Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Bag Balm as Metaphor

Driving down Vermont country roads these days I often see a sight that breaks my heart: a small dairy farm in the process of dying. It happens in slow motion: the roof begins to sag, the equipment to rust, the fences to lean. And then, one day, the cows are gone. In the spring, dandelions sprout in the barnyard and Virginia creepers climb the silos which, by the time winter comes around again, stand decapitated in the snow.

There were over 11,200 dairy farms in Vermont in the 1940s, 1,091 ten years ago, and only 749 last year. It's mostly the little dairies that go bankrupt, while the mega-farms, those with over 700 animals confined in barns, have doubled in number. Falling milk prices, government regulations, high equipment costs, and, especially, the change in Americans' drinking habits (less milk, more beer) are all to blame.

The situation is so depressing that last February the co-op that owns Cabot Creamery sent farmers a list of suicide prevention hotlines along with the milk check (See Seven Days).

Fewer farms, more macmansions: Vermont is not quite what it used to be. If you doubt Vermont's drift away from its rural, farm-based identity, all you have to do is look at the change in the Bag Balm tin.

Created in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom in 1899, Bag Balm, that panacea for skin-related cold-weather ills, originally came in a green tin with a picture on the lid of a cow's head framed by a garland of clover leaves and blossoms. The side panels featured a drawing of an udder along with indications and directions for use: "For minor congestion of the udder due to calving, high feeding, bruising or chilling..."

The farmer was instructed to massage the balm gently into the udder fifteen minutes twice a day, or oftener. After a few sessions, those old-time farmers noticed a smoothing and softening of their own chapped skin. And this is how, despite the "Veterinary use only" caution on the tin, Bag Balm spread from the cows to their caretakers and then to village dwellers, skiers, tourists and assorted flatlanders as a sovereign remedy against winter skin woes.

This year, when a succession of weeks with below zero temperatures gave my spouse's hands that old sand-papery feel, he went out to get more Bag Balm and came back with a smaller tin that proclaims itself "Vermont's Original Bag Balm." The formula is the same, as is the pungent, uncompromising smell of the ointment, and there is still a picture of the cow's head on the cover, albeit much reduced. But the drawing of the udder is gone.

In fact, there is no mention of udders at all in the new tin. Gone also are the instructions to "thoroughly wash treated teats and udder before each milking....[After milking]strip milk out clean, dry skin and apply Bag Balm freely." The manufacturers must have figured that all this talk of teats and stripping would freak out customers who don't want to think about where milk comes from. Instead, they are now marketing the Balm as a "skin moisturizer for hands and body," Vermont's version of Jergen's or Eucerin.

Not that I blame the makers of Bag Balm. They are just trying to keep their business afloat, and with fewer cows with sore teats around, they had to expand their customer base. They have a gorgeous website which includes a video of real farmers talking about the product. But I miss the old tin, whose no-nonsense instructions transported me, every time I opened the lid, to the steamy inside of a dairy barn at winter milking time. I imagined the Holsteins, big as school buses; the doe-eyed little Jerseys; and the farmer making the rounds from cow to cow, filling his bucket and squirting an occasional milky jet into the mouth of the waiting barn cat.

This (admittedly romanticized) scene is becoming as rare as the original tins of Bag Balm.What can we do to help small farmers hang on, not just in Vermont but all over the country? Those of us who are neither economists, politicians, or farmers can start with what is right in front of our noses: we can buy, eat, and think local. And if like me you don't drink milk, you can still help the cause by buying local cheese--in Vermont, we have an astounding 150 varieties.*

*France supposedly has 1,000 varieties of cheese, but also 67 million Frenchmen, vs. fewer than 700,000 Vermonters.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Some Pesky Paradoxes

I have been tormented of late by a quote from the Prajnaparamita Sutra: "Live with skillful nonchalance and ceaseless concern." I can do the second part just fine, since ceaseless concern is pretty much my constant state, especially since November, 2016. But skillful nonchalance AND ceaseless concern at the same time? It sounds like the spiritual version of trying to pat my head while rubbing my stomach.

The "chalance" part of nonchalance is related to the French chaleur, which means "heat." So a nonchalant person is a cool person. Is it possible to be simultaneously cool and concerned? When I try to think about this, I feel like I'm teetering on a tightrope strung between two mountains. To my right yawn the depths of nonchalance; to my left, the abyss of ceaseless concern. One twitch and I plummet.

Here is another paradox that my overly Western brain struggles to embrace: Wu Wei, the action of non-action, or the art of effortless striving. In my twenty years of schooling in three different countries, no nun, priest, or lay person ever mentioned the wisdom of "effortless effort." From violin to trigonometry, all my teachers believed that, if some effort was good, more effort was always better. Where work was concerned, the law of diminishing returns didn't apply.

When I began to study the violin, my father told me, hoping to inspire me, that the great Catalan cellist Pau Casals used to spend six hours working on a single trill. Now I have to wonder, was Casals striving effortlessly towards the perfect trill? Was he nonchalant as well as concerned?

WuWei. Skillful nonchalance. These seeming oxymorons remind me of my mother's well-meaning advice to the angst-ridden adolescent me: "Don't think so much. Be spontaneous. Just be yourself!" Whereupon I would rack my brains trying to figure out who Myself was, so I could go to work being it.

Now here I am, well into my eighth decade, striving to unlearn everything that I was taught, everything that seemed to make so much sense and guarantee results. I'm trying hard to unclench my jaw and loosen my grip, to accept things that sound insane, to combine constant concern and skillful nonchalance.

Clearly, I have a long way to go. Didn't I just write "trying hard "?

"I have known many Zen Masters, all of them cats," Eckhart Tolle
(Telemann at 8 weeks, already master of Wu Wei)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

My Final Farm

Never more than a dozen hens for eggs, and two does for milk. A vegetable patch big enough for everything except potatoes and corn. Some apple trees, a plum, a pear, and half a dozen blueberry bushes. Given what else I was dealing with, my forays into micro-farming were insane, but at least I kept one principle firmly in mind: small is beautiful.

My adult life is marked by three separate ventures into self-sufficiency, all of them harking back to the  farm that kept my teenage mother and her family alive and fed during the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. When she wasn't plunging into creeks in the middle of the night to escape from bombardments, my teenage mother drank goat's milk and ate home-grown rabbits and pigeons and chickens and eggs and grapes and almonds and olives and cabbages and kale. Meanwhile, in their elegant Barcelona apartment my father's family quietly starved for the three years the war lasted, filling their stomachs with water from the faucet every night so they could sleep.

I was born five years after the end of the bombs and the hunger, carrying in my DNA the conviction that when times got bad you could grow your own food and survive, or live an urban life and starve.

My husband and I bought our first house from an older Austrian woman who had probably had some of the same fear-and-hunger experiences as my parents, and had filled her acre and a half with an ambitious vegetable garden, 25 fruit trees, a berry patch, a chicken house. I, who had never grown so much as a tomato in my life, plunged into self-sufficiency like a nun into her vows. That was farm #1.

It was succeeded by #2, after I had to give up my career following a diagnosis of CFS. I was in survival mode and thought, well, everything is going to hell in a hand basket, the least I can do is try to grow some food.

Farm #3, my best-loved, was in Vermont, where we moved when my husband retired. Besides the usual goats and chickens and vegetable beds and apple trees  there were for-real woods where I could gather ramps in spring, and fields where the nearby farmer harvested for-real hay. I used to stand in the front field watching my goats gobble dandelions and think, am I really here? Is this really mine?

But farming even on a micro scale and CFS don't age well together, and one day I threw my hands up and declared that it was time to be realistic and responsible and move to a retirement community on the shores of Lake Champlain. Still in Vermont, still beautiful, but not, by any stretch of the imagination, a farm.

I now live in a small cottage with all mod cons and never have to worry about dinner, which is served in the community center up the hill. But this hasn't extinguished my farming drive. My tiny enclosed porch has become farm #4, my final farm.

In it, on sunny afternoons, I sit with my dog Bisou and the cat Telemann. In a Japanese-style tub beside me Yin and Yang, the goldfish, lead seemingly contented lives, protected from Telemann by an electrified scat-mat. Pots of houseplants, the successors to my vegetable gardens, surround me: geraniums prompted into bloom by the light reflected off the snow, an ancient jade plant almost too heavy for me to lift, a Christmas cactus that my cat loves to chew. And, because I haven't given up on my dreams of self-sufficiency, a Meyer lemon tree and a Calamondin orange that gives enough fruit to make marmalade in case of an emergency.

Just outside the window are my substitute chickens.  Nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, finches gold-, purple-, and house-, and woodpeckers large and small eat the seeds and suet and drink at the four-season bird bath. Beneath the feeders, obese squirrels squabble over spilled seeds, and at sacred moments clever Reynard, my red fox, trots past on his slender black-stockinged feet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Whiny Writers

Why are we writers such a whiny lot? And it's often the best writers who complain the most. E.B. White kvetched endlessly about having to write his weekly Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker. He moved to a farm in Maine, where he hoped to be able to write more easily, only to discover that he would much rather farm than write. He lamented that, as he went about slopping the pig or gathering the eggs, he couldn’t “watch the show just for the fun of it,” but had to be constantly thinking how to write about it (see Scott Elledge, E.B. White).

Whenever Flaubert wasn’t writing, he was complaining about it to his friend, George Sand: “You don’t know what it’s like […] to spend an entire day with your head in your hand in order to find the right word[…] I spend my life gnawing at my heart and my brain.”

And here is the great Colette, at her peak, telling an interviewer, “I don’t like to write. Not only do I not like to write, but I especially like not writing […] I am so happy, so happy when I’m not writing, that it’s clear to me that I shouldn’t write…” Asked what she’d like to do instead, she answers: “Anything! Anything except writing! Carpentry, gardening, polishing the furniture …”

Colette in her eighties. Her right pinky was permanently bent from decades of writing.
Like Flaubert, she labored endlessly over every word. The appendices of the Pléiade edition of her works show that for every line of finished text there are often half a dozen lines of false starts, reversals, and erasures. So fond was she of not writing that at the height of her career she opened a cosmetology salon. Fortunately, it was a failure and she was forced to return to writing.

Me, I don’t like not writing, but I love having written. Even if I’m just writing about something cute that the cat has done, after I’ve poured my daily ration of words onto the screen I feel cleansed somehow, purged, at ease. It’s the way I imagine skilled meditators (of whom I am not one) must feel after their daily sitting.

There are times, of course, when I don’t like writing. These occur mostly when I haven’t written for a while. Then I find myself stumbling over prepositions, enmeshed in clauses, entrapped by tenses. The main thing I lose when I have been away from writing is the discipline of the first draft, which for me consists of shaking out whatever is in my head onto the screen, as if I were dumping out a waste basket.

At this point, if I allow myself the slightest backward glance over the piece, I always turn into a pillar of salt. The backward glances are the second stage. But by then I have something to work on. The page is no longer a trackless desert over which I must wander alone. There’s stuff—mostly stupid stuff, but stuff--already there. Now all I have to do is fix it, mostly by the enthusiastic use of the delete key.

When I was a sculptor I would start with a block of Indiana limestone and then make a head, or a cat, or a human figure by slowly chiseling off what didn’t belong. As a writer, I first have to produce the stone itself, by quarrying words out of my brain and hurling them onto the screen. Then I chip away until the mess starts to make sense, and becomes something that someone might want to read.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Basement Felines

In the basement of my psyche there are cats. Big ones: two lionesses and a tiger. They are a sorry-looking trio, so thin that you can see their ribs and hip bones under their dull and patchy fur. Night and day they pace in the dark, roaring. They are starving, and it’s my fault: I’m too scared to feed them.

Periodically I crack the door open and peer down the stairs at them, and their stench, like a thousand dirty litter boxes, makes me gasp. I need to change their bedding, but that would mean going down there.

What are two lionesses and a tiger doing in my basement? I put them there, in a fit of insanity, because I wanted the thrill of having these wild, fierce, unpredictable creatures under my roof. What was I thinking? Now I’m stuck with them.

What if they escape? They will surely hunt down and kill the first moving thing they see, maybe somebody’s dog, or one of the neighbors. All the same, I cannot keep them here, to slowly starve to death.

Maybe I could lure them into the car and release them in some faraway wilderness, but to do that I’d have to get close to them. The only responsible thing would be to call the authorities, but which authorities? The zoo? The fire department? The police? The police will come with their guns drawn, and shoot the poor cats. I don’t think I could stand that. Or, the cats might jump on a policeman or firefighter or zoo keeper—someone with a spouse and little kids at home—and eat them. I couldn’t live with the guilt if that happened.

Either way, whether the cats kill or are killed, I will surely be questioned, and held responsible. The embarrassment will be appalling. People will think I’m crazy, or criminal, or both. But things can’t go on like this. Somehow, I must get rid of these animals.

In the basement of my psyche, there are cats….