a cosmic showdown."

This is the ancient sacrificial cult, as old as human culture itself. It is the way we have achieved cohesion and coherence all along. It is what makes "Super Sunday" the biggest religious holiday of America's other, older faith.

What is remarkable is that someone inside US culture is able to see and unveil and lampoon this cult so effectively.

Where did he get the cultural tools to "pick out the log in your own [society's] eye" instead of being preoccupied with the "dustmote in your brother's [society's] eye?"

Girard's take is that we Westerners have been living with (and distorting) the Bible for so long that we take its cultural critique of sacrificial violence to be an instinct natural to ourselves, and not as something we inherited from it.

Girard's interpretation of the Bible both puts essays like this in context, and pushes cultural critique even further.

What liberals like us, who enjoy these types of rants, don't take seriously is how dangerously destabilizing such messages are to society. Imagine for a moment that Kunstler had somehow pirated airtime during the Superbowl and broadcast this message, and that the millions of viewers had somehow let their psychological defenses down long enough for the truth of this essay to sink in? The American social contract would be finished. There would be blood in the streets.

Social conservatives have good reasons for wanting to shut up or drown out prophets like Kunstler: What sacrificial violence keeps at bay is apocalyptic violence.

As much as I agree with the essay's very sharp analysis of the real threats to America today, I would add the demythologizing of our dominant cultural narratives and sacraments, such as performed in this essay, pretty high on that list. Probably at the top.

What I have learned from Girard is not to underestimate the dangers of undermining our cultural institutions and myths, without an alternate way of reconstructing our togetherness. Kunstler fascinates, because, like a high priest of old, he has the ability to cut the beating heart out of the culture and lift it up into the sun for all to see. But that is only step one in the cultural heart transplant our times demand of us. Step two is no less urgent.

We have to find an entirely new way of achieving social solidarity - nonviolently, nonjudgementally.

In a sense, you could say we need a new kind of comedy. What you might call a comedy of grace, rather than a comedy of judgement:  a comedy that invites us to laugh at our human folly all together. And this, I think, requires a deep connection to a goodness not our own. Otherwise, I fear we will not be able to resist the illusions of wellbeing or the thin camaraderies that come from telling ourselves we are better than the caricatured "other," whether the other be the Aliens of the Mayan Apocalypse, or the Stupid Diabetic Football-Watching, Propaganda and Cheezy-Eating Fat Man glued to the Superbowl game.

The only way out of the scapegoating game is by grace. We will find that way, or we will destroy ourselves. That, Girard would say, is the meaning of the Bible's Apocalypse.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When Pigs Can Fly

My Opa used to tell a story about “Das Dicke Fette Schwein,” the big fat pig. It was a tale about a crafty farmer and his wife overcoming their natural enemies – the wolf, the fox and the rabbit – and securing their prize pig from these three through quick wit and careful planning.

My story is called, “When Pigs Can Fly.” It is a cautionary tale about an idiot who couldn't drive a pig from point A to point B, but who was granted a miracle of grace entirely beyond his deserving.

Winter having come on, and our two pigs having fattened up, the plan was to butcher “Bubbles,” the castrated male, for meat, and to transport “Dandelion,” the reproductively intact female, to our friends the Vanderkamps, who had agreed to winter her with their pigs, breed her to their boar and send her back ready to raise a litter of pigs here come next May.

My preoccupation in planning the transport was in getting Dandelion into the truck. The first time was pretty easy, as it turned out. With me carrying a bucket of slops ahead of her to coax her, and David and Jenn holding boards beside her to allay her fear of heights, she clambered up the ramp I had built for her without much fuss. I tacked a board across the back of the truck bed already boxed in on the other three sides, and left Dandelion thus ensconced, feeling quite clever and pleased with how well the loading had gone. I thought, now I can get a few things done, and leave with Dandelion right after lunch to be at the Vanderkamps by early afternoon, as they had suggested.

After lunch, when I went out to the truck, Dandelion was happily back with her buddy Bubbles. I had not secured the board nearly well enough, and if there is one thing pigs can do, it's push. I was a bit surprised that she had jumped the tailgate, but with her buddy Bubbles in clear sight, crying for her to come home, I could understand it.
Loading Dandelion the second time was a big headache. She was much 

warier now of the truck. After a dozen failed attempts, our patience and confidence were wearing thin. Our inexperience was glaring us in the face.

It was Johanna who came through for us big time. With me and Jenn blocking and pushing from behind, Jo let Dandelion get her whole head into the slop bucket at a crucial moment, and then pulled that bucket along with all her strength. Up to her eyeballs in slops, Dandelion forgot her inhibitions just long enough for us to get her all the way up the ramp and slam the tailgate closed.

This time Jenn guarded Dandelion while I secured all the corners of the box with extra cross braces and screws. We had her. We were a bit delayed, but could probably be at the Vanderkamps by quarter past two.

Sophia rode shotgun and kept an eye on Dandelion through a slot in the board behind the cab. I was hoping that once we got going, Dandelion would settle in and lay down. As we pulled out on the road, Sophia checked a couple of times and could see Dandelion standing around. Then, a couple of miles out, she couldn't see her anymore.

“All I see is a big pile of straw.”

“Are all the boards still in place?”


“Nothing looks broken?”

“She must be laying in the straw right behind us where we can't see. There's no wind right behind the cab, so she must have settled in back there.”

I never fathomed that a 240 lb pig could jump or scale a five foot wall.

We drove all the way to the Vanderkamps, feeling like real farmers, driving Dave's Dad's old red beater Chevy down highway 44, full of confidence and empty of sow.

We got there, backed up to their hog barn, and I climbed into the back. No pig. I kicked around in the straw to make sure. She was gone.

“Well, you better go look for her,” said Gerd, the real farmer. “Here, take this knife. You'll probably have to bleed her out if you find her. She'll be injured. You better take a gun, too.” He brought out his .22 rifle. “You know how to shoot?”

“It's been a while.”

After a quick gun handling and loading tutorial, and a phone call to Jenn, we were back on the road. Martina's parting gesture to us was with folded hands: “We're praying you find your pig.”

On highway 44, I ran out of gas.

That would have been OK. I had brought a gas canister along from the farm. But the red truck, which I don't use much, has two tanks. And if you pour your gas can in the left side, and the little button you haven't noticed on the dash is switched to “right side,” you're still out of gas. So the truck won't start, no matter how much you pump it.

And when a friendly cottager pulls over and tries to help by pouring a spoonful gas straight in the carburator, the truck will make a nice starting sound, and then not do anything more until you put in another spoonful. But if you keep doing that over and over and over, you burn out the starter. In the silence of the dead engine, you hear your inner critic:

“You don't know what you are doing out here. You are not a farmer. You are an incompetent.”

By this time, Jenn and Johanna had met up with us, not having spotted our pig anywhere along the way.

We abandoned the truck and headed back to St. Ouens, which was about where Sophia had stopped seeing the pig in the back. There was nothing more I could think to do with the truck, and dusk would be falling soon. If we had any chance of finding our pig, we would have to do so in the next hour.

By the time we reached St. Ouen's it was just starting to get darker. We drove slowly, two sets of eyes out each side of the car. Nothing. We stopped at the neighbours:

“Hi, you don't know me, but I'm your neighbour and an idiot who can't be trusted with livestock. Have you seen my pig?”

“Nope. Good luck.”

Back at the farm, we held council with Matthew, just home from work for dinner with his parents. Matt's Dad, Ernie, offered to go out with his truck to tow ours home. We kept our eyes peeled on the way out. It was nearly dark. Again, no pig. At that point, I gave up hope of finding our pig alive. Maybe we'd find her in the morning, dead of injuries and exposure. The meat would be spoiled, and an animal in my care would have suffered a slow and miserable death due to my ignorance.

I had a lot of time to think about this as I sat holding the steering wheel in the freezing cab of the dead red truck slowly being towed home on the 44 service road. I don't really know how to pray in situations like this, other than: “Thy will be done.” “Into thy hands I commit my...pig?”
Jenn has no such theological compunctions. She was praying for her pig to be found, and getting friends to add her lost pig to their prayers, too.

Of all the requests that went up to heaven that night, I don't pretend to know why ours would be granted so directly.

But here is how it happened. Our friend Kate dropped by at the farm to deliver milk. She usually does this on Tuesdays. (This was a Wednesday.) She had had a meeting on Tuesday, so she came today. Of course, Jenn told her about the pig.

Driving home in the dark, thinking about other things, it suddenly occurred to Kate, “Oh, I should keep an eye out for that pig.” And at that exact moment she came up to the place where Dandelion lay way at the bottom of a very deep ditch. And at that exact moment, Dandelion raised her head. Kate's eye caught the movement, and she took her foot off the gas.

Even afterwards, when Kate had gone back to get Jenn, Dandelion was hard to spot, despite Kate knowing where to look. They passed her once and had to double back.

Danders was in pretty rough shape. She could get up on her front legs, but her back end wouldn't move. She was grunting low, restless sounds. Her breathing was hard and raspy. Jenn covered her with a blanket and rubbed her back and spoke soothing words. Her breathing settled.

When Matthew and Ernie and I arrived in our little caravan, Jenn was clear on what needed to be done.

I took out the gun and knife we had packed along in Ernie's truck, just in case.

It's a strange thing to kill an animal you care for. To me, it's a reminder that, for them and for us, there are worse things than dying. What matters is living well until you do. Dandelion had lived about as good a life as a pig can until her last hours of stress and pain.

I put the bullet where it had to go and found her jugular in a hurry with the knife. Life surged out of her in a great spasm, and then she was still.

She was a big pig. The four of us could just barely hoist her up into Ernie's truck.

After a late supper, Matthew, Jenn and I skinned her together, and then I gutted her, without spilling any shit or piss or bile. After so many screw-ups that day, it felt great to get something right. We split the carcass in two and stowed it in the root cellar. We aren't poor enough that the winter would have been difficult to get through without that meat, but we live close enough to the line that recovering the time and resources we put into that pig left me staggered with gratitude.

After I came in and washed up, I sat by the woodstove and sang my heart out:

“We ask only for what we need,
ask only for what we need this day
Saweniminan*, saweniminan, saweniminan
All we need is in the land,
every gift of the land is by your hand,
Saweniminan, saweniminan, saweniminan."

That's the story of when pigs can fly.

*Cree for “Bless us”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Driving Home from America: Road Notes

Babylon, O Babylon
Your streets were wide, your wine was strong
You caught us in your dizzy throng
A thousand tongues, a thousand songs
Each one a dog chasing a tail
Our meanings and our memories fail
Still faint and from beyond the pale
Jerusalem sings:
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

America, America
You brought the show that we all saw
Your might was right, your might was raw
You brought the gun that brought the law
Your missionaries walked the moon
You're promising a comeback soon
Untouched, the stars sing their own tune,
Unbowed by all kings:

To drive across this much of the United States (Comer, Georgia to Pembina, North Dakota) in three days is for me to contemplate the full horror of the vision I cannot shake: a vision of collapse.

Today fuel is still cheap. We can still travel 800 km in the hours of a single working day, for $50, an amount Jenn can still earn in a single hour of her work. Today we are still kings and queens upon the land, our chariots still swift and at our ready.

But the weather is changing frightfully fast: 18C in Iowa yesterday, January the 30th, 2012. In Minnesota, the eighth month in a row of record-breaking warm weather so far this fall and winter.

And now, as we pass into North Dakota, the underground explosives of the boys "fracking oil" at Woolerston sound the rumbling scrape of America hitting the bottom of its barrel.

Fracking oil - a phrase poetically apt in its violent and expletive resonances. We are a sorry bunch of Mother-frackers, every last one of us. An entire continent of frack-whores and junkies.

This is what I think as we burn through mile after mile of interstate. Us and millions of others in the world, burning through 84 million barrels of oil every day. America eats and regurgitates its anxieties as advertising lingo: "Energy Security" one billboard promises in terms of corn. "Peace of Mind," another shrieks. I am car sick. I close my eyes to the blur of shrill and desparate capital lettering whizzing past me, try to be still and not vomit up the salty road snacks I have overeaten.

And I think of the people. I am not passing monsters here, but people. Families who love their children, who want to see them succeed in their endeavours, see them build solid futures on the edifice we are bequeathing them. And so, to speak of its crumbling is nearly criminal.

There were 8 TVs in the restaurant/lounge where we ate our breakfast this morning, each on a different channel. I was terribly distracted by all these, and yet uninformed entirely. Which must be the point. In an economy constructed of smoke and mirrors, to speak forthrightly would only be to hasten its end. "Consumer confidence" after all, is the name of the faith that still manages to safeguard our social contract, however strenously.

When we get home, after burning through about 400L of diesel, I will set fire to the carbon of trees to warm our little house, and will know this act of resistance to be entirely symbolic. It may heal my imagination (no small thing), but it will not heal the land. This thing that is happening is too big for me to stop or to withstand.

Not long ago, a black man became president of this nation, heralding vaguely, boldly, "Yes, we can!" It was a nobler lie than that of his currently front-running contender: "Corporations are people too." But still, it was a lie. Three and a half years later, the significance of putting a black man in the White House has turned out to be precisely skin-deep.

No, we can't. We can't stop ourselves from burning through a billion year inheritance in a century. We can't retreat from triggering catastrophic climate changes. We can't avoid the pain of collapse.

Our humbling will hurt. I no longer have hope of avoiding it. If anything, I pray for its hastening, even though its portents really are beginning to frighten me. I am choosing (foolishly, perhaps, but in an age of absurdity, what choices are there other than whose fool to be?) to identify my hope with the hopes of the prophets of old. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah - those who foretold the necessity of, but also the healing latent in national disaster: that in our crisis we might repent, that we might finally reckon with the truth of our iniquity, and receive new hearts of flesh, in place of our hearts of stone.

Whence come new hearts?

Another apocalyptic seer, who called himself "the Human One," broke through to a fearless love in the face of terror. Instead of preparing his disciples to circle the wagons at the end of the world as they knew it, he prepared them to risk love, to give away rather than protect assets, to receive from him a peace "not as the world gives."

Therein lies my hope. As I write these words, I am happy to be home.