January 2nd, 2018

Thoreau, Minks, and Muskrats

When I first read Walden for a book report in the eighth grade, the famous quote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” stuck with me. I knew quiet desperation. It seemed like Thoreau’s words captured everything my thirteen-year-old self knew and feared.

I had Thoreau confused with James Thurber when I started reading. Walden was hard going for a kid caught in a pre-adolescent Heinlein reading spree, but Thoreau captured me. My father had spent the preceding summer in a state mental hospital fighting off suicidal depression. His return to the farm a few weeks before I turned thirteen caught in my throat. Walden helped me get it down, although some spots in my gullet are still raw.

Thoreau talked about problems I could understand. I don’t now remember reading these lines when I was thirteen, but I know I understood Thoreau when he wrote “From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”

I knew minks and muskrats. Three mink farms were within 3 miles of our farm and I had seen the sleek brown streaks of escaped minks roaming the woods and fields. My father trapped muskrats in the crick to the north of the farm when he was a kid. I set Dad’s collection of traps a few times. The only thing I ever caught was a hapless field mouse that I skinned and whose hide I salted but never got around to tanning. I saw several muskrat lodges along the crick, but the rats were elusive and fugitive minks were too smart to be trappable.

But oh how I envied those minks and muskrats! Like the lilies of the field, they never spun, toiled, or knew clutching desperation.

Since the eighth grade, I’ve read Walden several times. Thoreau is not as easy for me to take now. From years as a corporate wonk and manager, I tend to dismiss anyone who chokes on decisions that must be made, right or wrong even though I frequently choke myself. Sometimes I feel an evasive strain in Thoreau’s words, but he is so eloquent, so logical, I can’t dismiss him. Instead, I listen and realize he often says the things that I wish I had said myself.

I conclude that I may be a whiner myself. Well.

A decade or so ago, my wife made me a lavish Christmas gift of a complete reprint of the 1906 edition of Thoreau’s journals in 14 volumes. I’ve made it a practice each morning to read an entry from the journal from some year corresponding to the current day. I often lose control and read much more than a single day’s entry. I jump around between years. And I neglect the practice for weeks on end, but eventually I come back.

There is a new edition of the journals now which is said to be much better edited than the one I have. I’m a Thoreau reader, not a scholar, so I don’t know, but I have gained a lot from my old reprint. I read Thoreau’s journal in the dim hours before sunrise when I am still muddled with sleep and building my resources for the moment when Albert, the border collie who owns me, drags me out to walk in any kind of weather with complete disregard for my state– or lack of state– of mind.

I am an early riser, but not a lark, I need a few hours to take a run at the day before my thoughts clear and flow freely. Fortunately for my weak mental state, Thoreau tends to be candid rather than persuasive in his journal. When he is persuasive, he is usually showing off how he could be persuasive if he were convinced of the truth of his assertions. His tentative stand is protection in weak moments from the strength of Thoreau’s intellect. Without it, I am afraid I would be futilely at his bidding, setting up a riderless underground railroad or some other half-baked version of a 19th Century project in the 21st Century.

The journals are not polished like Walden, but they are a textbook for finding brave minks and muskrats.

These are my thought today on Thoreau. I would love to hear other people’s impressions of Thoreau if they care to share a comment.

December 21st, 2017

Christmas 2017

2017 has been a year of ugly politics, grotesque politicians, collapsing heroes, sobering international affairs, and natural disasters. I, and a lot of others, don’t expect to be nostalgic for 2017 in years ahead. I started to write this as a catalog of woes, but I’ll leave that job to someone else, someone plagued with enough schadenfreude to enjoy the task.

Instead, I declare my love for Christmas. During the month of December, I listen to classical Christmas music constantly. I hum Christmas hymns while my Border Collie, Albert, takes me out walking. I get teary over old Christmas movies and nostalgically remember school Christmas programs from 60 years ago. When I was six, I held a vine maple crook made for me by my grandfather and wore a red flannel bathrobe with cowboys on it, playing a shepherd in a nativity tableau.

Today, I reread my favorite Nero Wolfe mystery, “The Christmas Party,” to warm up for the holiday. Wolfe poses as Santa tending bar to spy on Archie and is forced to solve a murder in order to prevent being found out. I don’t fully understand Rex Stout’s attitude toward women, sexuality, and race expressed in the story because I am not sure what is humor and what is over-earnest opinion, but I smiled as I read it. The story suggests to me Wodehouse with a sharp edge.

This is a remarkable Christmas for the Whatcom County Public Library System, of which I am an enthusiastic trustee. I must bore people by now when I tell them I got my first library card over sixty years ago from the county library bookmobile parked in front of North Bellingham Elementary School. I don’t recall the name of the first book I checked out. It had a gray cover and yellow ducks inside. I didn’t like it much, but it started something.

Two years ago, the library adopted a simple five-year strategy and goal: get people to read more. We chose increasing circulation by 10% as a metric. The December numbers are not complete, but it looks like we may meet our five-year goal in just two years. The staff has been working hard. They trained everyone from pages to trustees in better ways to encourage readers to find books they enjoy. We undertook a marketing campaign that has won national awards.

We have a new library under construction that is financed largely from public donations rather than taxes and another new branch in early planning. Most importantly, when I wander through our nine branch libraries I see children, teens, and adults with their heads buried in books absorbing the wonders of culture and knowledge that libraries have housed for centuries.

An impressive Christmas for a rural county library system stuck in the farthest northwest corner of the continental US and over half taken up by  mountainous state and federal forests, a national park, and wilderness.

There are other reasons for joy in this season. Since last December, the women’s advocacy organization, Emily’s List, has heard from 16,000 women interested in running for office. That is over ten times the number that inquired in 2015 and 2016 combined. And it’s not just women. And not only Democrats. All over the country, business people, veterans, professionals of all genders are planning to run for office for the first time, for high-profile federal offices as well as city and county councils, state legislatures, every kind of office. I foresee an overwhelming change in the country’s governance that will be felt for decades. The day of the professional politician is ending, disempowered by the digital disruption of politics and replaced by digitally informed citizens. What will that be like? I hope to see it soon.

Peace and Joy to everyone.

December 16th, 2017

Farm Suicide

Who is more vulnerable to suicide: a veteran back from combat in the middle east? Or an American farmer?

The farmer.

I address some of these issues in the Lupaster mystery I am working on now. I call it Blind!, at least for now. Reggie Haskell, the transplanted urban sophisticate, confronts some of the issues of the farmer.

My dairy farmer father had himself committed to a state mental hospital when he found himself planning suicide one spring in the early 1960s. My thirteenth year, I spent a dismal summer visiting my father Sunday afternoons on the grounds of what he sometimes called the insane asylum. A farmer neighbor stepped in to milk the cows, so my father could keep the herd. Ten years later, the neighbor hung himself in his barn.

Another farmer neighbor, who happened to be a relative, burned himself to death in his car by dousing himself with gasoline and lighting a match.

I read an article in the Guardian yesterday that cited a CDC Report : nearly 85 farmers per 100,000 commit suicide, five times the national rate for all occupations and double the rate for military veterans. The next lowest rate, construction, is a dramatic thirty points lower.

I am not surprised. I was raised on a farm and I knew the two farmer neighbors who committed suicide. My father came close to self destruction, but he was lucky to seek help at the right time. I can’t think of any acquaintances in other businesses who were suicides. I worked in software development for thirty years and I heard of one or two suicide deaths, but no one in the industry whom I knew or talked to ever killed themselves.

I have noticed young people interested in growing high quality local food. I hope these idealists know what they are signing up for. Farming, raising food, has a type of stress that other vocations do not. A farmer has little control of his fate. Software engineers can study harder, acquire better tools, work smarter and work long hours with a reasonable assurance that they will succeed.

A successful farmer must do all these things, but some years the rain won’t fall, or too much will fall at the wrong time, spring turns cold and wire worms devour the roots of sprouting corn seed, impeccably managed milk cows will get mastitis for no apparent reason, the price of wheat will plummet, or the price of diesel will soar. An early freeze will rot the pumpkins before Halloween, a late freeze will wipe out an entire crop of seedlings. A farmer defies nature and the market to earn a living, and some years are failures through no fault of the farmer.

And make no mistake—farm work is hard, debilitating, and dangerous. Look at the hard calluses and cracks on a farmer’s hands with embedded grime that will never appear clean. Look at the heating pads, and bottles of liniment and arthritis medicine in their bathrooms. Farm work is physically hard, repetitious, solitary, and mind numbing. Some make a good living. Many don’t. Even more only farm part-time, working excruciating hours at another job to subsidize their farm.

What then possesses farmers to make them farm? The answer cuts close to the reason they hang, burn, shoot, and use their tractors to mangle themselves. The driving passion of my father and many farmers I have known, is to raise food. To feed others. This could be an instinct hard-wired into the brains of our species.

When farmers are threatened with the loss of their farms, their tools, their means of production, they strike out at the only enemy they can blame: themselves. Their desire to punish themselves for failure runs as strong as their hard muscles and stubborn brains. After a withering and sacrificing fight, they only see a future like the past; painful death beckons as sweet justice and respite.

I admit to having had these feelings on occasion, although I’m not a real farmer. I own the family farm. If I were a gentleman, you might call me a gentleman farmer. In reality, I am a lumpen farmer with a few vestiges of a true farmer’s feelings.

I understand the idealistic attraction of farming today. The desire to provide is strong in this age when our manufactured food supply seems to decline in quality and become a toxic threat to well-being. The farmer may be a hero, but the heroism of the farmer comes hard, maybe as hard as heroism on the battlefield. There are no medals for hand weeding for sixteen hours straight or returning to the house, slimy and bloody with afterbirth and cord blood from carrying a newborn calf to the barn at two in the morning, but feats like these are all in the farmer’s year.

Harvest festivals are a few days in the fall, and some years celebrate a step toward bankruptcy, not a profit, much less a windfall or a jubilee.

Farm suicides are a hard harvest.