In memory of Heather Catto Kohout

Heather on honeymoon, 1985

As many of you know, Heather Catto Kohout, whose idea Madroño Ranch: A Center for Writing, Art, and the Environment was, died on October 17, 2014, nearly three years after her initial diagnosis with metastatic cancer. Her obituary gives only a faint idea of the breadth and depth of her intellect and engagement, so it seems appropriate to devote this edition of “Free Range” to her memory, specifically to the words her beloved children Elizabeth, Tito, and Thea offered up at her memorial service at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Austin on October 23.

Thea (excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”):

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if there ever was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it.
And ceas’d the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself.
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)


Good morning. On behalf of our family, thank you for coming.

Some of my first memories of my mother are of strength and power. More specifically, of being picked up and carried on a long hike in Colorado because I couldn’t keep up with her leisurely thirty-mile-an-hour pace. She could spend an afternoon nipping cedar under a remorseless August sun as easily as she could drive a Suburban full of screaming middle-schoolers from Austin to Mexico for a church trip. But as I got older, I saw her strength manifest itself in less obvious ways. She gave of herself freely and completely to good and just causes, from immigration to environment, and insisted that her children do the same. And I now understand better the strength and compassion she showed throughout both of her parents’ passing. She was the world’s strongest woman.

She wasn’t just strong, though. Her boundless intellect was just as amazing. It took me a long time to understand that not everybody’s mom analyzed Eckhardt Tolle and Anne Lamott. That not everybody’s mom read to them, and discussed the moral and metaphysical implications of talking cats or feudal society with them. That not everybody’s mom would cock her head, furrow her brow, and skewer anyone she met with a genuine and limitless curiosity. But she wasn’t grudging with her knowledge. Rather, she produced more information than she took in, and not just in her beautiful poetry and lyrical prose. Her entire life was a dialogue with the world, whether the world knew it or not. She never met a person she couldn’t teach and couldn’t learn from. Priests, artists, hotel maids, professors, state meat inspectors: she never met anyone who didn’t feel, after an hour’s worth of conversation, that they hadn’t known her and loved her for decades. I recall my panic as a child when she would fix her attention on one of my friends, or my teacher, or the plumber who came to fix the dripping bathroom sink, and ask them to tell her about themselves. And they would tell her, trusting that she would hear them and carry their struggles herself, just because she could.

Despite the strength of her body and her mind, though, she never tried to overpower anyone, to bludgeon them into doing her will. Instead, she treated every person she encountered with respect and dignity, regardless of the circumstances in which they met. She was equally capable of chatting with illegal immigrants as with former presidents of the United States. As a kid, the mixture of embarrassment and pride I felt at seeing her ask the gas station attendant how his wife’s surgery had gone was too much for me to understand. Now that I’m older, the pride remains, but it’s mixed with astonishment that she could remember everyone she met, remember their stories and their worries and their hopes, and offer support and comfort and advice as needed. That she was always available to family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. That she was never rude or dismissive or unkind to anyone.

Trying to understand her is a process, and the process hasn’t ended. It won’t ever end. The longer I remember her, the more things come bubbling up from where the past hid them to surprise me with delayed insight into her strength, her intellect, and her grace. She’s no longer here, but this is not the end. She will remain with us, reflecting and refracting and magnifying herself into our lives to inspire, awe, and delight us, as she always has. And although it may not seem like much, it will, like her, be sufficient and abundant for us.


I’ve never noticed fireflies here in October, but I’ve been seeing them at dusk since around the time my mother began hospice. When I initially noticed them, on a run around my neighborhood, the first thought that popped into my head was that the fireflies were bits and sparks of my mother’s soul as it began the difficult work of disentangling itself from her body. I know that’s not scientific, not reasonable, and doesn’t make sense. I know there’s a more logical explanation for these fireflies out there, that maybe they’ve always been here this time of year, but I know my mother was someone who was at home with contradictions and poetry and big ideas, so I can’t quite let go of the notion that these brief and brilliant flashes of light are somehow a part my brilliant mother.

I love that Mom chose Whitman for this service. I can’t think of a poet better suited for a celebration of life, and Thea chose a perfect passage. There’s another part of Leaves of Grass that’s been rattling around in my head, though, and that’s the bit where Whitman asks, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” In putting together these thoughts about my mother, I’ve found myself tugged in contradictory directions: Do I talk about her love of being in motion and of the outdoors, or her love for stillness and meditation? Her strengths as a conversationalist or as a listener? Should I mention how she danced to Prince and Michael Jackson in the kitchen, or how she sang to Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris in the car? Her endless patience with children and friends, or her quick exasperation with lazy thinking, discrimination, or, perhaps worst of all, filling out forms? Her sense of humor or her serious intellect? Her deep commitment to the environment or her deep love for the Suburban she drove in the ’90s? The more I try to contain her within a narrative arc, the more deftly she slips away. Really, it’s not so different from chasing a firefly and losing it in the dark once the light stops flashing.

In some ways, I wonder if this isn’t Mom pranking me—daring me to figure her out, then darting away at the last second. She had a strong mischievous streak. In high school, she and I drove back from Colorado to Texas together. We spent a night in Taos and, on a whim, adopted a tiny, bright white, fearless kitten we saw through the window of a carpenter’s workshop when we were walking back from dinner. The kitten wasn’t even up for adoption, but Mom decided she belonged with us and sweet-talked the carpenter, and the next thing I knew we were speeding through the desert with Minnie the kitten cavorting across the dashboard. We did not tell my father about it until we returned home, where she pretended to be deeply sorry for bringing yet another cat into the family, but we all knew she didn’t mean it when she burst out laughing at the kitten’s antics in the middle of her apology.

And that laugh—my mom had one of the world’s great laughs. I think anyone who’s ever eaten dinner with my family knows that laugh and the lengths we went to in order to hear it. I don’t remember exactly when or how this tradition began, but for the past several years we’ve read a David Sedaris essay about Easter in France out loud over Easter dinner. It’s a fantastic essay on its own, but we don’t read it strictly for literary merit. Rather, we read it because every year without fail it made my mother first shake, then howl, and eventually weep with laughter, until the rest of us were helpless with laughter too. These are some of my most treasured memories.

In the last few months, as my mother’s health deteriorated, I found myself becoming more and more grateful for her laughter, for that bright flash of light that seemed to shine all the more brightly as everything around it got darker. In the last long conversation I had with her, I asked for her thoughts about marriage and raising a family and, while language was already starting to slip away from her, she still got her main points across. Mostly what she talked about was how much fun she’d had. Life with a husband and children had been exasperating, exhausting, confusing, and much harder work than she’d expected, she said, but it had also been infinitely more fun. That’s what she kept repeating: I had the best time, we had the best time, it was the best time.

And so it was. Of all the best times we had, the one I can’t get out of my head is of an early summer evening. I was about ten. We were walking the dog together and the night was warm, but the heat from the day was gone. We got to the open field around the corner from our house and the three of us kids took off through the grass and trees, shrieking, the dog and my dad running alongside us. As the sun set, I noticed that the fireflies had arrived for the summer. When I turned around to check for my mom, she was about twenty-five yards behind us, illuminated by a street lamp, with flashes from the fireflies all around her. “This is happiness,” I thought.

What I’m reading:
Jane Austen, Persuasion

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The first annual Madroño Ranch residents’ reunion


Photo by Thea Kohout.

Two Saturdays ago some twenty former residents and members of our Advisory Board gathered at our house in Austin for what we hope will be the first of many annual “Resident Reunions.” We envisioned this gathering as a chance for them to get acquainted with each other (and each other’s work), and also an opportunity for us to thank them for being willing to take a chance on what is still, after all, a fairly new and ad hoc residency program. (We’re in our fourth year of accepting residents.)

The gathering was also a reminder of how many things have changed since we first came up with the idea for a residency program at Madroño Ranch. Our naïve original vision involved hosting eight residents at a time, gathering around the table every night to eat, talk, and listen—to receive and offer nourishment, both literal and conversational.

That vision, we realized fairly quickly, was not practical, for a number of reasons (have you ever been asked to be witty and brilliant every single night for two weeks in a row?), so we scaled back; now we usually have one or two residents at a time, and we don’t require them to report for dinner and be witty and fascinating. Communal connection cannot be forced, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

Hence the idea of a residents’ reunion. We’ve had forty-three residents so far, from a range of disciplines, including poetry, fiction, painting, journalism, paleontology, film, music, photography, forest history, oceanography, drama, book arts, and environmental law. In the future, we hope to have even more: theology, architecture, choreography, who knows?

At the gathering at our house, five former residents—visual artists Mary Baxter, Stacy Sakoulas, Bill Montgomery, and Margie Crisp, and environmental writer David Todd—volunteered to do brief presentations on their work and what a Madroño residency meant to them. (Many thanks to Margie, who’s also a member of our Advisory Board, for putting the slide show together!) Three other former residents—writer Spike Gillespie, paleontologist Julia Clarke, and science writer Juli Berwald—got up and talked briefly about their work without visual aids. (Juli ended with a limerick of her own composition about jellyfish.) Wonderful food (from caterer Brandy Gibbs of Austin’s Fine Home Dining), beer, and wine were consumed, stories were told, and connections were made.


Photo by Thea Kohout.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what poet Sasha West had to say:

What a wonderful and inspiring evening! Everyone I talked with was so interesting—and doing such worthwhile work in the world. Worthwhile and beautiful…. Madroño has been a catalyst for so many people at this point. And as their (our) work goes out into the world, hopefully it will be a catalyst for many more.

And here’s what Margie said:

I had the chance to meet writers whose work I’ve admired for years, chat up old friends (and, yeah, get a little gossiping in too), meet my hero [and fellow Advisory Board member] Tom Mason, and yak with other visual artists. So much fun.

“Good food, good wine, good conversation, and great, great work coming out of the residency” was the assessment of Advisory Board member Shannon Davies, the Louise Lindsey Merrick Editor for the Natural Environment at Texas A&M University Press. David put it even more pithily: “tasty food and drink, fun company, and great show and tell.”

It was everything we had hoped it would be, and more. Because while part of the point of a residency program like ours is to offer an opportunity for reflection to creative people who need it, and while we may need time and space away from the demands of the quotidian to brainstorm, reflect, and create, we are also social animals, and we need other people to talk and listen to. We need to hear ourselves articulate our own arguments; as Oliver Sacks put it, “We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.” We need to bounce ideas off others so we can hear what they sound like and assess their effect. I believe that community is or should be as much a part of creativity as is individual inspiration; the most brilliant idea in the world is useless if it is not brought forth and shared. That’s why our mission statement mentions “solitude and communion” (emphasis added).

It was a pleasure and a privilege for us to host the first annual residents’ reunion—these are the coolest people we know!—and we hope that at future gatherings even more of these fascinating, thoughtful, creative folks will come to meet and share their work with their peers. It was one of the most enjoyable parties we’ve attended in years, and we can’t wait for the next one.

What we’re reading
Brian Doyle, Mink River
Martin: Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places

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Repairing the world: the Beatles, Alaskan mountain goats, and Asiatic cheetahs

Teri Rofkar

At the annual conference of the Alliance of Artists Communities, which we attended in San Jose, California, two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend a session with Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Meloncholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. He is currently finishing another book entitled The Power of Two: Creative Chemistry, and at the conference he talked about this work in progress.

According to Shenk, the traditional paradigm of the lone genius has recently been countered by a more nuanced story of the complex network out of which genius emerges. While he doesn’t deny the existence of either the loner or the network, he asserts that a very specific electricity arises from creative pairs: think John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Georges Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. He also argues that there are several predictable acts in the stage life of a creative pair, the first of which is often an attraction of the familiar to the unfamiliar.

And while the two partners must in some way merge, each partner losing his or her particular identity to the other as in the confluence of rivers, “creativity proceeds from dichotomous exchange,” as Shenk says. Roles that become fixed or static signal a dying fire. This dichotomous exchange often involves an asymmetry of power in the partnership and consequent tension and unraveling. Those generative sparks can be extinguished without moments of what Shenk calls repair, moments of returning to the pure joy and delight of the original sparking.

To illustrate one of these moments, he played a clip of the Beatles’ famous 1969 rooftop concert, their last live performance together. During their rendition of the song “Don’t Let Me Down,” John forgets the words to the beginning of the second verse and improvises several syllables of gobbeldegook instead, exchanging bemused smiles with Paul. Shenk identifies this as a moment of repair in a torn relationship—by the time of this performance the friendship between John and Paul had nearly frayed to the breaking point—a recapturing of delight.

While Shenk didn’t use the word “marriage,” marriage easily qualifies as a locus for creative energy, although not necessarily marriage as it’s envisioned today, with its focus on equal rights and equal work loads, of two people completing each other’s deficits into some measurable whole. I hasten to add that fairness and equality, in some form, are necessary to any fruitful marriage; however, the asymmetries and tensions and inequalities that also occur within marriage are often the source of a relationship’s generative genius. Shenk’s taxonomy of creativity between pairs appealed to me instantly because I found immediate evidence to support his structure, not in the pairing of people but in the sparks that fly when unexpected disciplines are rubbed together.

One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Teri Rofkar, a native of Alaska and a member of the Tlingit people. She began her career as a traditional weaver making baskets from such materials as the roots of spruce trees, maidenhair ferns, and native grasses, an art taught to her by her grandmother and which she is now teaching her grand-daughter. These baskets, aside from being beautiful, can last for hundreds of years and are woven so tightly they can be used as water vessels. When she took a class at a local community college on traditional methods of textile weaving, she realized that she already had most of the skills she needed to make the leap from weaving plants into baskets to weaving goat hair into traditional robes, a skill that had almost disappeared.

To practice her new craft, she needed mountain goat wool, and lots of it, so she befriended local park rangers who worked with a herd that had been introduced in 1923. The rangers informed her when they found spots where the animals had shed or when they found one dead. She became aware of a study of the genetics of the mountain goats, which discovered a herd genetically unrelated to the introduced herd and dated it to the last ice age, indicating that the species had not been “introduced” but was, in fact, native.

This genetic drama was unfolding as she was beginning work on a new robe. In addition to the traditional patterning, she added mathematically correct renderings of the distinctive DNA strands of the two herds. Although in some ways the addition was a design innovation, she knew from her many years of basket weaving that her ancestors had always transmitted a deep knowledge of the natural world through their art. On her website she writes:

Decades of weaving have opened my eyes to the pure science that is embedded in Tlingit art. The arts and our oral history together bring knowledge of ten thousand years of research to life. My goal is to continue that research, broadening awareness for the generations to come.

She wore the robe as she presented her keynote speech, dipping each shoulder and spinning so the robe rose up like smoke around her. “Who knew science could dance?” she laughed. Her delight communicated itself to the audience as we witnessed a moment of repair between ancient art and modern science.

Martin and I returned to Austin just in time to attend the last day of the Texas Book Festival, a spectacular intersection of people who love to read and write. We attended a session facilitated by one of Madroño Ranch’s first residents, Juli Berwald. She interviewed Alan Weisman, an environmental journalist and the author of Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth? Fiercely researched and beautifully written, Countdown follows Weisman’s travels through more than twenty countries asking four very loaded questions: how many people can the land carry? How robust must the Earth’s ecosystems be to ensure our continued existence? What species are essential to our survival? What kind of economy would serve a stable human population, rather than the current exploding one? Despite the complexities of the questions—which Weisman addresses with sensitivity and intelligence—a uniform answer presented itself in virtually every context: education of girls, which almost inevitably leads to lower birth rates and to fewer ecological pressures on the planet.

He tells a story about Esmail Kahrom, an Iranian ecologist whose interest in biology had its roots in the Persian carpets he saw in the museum his father took him to as a child, one in particular, dating back to 1416. It depicted a Tree of Life, and among its branches the boy found an extravagance of intricately woven birds, animals, and even insects:

The depictions were so detailed that zoologists could determine each species. He was looking, Kahrom understood, at creatures now extinct in his land. The eyes of ancient carpet weavers are how Iranian biologists know today what once lived there.

One of the animals that has almost disappeared is the Asiatic cheetah, which exists now only in Iran. Visiting the United States for the first time, Kahrom found himself in a sixth-grade classroom in San Diego, invited by the teacher, who was married to one of Kahrom’s cousins. She showed her students the Iranian flag and Iranian coins and then unrolled a Persian rug, one that Kahrom could tell immediately was ancient and expensive. She introduced him to the class as an ecologist, someone who studies the ways in which all life is connected.

Then the classroom door opened, and in walked a curator from the San Diego Zoo with a muzzled cheetah on a leash.

The teacher asked her astonished class what would happen if the endangered cheetahs disappeared altogether. Would the students suffer from the loss? Would they still be able to live their lives? The class agreed that they would, even though they thought the cheetahs should live. The teacher pointed to the beautiful rug she had brought in, noting that it was years in the making, with its more than one and a half million knots. What if someone came in and cut out one, or even two hundred, of the knots? Would you be able to tell? No, she said. You wouldn’t even notice.

But what if you keep cutting, she asked, as her students and the cheetah watched her. Opening her arms to include the space beyond the classroom walls, she said:

All this is the carpet of life. You are sitting on it. Each of those knots represents one plant or animal. They, and the air we breathe, the water we drink, and our groceries are not manufactured. They are produced by what we call nature. This rug represents that nature. If something happens in Asia or Africa and a cheetah disappears, that is one knot from the carpet. If you realize that, you’ll understand that we are living on a very limited number of species and resources, on which our life depends.

These stories weave together many things, but what struck me was the union of the textile arts with modern science. So often the realm of women and household, textiles claim a lower rung on any cultural-status ladder than the hard sciences, but their marriage can strike all sorts of generative sparks. Jewish mystical theology identifies the work of the chosen people as the restoration of God’s shining shattered dwelling place, associated with the feminine principal, with God’s exiled self: tikkun olam, or repair of the world, whose signal marker is delight. In a culture that so often measures itself by efficiencies of scale and measurable, predictable outcomes, I wonder if we wouldn’t be well served to seek out irregular marriages between powerful and humble enterprises, between unlikely partners like science or technology and the arts, rather than seeking to separate them, as so often happens in times of economic stress. In these unlikely partnerings perhaps we’ll see some repair of our moth-eaten world.

What we’re reading
Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening
Martin: Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City

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Mind the gap: ghosts, trees, and Goodbye to a River


There’s a 5,000-pound ghost hovering over Austin’s Lady Bird Lake, the remains of a 35-foot cedar elm painted white and hoisted onto a shaft sunk into the water. Entitled Thirst, this collaborative project memorializes the estimated 301 million trees in Texas that have died in the current drought.

It’s a haunting sight, this desiccated tree with its roots hovering just above the water that would have kept it alive. Looking at it and its reflection in the water, I couldn’t help but wonder about ghosts, who seem to reside in that gap between sustenance and death. When you can’t see the space that Thirst creates, the space between the roots reaching for the water and the water itself, it’s easy to forget that it exists when the roots are underground as well: that gap, that amazing gap across which roots somehow get the nutrients they need to grow—or don’t. The floating tree gives room to investigate that ghost-thick space in more-than-literal ways as well, a seasonally appropriate exploration as Halloween rolls its perky little way across our neighborhood.

When Martin and I were in California last month, we went hiking through the area of the Mount Vision fire, which burned 12,000 acres of the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1995. Hundreds of charred trees—most of them Bishop pines—still stood in testament to the devastation of the fire, riding like gray ghosts on the backs of the hills galloping into the ocean.

Aftermath of Mount Vision fire

Despite the reminder they provided of pain and loss, I was struck by their place in the busy landscape. Woodpeckers, warblers, chickadees, hawks, and coyly hidden singers flew in and around the old ghosts, nesting, feeding, resting. Some of the dead trees had melted into mulch, providing cribs for numerous other species. I read later that Bishop pine cones, which grow in tight thick clusters on the parent pine’s branches, won’t release and open except with intense heat.

Something about the scene reminded me of an afternoon I spent years ago walking through a predominantly Mexican cemetery on the west side of San Antonio, probably about this time of year, just before the Day of the Dead. Families were picnicking among the grave markers, many of which bore photos of the dead. Many of the dead were long gone and couldn’t possibly have known in life some of the generations gathered there, and yet there were balloons and fresh flowers and toddlers all bouncing through the scene. It was the first time I had seen this intentional, comfortable coexistence of the living and the dead, a reaching across the gap that usually separates them, and something lively was released.

It’s easy to romanticize that gap, to say that it’s just a Ouija board’s journey from one side to the other, or to deny that any interpenetration across it is possible. One thing I know about the gap is that it’s often delivered in a placenta of suffering.

Martin and I also just finished reading Goodbye to a River by John Graves, who died on July 31 of this year. Born in 1920 and raised in the Fort Worth area, Graves left Texas as a young man and returned in 1957 to take care of his ill father. In November of that year, when he heard that the Brazos River, the site of many adventures in his youth, was to be dammed, he decided to canoe and camp along the part of the river that he had known the best, between Possum Kingdom Lake and Lake Whitney, a trip of 200 or so miles that took about three weeks. He wrote not only about his adventures with “the passenger,” the dachshund pup that accompanied him, but also about the history of the river and its people. Graves had no patience for the myth of the noble “Anglo-Ams” (as he called the white settlers) who ousted the savage native Americans; his respect for the Comanche nation (“The People”) and other indigenous tribes was unfashionable at the time. His respect for the river and its environs was equally unusual at a time when the natural world shared the same degraded status as the Native American.

At the same time, Graves was respectful of the Anglo-Ams whom he called “the old ones.” He had a particular fondness for Charles Goodnight, one of the namesakes of the famed Goodnight-Loving Trail, whose ranch Graves passed on his journey. Graves wrote of Goodnight, “He was a tough and bright and honorable man in tough not usually honorable times, and had respect and a kind of love for the Indians even when he fought them,” which was often. Graves tells a tale so haunting about Goodnight and The People that I think it must float, almost visible, around that bend of the Brazos, whether it happened or not.

Many years after the buffalo herds—and the Comanche way of life—had been effectively extinguished, a group of reservation Comanches rode their “gaunt ponies” to see Goodnight. Goodnight and his wife had rounded up the last stragglers of the southern bison herd, the seedbed from which the current Texas state herd has grown. Goodnight knew some of the older men; he had fought them and then gone to visit them in on the reservation in Oklahoma to reminisce. They had come to ask him to give them a buffalo bull, to which, according to Graves, the crusty old rancher responded, “Hell, no.”

They may or may not have asked again, but in the end, after camping patiently for several days in his yard and on his porch, much to the amusement of Goodnight’s curious cowhands, the Comanches left with a bull, Goodnight “maybe deriving a sour satisfaction from thinking about the trouble they’d have getting it back to Oklahoma.”

But they didn’t take it to Oklahoma. “They ran it before them and killed it with arrows and lances in the old way, the way of the arrogant centuries. They sat on their horses and looked down at it for a while, sadly, and in silence, and then left it there dead and rode away, and Old Man Goodnight watched them go, sadly too.”

Graves watched ghosts all the way down the river, recalling tales of “the old ones” and their children, tales of murderous feuds and crude bravery and epic misuse of the land. Reflecting on the bloody, violent stories, he wrote facetiously: “Were there, you ask, no edifying events along the Brazos?… Didn’t sober, useful, decent people build for themselves sober, useful decent lives, and lead us, soberly, usefully, decently up through the years to that cultural peak upon which we now find ourselves standing?”

Well, yes, he says, but “neither a land nor a people ever starts over clean.” Both land and people inherit what has come before. Both leap over the amazing gap that separates one moment from the next and yet binds them together. A people’s progenitors “stand behind its elbow, and not only the sober gentle ones. Most of all, maybe, the old hairy direct primitives whose dialect lingers in its mouth, whose murderous legend tones its dreams, whose oversimple thinking infects its attitudes toward bombs and foreigners and rockets to the moon.”

Because he was willing to engage with ghosts—especially the hairy, scary, foul-mouthed ones—John Graves’s voice is still audible somewhere in the gap between the floating tree and the river, through the interstices that link the living and the dead. Within those interstices, something lively is released—though released in the fires of suffering. No wonder we don’t like ghosts. But, oddly, they can tie us to a place, a history, and to each other, so long as we have time to tell their stories in that space between the river and the roots. It’s those interstices that allow for the development of unexpected and fruitful connections.

What we’re reading
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Martin: Jeremy Adelman, Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman

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The unsteady rock: Descartes, salamanders, and the Nicene Creed

Georgetown salamander (Eurycea naufragia)

In my last post, I compared saying the Nicene Creed to stepping on unsteady stones across a creek, stepping here and not there, meaning this and not that in an effort not to end up with wet feet and an unsayable creed. One of the tippiest stones for me is the word believe, which for a long time I understood as a sort of thought bubble in the brain in which the creed could be said and remain unspotted from the world. Upon this rock I now place a salamander.

A story in Monday’s Austin American Statesman reported on the multimillion-dollar battle being waged in two Central Texas counties over who will protect the Georgetown salamander and its cousin, the Salado salamander: local authorities or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s a story that I suspect will cause some eye rolling among developers, conservationists, scientists, laymen, liberals, and conservatives alike. But here’s the thing: these embryo-like creatures, which live in caves and springs in declining numbers, are bellwethers of water quality for the region. Their skin is so thin their beating hearts are visible, and they absorb any toxins in the water directly into their bodies. Their declining numbers in the face of new development in both counties can be attributed and weighed and argued, but the last word is that our well-being and theirs are inextricably entangled. No one in the story seems to be arguing about that.

On my tippy rock, next to the salamander, I now place a book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, by David Abram, a philosopher, cultural ecologist, and sleight-of-hand magician. This beautiful work is in part about learning to locate ourselves outside ourselves in order, quite literally, to understand ourselves: we cannot separate what we stand on—the Earth in all its history and destiny—from who we are and how we know it. Without this understanding, we cease to know anything, or indeed to be fully human. Yes, yes—I’m off the rock and in the creek. But Abram writes about these contorted philosophical topics with a lyric and embodied clarity, eschewing abstract language. His topic—how we know what we know—has become a signpost on this uneven path toward believing.

As a philosopher, Abram is a phenomenologist, someone who studies human consciousness, particularly as it focuses on direct experience. How do we know that we know something? Descartes famously sought certainty as the baseline for knowledge. When you experienced something through your senses, how could you be sure you weren’t dreaming or mad? What could you stand on to say anything with certainty? Descartes found certainty inside his mind—he thought, therefore he was—and effectively drew a line in the sand between the subjective, autonomous mind and the objective, inert world of things. Descartes was no atheist; he acknowledged that without God there could be no confidence in the reality of the external world. But Descartes’s pronouncement released God to become an idea, cloven from creation, while the primacy of scientific method and mathematical truth became almost inescapable over the next centuries. After Descartes, anyone saying “I believe” more likely believed in a second-tier proposition as it stacked up against scientific rationalism, one that was merely subjective and consequently of little use in the real, objective worlds of science, commerce, and politics.

Abram rejects this split between what we know and how we know it, and he does it by taking us out of our Cartesian heads and back into our sensing bodies. Despite the power and information that the scientific revolution has brought us, we cannot separate our daily lives—even those spent in laboratories—from the ambiguous, pre-conceptual ground of sensory experience. Writes Abram, “The fluid realm of direct experience has come to be seen as a secondary, derivative dimension, a mere consequence of events unfolding in the ‘realer’ world of quantifiable and measurable scientific ‘facts’,” facts which descend from some impersonal, objective dimension like putti from heaven. Abram does not question the accomplishments of science and technology. He does, however, want to uncover how a blinkered commitment to their processes has left us blind to the subjective, sensuous, sentient life of bodies—all bodies, animal, vegetable, mineral—and the great breathing body of the Earth. To be deaf to the lively ancient and ongoing conversations of the Earth is to be cut off from our own humanity because the perceiver and the perceived are made of the same stuff.

So imagine that you’re sitting outside, watching your cat stalk a lizard climbing a sunflower as a blue jay heckles from a nearby tree. Where is all this happening? Inside your mind? There’s a reliable solidity to this tableau, no matter what Descartes says. Or is it happening “out there,” with no participation from you, the observer? Abram points to another place, what he and other philosophers call the life-world, the world we don’t pay much attention to: the one where the kitchen radio is on and the mail is being delivered and the dogs are sniffing something foul and widgets are being made. This is a collective rather than private space, ever shifting and open-ended and containing the unceasing activity of its innumerable inhabitants. The point of entry into this life-world is the sentient body of each inhabitant. When I watch the cat-drama, perception doesn’t happen just in me or just in the participants; rather, it occurs in the crucible of this communal space, belonging to it and not its individual participants. In this view, the air is no longer empty but bursting with relationship. Nor does perception occur without the literal ground we stand on, which from its depths shapes the life-world in which we dwell. When we elevate ourselves into some objective realm of fact, we’re unable to participate in or even hear the ongoing conversations with the created world that ensure our own full humanity.

Back to my unsteady rock, on which I now place a small gong. Knowing even less about gong design than I do about philosophy, I imagine it looking something like an atom, its dense nuclear heart the place the clapper hits, its reverberations spreading outward, gaining power. I put it on the rock to remind myself of one of the images that first drew me to take seriously the possibility of a Christian life. In A Testament of Devotion Thomas R. Kelly, a mid-twentieth-century Quaker mystic, writes of his own faith journey not as an ascent toward belief but as a descent into the Light:

There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profound level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings…. Between the two levels is fruitful interplay, but ever the accent must be on the deeper level, where the soul ever dwells in the presence of the Holy One. For the religious man [sic] is bringing all affairs of the first level down into the Light….

Kelly does not leave the Earth behind in his God-ordered life but digs deeper into it, perhaps alluding to the literal fire that burns at its center. Wikipedia tells me that the Earth’s hyper-hot inner core, which was liquid for its first couple of billion of years, has been solid for the second couple of billion, although it is surrounded by the turbulent viscosity of the equally hot outer core. When I say—or preferably sing—the creed, I imagine voices sinking into the light beneath the Earth’s skin, mingling with the wild subsonic frequencies sounding at the core, and then reverberating back into our haunted air and beyond, audible to those listening for them.

So I believe. And when I say “I” I also must say we since “I” can’t be entirely separated from the Body extending through time and space that says it. We believe in the disagreeing fellowship around the necessary salamander, whose name, Eurycea naufragia, means “remnant,” and thus sneaks a prophetic note into the conversation. We believe in God’s love for creation, so profound that the Body of God can never be disengaged from it. We believe that when humanity separates itself from the Body of God, it ceases to be fully human and commits atrocities both willfully and ignorantly. We believe in the gravity of all created things, whose resonance pulls them down toward the singing Light and which carries its cadences back to the surface.

Sometimes it takes me a long time to get across that creek, what with trying not to step on salamanders, knock over gongs, and such.

What we’re reading
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Martin: Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

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Conflict on the half-shell in mellow Marin

Save Our Drakes Boy Oyster Farm sign

“… most ranchers and farmers in the West care as much for the health of their land, air, and water as any member of the Sierra Club.” (Mark Dowie)

This was the second September in a row in which we decamped for two weeks to Point Reyes Station, California. The town, with a population of about 350, is in western Marin County, an hour north of San Francisco; it lies at the foot of Tomales Bay, which separates the Point Reyes peninsula from the mainland, and is a gateway to the Point Reyes National Seashore, some 70,000 acres of pristine beaches, rocky cliffs, historic dairy farms, redwood and eucalyptus trees, and tule elk. It is one of the most beautiful parts of a beautiful state, popular with hikers, kayakers, campers, horseback riders, and mountain bikers.

Point Reyes Station is also a foodie mecca, even by the rarefied standards of northern California. The nationally renowned Cowgirl Creamery is based here; the Saturday morning farmers’ market at Toby’s Feed Barn bears witness to the stunning variety and fertility of the surrounding farms and ranches; and the town features several fine restaurants, including Osteria Stellina, and a variety of enticing nearby dining options, including Saltwater, in nearby Inverness, and the renowned Hog Island Oysters, a few miles up Highway 1 on the eastern shore of the bay.

Natural beauty and agricultural plenty, plus a temperate climate: Point Reyes has it all. Even though Tomales Bay actually rests atop the dreaded San Andreas Fault, which means that there’s an excellent chance that it’s ground zero for the Next Big One, this may well be as close as we can get to an earthly paradise. All of which is by way of trying to put the controversy surrounding the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which harvests more than a third of the state’s oysters, in some kind of context.

People have been harvesting oysters commercially in the waters of Drakes Estero, an estuary on the southern edge of the Point Reyes peninsula, for more than a century; President Kennedy signed the bill creating the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962, and ten years later the government paid the Johnson Oyster Company nearly $80,000 for the property for inclusion in the park, offering the company a forty-year nonrenewable permit to continue operating.

In 1976, Congress passed a law designating the 2,500 acres of tidelands and submerged land of Drakes Estero as a marine wilderness effective upon the termination of that permit. In 2004, the Johnsons sold out to the Lunny family, longtime local cattle ranchers, who continued operating as the Drakes Bay Oyster Company; apparently the Lunnys assumed that the government would let them continue harvesting oysters in the estuary past 2012, even though the government told them that “no new permit will be issued.”

In November 2012, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar formally announced that he was allowing the permit to expire, though various court orders allowed the company to keep operating. Last week, however, a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the federal government was within its authority in terminating the permit. The next step is uncertain, though the company will probably seek a hearing before the full court.

The case has become something of a cause célèbre in normally mellow Marin. While the Interior Department tries to do what’s right from a national perspective, fulfilling a Congressional directive and following the letter of the law, Point Reyes Station and the surrounding rural areas are thick with hand-painted blue-and-white signs begging “Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm”—hardly surprising, I suppose, given the fact that the Lunny family has been here for a century, and the general antipathy toward Big Government among small farmers and ranchers. Supporters of the company have even started a Website,, which is full of populist fervor, arguing that the feds “are illegally denying Californians their rights to shellfish cultivation in Drake’s [sic] Estero” and urging people to “Join us in standing up for the People’s right to this remarkable food source!”

The company’s own Website makes much of the Lunnys’ commitment to environmentally sound practices. Its mission statement reads, in part, “All of our growing, post harvest and delivery practices are built around sound and sustainable agricultural practices with ecological responsibility and a long-standing attitude of stewardship for the land and sea that we farm.” A number of local restaurants and farm bureaus have weighed in on the company’s side. The legendary Alice Waters of Chez Panisse noted the importance of “a community of scores of local farmers and ranchers, such as the Lunnys, whose dedication to sustainable aquaculture and agriculture assures the restaurant a steady supply of fresh and pure ingredients.”

Meanwhile, critics of the Lunnys argue that they have not always lived up to their lofty claims. The California Coastal Commission charged the company with “illegal coastal development, violation of harbor seal protection measures, and failure to control significant amounts of its plastic pollution.” Various environmental groups have arrayed themselves on the government’s side. Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association said that the decision “affirms that our national parks will be safe from privatization schemes, and that special places like Drakes Estero will rise above attempts to hijack America’s wilderness.” A Huffington Post story noted that the Washington nonprofit providing the company with pro bono legal representation had ties to the arch-conservative Koch brothers and was a front for the nationwide effort to open public lands to private exploitation.

It is impossible for an outsider like me to know what to make of all this; the controversy quickly becomes a morass of he said, she said charges and countercharges. Without knowing the details of the situation or the principals involved it is impossible to tell where the objective truth lies, if there is such a thing—which is, I grant you, a pretty big if. It seems, however, that each side has come to believe the worst about the other.

When I was a kid growing up in Mill Valley, Marin County was a byword for a laid-back lifestyle. Beads, patchouli, incense, peacock feathers, and—I admit it—large quantities of high-quality dope were part of the equation, as was one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country, and while it has always been easy to make fun of “Mellow Marin” (see Cyra McFadden’s The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County, for example), many people here seem genuinely committed to living in gentle harmony with each other and with Mother Nature.

Mark Dowie is an environmental journalist who lives on the western shore of Tomales Bay. In the latest issue of the West Marin Review, he writes: “I remain an environmentalist. I believe we all are at heart. But I’m a hybrid, a fence-sitter, observed with caution by ranchers and Greens alike. I’ve lost a few friends on both sides of that fence.”

He adds, “The science of land stewardship is still unfolding and it’s hard to know what’s right. But it seems clear that one right thing is communication. Close, patient, and honest dialogue between ranchers and enviros will make great strides toward right-stewardship and toward consensus in the land disputes that plague the West. Those conversations are often best had around kitchen tables.”

Given the apparent intransigence, suspicion, and bitterness on both sides, the opponents in this controversy aren’t close to sitting down at the kitchen table together; hell, they’re not even in the same building, figuratively. (Literally, it’s a different story: a block from the house we rented is a 114-year-old former livery stable with one of those blue-and-white “Save Our Drakes Bay Oyster Farm” signs on the wall facing Third Street, and in that building is the office of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, which supports the decision to close the company down.)

Perhaps I’m being childish, but I can’t help wishing, with Dowie, that the locavores and the environmentalists could find common ground. This is a special and beautiful place, and it shouldn’t be that hard to agree on the need to keep it that way. But right now “Mellow Marin” seems a little less mellow, a little more like the rest of the world, and that’s a shame.

What we’re reading
Andrea Barrett, Servants of the Map
Martin: Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

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This and not that

Multiple paths

Last Sunday we attended a dharma teaching at Green Gulch Farm, on the western flanks of Mount Tamalpais, above Muir Beach. It was the kind of morning for which this part of California is famous: foggy and cool with sudden glittering glimpses of ocean or mountain that as quickly disappear back into the magician’s hand. After scurrying down the eucalyptus-buttressed driveway, we arrived at the temple late and at the wrong door. The temple was packed and listening to the robed priest read a children’s story to perhaps twenty well-behaved but wiggly children. Once the children were sent off to their own separate programing, the priest began his teaching in earnest, an hour-long disquisition on the relationship between labor (it was Labor Day weekend, after all) and Zen practice. He read two poems by W. B. Yeats, one by Patrick Kavanagh, and referenced Shakespeare and Northrop Frye. I would bet that his radio is usually set on the local NPR station, and that he was looking forward, as I was, to reading the Sunday New York Times that afternoon.

When Martin and I got to the Times-reading phase of our own Sunday liturgy, I read a beautiful essay in the book review entitled “Articles of Faith” by Dara Horn, in which she muses on the easy confluence of contemporary Jewish fiction, even if it’s overtly non-religious, with ancient questions of faith. She contrasts this Jewish feast with the slim pickings on the post-Christian literary table: “Whither the Flannery O’Connors of yesteryear? Marilynne Robinson can’t do this all by herself!” Because Judaism is a faith based on the concept of preserving memory, she asserts a peculiar affinity between Judaism and fiction-writing, “a mystical and irrational belief in a type of memory no neurologist would recognize, a phenomenon both uncanny and eternal,” a conviction that “time can be stopped, that somewhere, whether on our notebooks… or our spirits, everything is perfectly preserved and recorded, ready to return to life.” The essay ends with a call to listen to and create the stories that give a deep anchorage in history and a shapely hope to our personal and communal lives, even as the anchorage has made clear the murderous powers in which we swim.

All right, I thought, I guess I’m Buddhist and Jewish today. Does that mean I’m not a Christian? Oh, dear. And on a Sunday.

Being in California, particularly in Point Reyes Station, leaves me a little disoriented, especially since I come from a state that has ignored virtually every vote I’ve cast in the past twenty years. Martin and I are in like-minded company here: virtually every voice loudly proclaims with gusto the gospel of sustainable and local. We’ve driven north to Bodega Bay and south to Mill Valley and in fifty miles passed not one fast-food joint. Cattle are vital to the local economy and yet are grazed and raised humanely on federal lands. Signs supporting the Marin Agricultural Land Trust—which protects about half of Marin County’s agricultural land from development—appear in almost every eatery with monotonous, almost sinister, regularity: could you end up in Tomales Bay wearing sustainably produced, free-trade cement shoes if you try to run a restaurant without supporting MALT?

Could I as easily be a Buddhist or a Jew as a Christian? A northern Californian as a Texan? The answer is probably yes, but I’m not. At some point in asserting an identity, in describing your part in the created order—something most Americans and maybe most post-Enlightenment people feel compelled to do—some sifting is necessary: this and not that. So I’m wondering why or how I’m a Christian. (Figuring out why or how I’m a Texan is probably too complicated an issue to tackle here.) The Nicene Creed seems as good a place to start as any. It’s quite possible that the mere mention of those words—Nicene Creed—will start the sifting process in some readers: here’s my stop! It certainly would have stopped me twenty years ago.

I used to hate the creed, and I hated it even before I started going to church. How could you not hate something that required you to believe a dozen impossible things before breakfast? And not just impossible but downright unethical and sometimes just plain silly? The bit about the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son always makes me think about opening a collapsible telescope. When we first started going to church, not so many years ago, saying the creed could ruin the whole service for me by starting an avalanche of arguments in my head that must have been audible at least to the people sitting next to me.

After years of saying and hating it, I began to say it with a few grudging assents. I was eventually surprised that immediately after the agitating “Father Almighty,” God’s next attribute was surprisingly democratic: maker. I’ve known lots of makers: hat-makers, bread-makers, policy-makers, cheese-makers (this is the home of Cowgirl Creamery, after all), and homemakers. Okay, I could say “maker.” I came to appreciate that creation included things both seen and unseen. Whether I believed it or not, I loved the effect of the introduction to Jesus: “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.” I didn’t know what it meant (still don’t), but it was like entering a dense fog with a deep gong sounding, and it was followed by the bright iambic rhythm of “through him all things were made.” Okay. I could say that.

I can now say almost all of the creed, even the Father Almighty part. I’ve had a father. I’m married to a father. I’m the mother of someone I hope will be a father some day. I know a lot of fathers and with all my heart I believe—credo—in the power and tenderness and explosive energy that seems to be bundled with fatherhood and that is, at least in a post-Jungian world, no longer the exclusive domain of men. I can also say what kind of fatherhood I don’t believe in, to which I emphatically do not give my heart. Nor do I imagine that calling God “Father” can possibly limit what I understand God to be, what the prophets and saints imagined and imagine and will imagine God to be. If in a moment of Christmas amazement I address the infant Jesus as “Sweet Potato,” as I have addressed each of my children, I don’t really expect a creedal formula to arise, but I glimpse the power that binds God and creation. I can say that with all my heart.

It’s taken some time to sift through these things, to say this and not that. I remember a discussion at the Seton Cove in Austin when Patty Speier, the director, listened to a bunch of us talk about which tenets of the creed we thought we could toss out while still calling ourselves Christian. (One older woman in the group, Roman Catholic from long before her birth, listened to our passionate discussion with quiet amusement.) God the Father, of course, was thrown out immediately. Only son—on the trash heap. (No one had any objection to sitting in the reverberant fog of God from God, Light from Light, etc.) Virgin birth—are you kidding? Finally Patty asked us what we couldn’t throw out and stunned us into silence. I eventually answered that question by writing my own creed, which I have to change nearly every time I go back to it. I don’t actually say it, but it helps guide my steps when I pick my way across the capital-C Creed, showing me where to balance—here and not there—on the rocks that are tippy. It goes something like this:

I believe in one living God,
author, judge, faithful lover,
unseen, usually unheard.

I believe in Jesus Christ, the flowering vine,
who was born in danger of Mary
and unexpectedly loved by Joseph;
who walked in beauty through a world
rent by greed and grief;
who healed and mourned, who taught and raged;
who sang the old songs and spoke nonsense, sometimes;
who called hidden truths to the surface;
who forced a crisis in those who met him.
He died in agony—deserted, betrayed, true.
He rose and bloomed somehow, beckoning
everyone in time and space to join him.
And most of all I believe in the Spirit, who binds
with luminous swaddling the Creator, the Beckoner,
and all that is, has been, will be.

I believe they are the source of all just anger, all quiet courage,
all patient love, all improbable forgiveness.
I believe this mostly at night, in poems and music,
and when I don’t think too hard.
I believe this whenever friends and strangers gather for a meal.
I believe this as I can, which is sometimes not at all,
but I know I must believe or wither.

My identity as a Christian (and perhaps as a Texan) has taken—and continues to take—a series of unexpected turns. Many of the paths on which I have found myself peter out, but some of them allow me to move ahead. Since Martin and I are in this beautiful place to hike, I can’t help but imagine this process as walking in a wild place with a map that is useful in a general sort of way—you know what direction you’re headed in, where significant landmarks are in relation to each other—but less helpful when it comes to the specifics of navigation. The trail becomes fainter the farther you go, more like a deer trail, and suddenly you find yourself walking in high shrubs or reeds or thick understory. Several paths, equally well trodden, present themselves to you. You take one, puffing through the scratchy gorse, wishing you’d worn long pants, and swatting at mosquitoes. The trail becomes available only to those walkers with four feet. You swear and head back, hoping you’re actually on the main trail. You are, but it divides again, and all of a sudden the trail is nothing but thick impassable mud. You hear running water and know from the map that the trail is supposed to be near a creek. So you take off through the chaparral or whatever this damn stuff is and tear your shorts on a branch in an annoyingly conspicuous place. You feel sure that a trail will appear somewhere if you just get a little higher up. And all of a sudden, your partner now muttering unattractive observations about your sense of direction, you glimpse the quiet shining lake. You’re still not sure where the trail is, but the lake is right there.

What We’re Reading
Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King
Martin: Lewis Hyde, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership

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A tale of two kitties

Mr. Allnut

We lost one of our cats recently. Mr. Allnut (named for Humphrey Bogart’s character in The African Queen) asked to go out at about 4 one morning a few weeks ago, and I let him go. He never came back, and a week or so later, a neighbor confirmed Mr. Allnut’s fate—met, we all agreed, at the business end of a coyote.

We live in central Austin, but a very steep and heavily wooded ten-acre draw cuts through our quiet neighborhood. The terrain is so treacherous it’s hard to explore, even with the permission of the friendly neighbor who owns it, which means it’s easy to forget that the nightlife is literally quite wild in our back yard. We used to hear the coyotes occasionally years ago when sirens sounded at dusk or dawn, but they’ve apparently learned to sing under their breath. They’re still here.

I loved Mr. Allnut. He looked like a stuffed animal, with his regular markings and crossed blue eyes, and he behaved like one too: he suffered being cuddled and cooed over with a resigned limpness and clawless stoicism. And I still miss his sister Adelaide, and Spike with the light bulb at the end of her tail, and Kerbey and Skitter and Widget. They were cats of regular habits who just disappeared over the course of the years. I learn a lot a lot slower than the coyotes and must finally acknowledge that we always live in the midst of predators.

Apparently a lot of us are deluded into thinking that large predators are restricted to “wilder” places than cities and suburbs. One multiyear study in Chicago surprised the wildlife biologist conducting it; he found that the city’s coyote population was much larger than expected and that urban coyotes lived longer and are much more active at night than their rural siblings. They live not just in green spaces but also in apartment districts and industrial parks. Because they learn very quickly to avoid traps, it’s hard to get an accurate number, but the author of the Chicago study thought there could be up to 2,000 coyotes there—a much denser population than would cover a rural area of equal size. It’s likely that this study applies to most major metropolitan cities, including, of course, Austin. (In fact, former Madroño Ranch resident Melissa Gaskill wrote a piece on the city’s coyotes for the Austin Chronicle back in 2008, and coincidentally a story headlined “Tensions Over Coyote Trapping Split Austin Neighborhood” ran just this morning in the Austin American Statesman.)

Predator. It’s a compelling word, derived from the Latin meaning to plunder or to rob, so to call something a predator is to freight it with moral judgment. As far as I can tell (which isn’t far because I lost the magnifying glass to our edition of the compact Oxford English Dictionary), the word referred only to human behavior until it made a zoological leap in 1907. I wonder if that leap helped give steam to the notion in land management circles that rubbing out entire species was not only a reasonable stratagem but a righteous crusade. Predators rob and steal and, therefore, must be punished. Destroyed.

The Wolves and Moose of Isle Royale project is the longest continuous study of the predator-prey system in the world, spanning more than fifty years of observation on this frigid island on the Michigan side of Lake Superior. The scientists involved have concluded that to designate wolves simply as dangerous nuisances to be eradicated is to miss the hard and necessary work they do; the apex predators are vital to their complex ecosystems, despite the fear they inspire and the losses they cause. In other words, as Aldo Leopold wrote in his essay “Thinking Like A Mountain”: “too much safety” from wolves, and presumably other apex predators, “seems to yield only danger in the long run.” Because we often don’t take into account the needs of the mountain or all the other participants in a predator-prey cycle, we ranchers or hunters or businessmen end up poking ourselves (or our grandchildren) in the eye. The length of the Isle Royale study has brought academic rigor and complexity to Leopold’s beautiful musings, and has showed the scientists how much they still have to learn: “Navigating that complexity without hubris will be a great challenge.”

So you can probably connect the dots so far: despite the loss of Mr. Allnut and his compadres, I can’t entirely condemn the responsible coyote, who was just doing his job. He’s also probably eaten many, many rats and provided other services I don’t know about. A righteous campaign for coyote extinction would be understandable but could also be very ill-advised.


Now I’m going to make a crabwise move. At about the same time Mr. Allnut disappeared, we lost our beloved ranch cat Callie. Despite the fact that she was mostly white like Mr. Allnut, she managed for the eight or nine years she lived at Madroño to stay clear of coyotes, raccoons, foxes, bobcats, hawks, eagles, owls, and the occasional mountain lion. She was also immensely talkative and sociable, always accompanying us to visit the chickens and occasionally eating out of the feed buckets right alongside them. I frequently scrambled her an egg, a privilege she just as frequently lost each time I found her counter-surfing yet again. She spent many, many hours on my lap, drooling and kneading, shedding and purring. She was a good mouser and all-around excellent creature.

After she was diagnosed with skin cancer on her nose and ears, ranch manager Robert Can-This-Really-Be-In-My-Job-Description Selement smeared the affected parts with sunblock as often as possible, but of course she licked it right off. The cancer began quite literally to eat her nose and upper lip. We balanced our distress at her appearance with her comfort as long as we could bear. She’s now buried by the shed, near her empty food bowl, her grave awaiting a marker as colorful and lively as she was. It’s very hard not to think of cancer as another kind of predator, not to think: Eradicate. Kill. That’s what predators deserve.

In her thought-provoking Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag examines the language we use to describe some diseases and the use of disease as metaphor in non-medical arenas. A three-time cancer patient herself (she died of leukemia in 2004), she wanted to release cancer patients from the invisible but real shackles language slaps on them. Cancer, in her view, is “in the service of a simplistic view of the world that can turn paranoid,” encouraging radically reductive thinking and action. She particularly objects to the images of war, pollution, military or alien invasion, and genocide that cluster around cancer as a metaphor because they inevitably become confused with the individual cancer patient who becomes a loser by dying, a toxic dump site by being diagnosed, an invaded country, a helpless victim of ruthless overlords. Having cancer is a complex issue in and of itself without having to bear the burdensome, accusatory implications of the metaphors surrounding it.

As a language nerd, I wonder how to name to my own metastatic cancer because my words shape the choices I make in treatment and the rest of my life. While I can see why declaring war on cancer seems appropriate, I’ve come to find the analogy misleading at best, self-eradicating at worst. This cancer is as integrally a part of me as the coyote in my back yard, as the wolves, as any predator is a part of its distinctive ecosystem. Like a coyote, my cancer quickly learns to avoid the traps we set for it. While I don’t want to be eaten, I also don’t want to declare war on myself. Perhaps we’ll find some intimate connection we don’t know about yet between the loss of apex predators and the rise of cancer. Perhaps cancer provides some kind of service in this world of ours that has been so rapidly rearranged in the last century, when we began to use the word “predator” to describe non-human behavior and then went to war. Perhaps we need a new metaphor that allows us to live consciously and respectfully and curiously with the world around us and within us, navigating that complexity without hubris—and without metaphors of violence and condemnation.

What we’re reading
Christian Wyman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer
Martin: Lewis Hyde, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership

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The Wild Ram of the Mountains

John James Audubon, “Rocky Mountain Sheep”

Okay, show of hands. How many of you knew that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (better known as the Mormons) played a prominent role in the settlement of the Texas Hill Country?

Don’t feel bad; I had no idea, either, until I was assigned to write the entries on Gillespie County for the New Handbook of Texas almost thirty years ago. In fact, for more than a decade in the middle of the nineteenth century, a breakaway group of Mormons founded and then abandoned an astonishing number of settlements in Central Texas.

The Mormons are now well established in Utah, but that wasn’t always the case; their early history was, to put it mildly, peripatetic. Joseph Smith founded the movement in New York State in the 1820s, but he and his followers attracted violent opposition almost immediately. They moved to Ohio in 1831, intending eventually to settle in Independence, Missouri, but after bloody clashes with locals in both states, they moved again, to Illinois, where they founded the town of Nauvoo in 1840. A year later, Smith and the Nauvoo city council angered non-Mormons by destroying a printing press that had been used to print an exposé critical of Smith and the practice of polygamy; Smith was imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois, and died in a riot when a mob stormed the jailhouse.

Before his death, having concluded that Illinois was no more hospitable to the embryonic faith than New York, Ohio, or Missouri, Smith sent an envoy to negotiate with Sam Houston for the establishment of a Mormon settlement in the Republic of Texas. Lyman Wight, one of Smith’s favorites—he was ordained the first high priest of the church in 1831—had received Smith’s permission to lead a group to Texas, but Smith’s successor Brigham Young decided that Utah would be a more propitious site. While most of the Mormons followed Young to the Great Salt Lake Valley, about 150 to 200 dissenters (accounts vary) followed the renegade Wight, who felt compelled to honor Smith’s wishes, to Texas.

Wight seems to have had an incorrigible case of happy feet, even by Mormon standards, and a profound stubborn streak—hence the colorful nickname, “the Wild Ram of the Mountains,” bestowed on him by the New York Sun. (That’s John James Audubon’s ca. 1845 lithograph of Rocky Mountain sheep at the top of the page, by the way.) Wight was born in upstate New York in 1796 and subsequently lived in Canada, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin; he also refused to acknowledge Young as Smith’s legitimate successor.

Wight and his followers spent the winter of 1845–46 at an abandoned fort near Preston, in Grayson County, and arrived in Austin in June 1846. They settled in what is now Webberville, where they met the pioneer blacksmith and memoirist Noah Smithwick, in September 1846, and built a gristmill on the Colorado River which was destroyed by a flood.

By this time the Mormons must have been wondering if they would ever find a place to call home. In 1847, Wight asked John O. Meusebach for permission to found a colony on the Pedernales River; no doubt he hoped that the Germans, with their tradition of religious tolerance, would look more kindly on Mormon polygamy than had their Anglo neighbors. (Apparently the Germans considered the Mormons “lawless of religious practices,” but pragmatically figured the newcomers could teach them American agricultural and milling techniques.)

Wight and his followers founded the settlement of Zodiac, four miles southeast of Fredericksburg, in 1847. There they built a sawmill (the first in Gillespie County), a gristmill, a store, a school, and the first Mormon temple west of the Mississippi River; they became the principal suppliers of seed, flour, and lumber to their German fellow settlers, and also helped build Fort Martin Scott, established in 1848 on what was then the western frontier of settlement in Texas.

Wight himself refused several invitations from Young to come to Utah and was excommunicated by the Mormon church in 1849. In 1850 he lost the election for chief justice of Gillespie County to the German immigrant Johann Klingelhoefer, but was awarded the office after pointing out that Klingelhoefer was not an American citizen. By the following summer, however, Wight could apparently no longer be bothered to show up for court, so the county commissioners declared the office vacant and awarded it to Klingelhoefer, who had since become a citizen. (One historian has suggested that Wight was addicted to alcohol and opium, which may have contributed to his erratic behavior.)

Perhaps Wight had already sensed another move in the offing. In September 1851, after more devastating floods, he and his followers left Zodiac and moved to Burnet County, where they established a colony called Mormon Mill on Hamilton Creek—those Mormons were serious millers, weren’t they?—but in December 1853 Wight and his followers sold the property to their old friend Smithwick and moved on to Bandera, where they built a furniture factory. In the fall of 1856, however, they moved again, this time to a site on the Medina River below Bandera which came to be known as Mountain Valley or Mormon Camp. (The site is now covered by Medina Lake.)

If folks thought that Wight would settle down at last, they were sadly mistaken. In 1858, he had a premonition of the Civil War and decided to lead his followers—one can only imagine what they thought when he told them to pack up yet again—back to Missouri.

Apparently this was one move too many even for the indefatigable Wild Ram of the Mountains; he died on the second day of the journey, when the group was about eight miles from San Antonio, and was buried in his ceremonial temple robes in the Mormon cemetery at Zodiac, which no longer exists.

And what of his followers? Some remained in Texas, while others moved on to Iowa, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), or Utah. As of 2012, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints claimed 315,895 members in Texas, or about 5 percent of the national total of 6,321,416. Only four states—Utah (of course), California, Idaho, and Arizona—had more. I wonder how many of today’s Mormon Texans are descendants of Wight’s followers, followers who were secretly relieved not to have to uproot themselves yet again at the whim of the Wild Ram of the Mountains?

What we’re reading
Andrew Solomon, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Martin: Rachel Hewitt, Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

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Poetry and the pelvic bowl

Buddha with a bowl

Some say you’re lucky
If nothing shatters it.

But then you wouldn’t
Understand poems or songs,
You’d never know
Beauty comes from loss.

It’s deep inside every person:
A tear tinier
Than a pearl or thorn.

It’s one of the places
The beloved is born.

April was National Poetry Month, which might or might not be a silly thing, but it has prodded me into thinking about poetry and my erratic relationship with it. When I received my two degrees in English, I was emphatically a fiction person. Poetry made me anxious because I could never figure out how to read it or what it was supposed to mean. My poetry textbooks from college and grad school are studded with frantic and useless annotations: cross-references to other poems by the same author, details about textual corruptions or variations, or underlinings directed by the professor that have no meaning for me now. Only rarely did I mark something just because I liked it, and then I worried about having made such a bold declaration. What if it didn’t mean what I thought it meant? What if someone discovered that I just didn’t get it?

I still have no idea what many poems mean, but I more often read poetry than fiction now. I use poetry when I teach and pray. I even read it just for fun. I sometimes write the kind of poetry that gave me brain freeze twenty-five years ago. How did this sea change come about? It began, I think, when I went to seminary and was forced to confront the Bible, a book I had never read and suspected that I wouldn’t like and feared would make me stupid. (I still wonder who was on the admissions committee that admitted me: Groucho Marx?) At first the familiar structure of the classroom allowed me to keep it at arm’s length. Memorize, analyze, parse, criticize. What do you do with a God who smites and punishes and condemns? Who needs his ego massaged with praise all the time? And yet I couldn’t help noticing that many of the psalms, the Song of Solomon, and the Jesus who considered the lilies all addressed a force they considered entirely trustworthy, entirely beautiful, the genesis and end of all desire. I could not see what they saw when I read with a lens of suspicion. And, despite my distrust, I wanted to see what they saw.

I began reading aloud, in groups, slowly and repetitively. It was sometimes helpful to have literary and historical information to draw on, but I was more often hobbled when I came to passages like this from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

It was beautiful. I knew that it was somehow true. I had no idea what it meant. Yet over and over, I found myself run through by the language of scripture, knowing I had been wounded but unable to bind or even find the wound. In the company of similarly riven souls, however, I started finding another way, not so much to read as to be read. Instead of seeking experience—that giddy adrenaline ride of a narrative—I found a place from which to see my own experience, my self in relation to a much greater whole. I was like a one-eyed creature that had been given another eye; reality began to acquire a previously unsuspected dimension.

The April issue of The Sun contains an interview with Philip Shepherd, a British writer and actor, whose career has led him explore the implications of the little known fact that human beings have two brains, one in the head and one in the gut. This is not a fanciful or metaphorical claim. Nuerogastroenterology, a new medical field, studies the web of neurons lining the gastrointestinal tract that send signals to the body independent of the cranial brain. Shepherd is not a medical professional but uses the research in the field to examine the cultural and philosophical implications of this “pelvic brain.” Says Shepherd:

Our culture doesn’t recognize that hub in the belly, and most of us don’t trust it enough to come to rest there. Our story insists that our thinking occurs exclusively in the head. And so we are stuck in the cranium, unable to open the door to the body and join its thinking. The best we can do is put our ear to the imaginary wall separating us from it and “listen to the body,” a phrase that means well but actually keeps us in the head, gathering information from the outside. The body is you. We are missing the experience of our own being.

The intelligence of the pelvic brain is not rational, conscious, analytical or abstract; rather, it arises in the way an enormous flock of starlings alters its course like a single organism. Well, you might say, I’m not a flock of starlings. But we all have an astonishing sensitivity—a sensational sensitivity—to our perpetually changing environments, astonishing in its almost invisible routineness and its capacity to integrate multiple levels of information. It’s an intelligence we often take for granted or don’t acknowledge as intelligence at all, but it allows you to negotiate your way through space, to remember passages of music, to understand arithmetical relationships, to love or know joy. Our task is not to privilege one brain over the other but to learn to coordinate them, according to Shepherd. He uses a lovely analogy to illustrate what this coordination looks like: the astronauts who took the first photos of the earth from outer space brought them back to earth, giving us a new perspective on our planet’s fragility. We responded with environmental initiatives. We were sensitized.

Culturally speaking, though, Shepherd says that those of us who inhabit the “first world” are like astronauts who are stuck in orbit around the head, unable to descend back home to the belly, where the gathered information can be integrated and sensitize us to the great complex flow of the world we inhabit:

Our culture has a tacit assumption that if we can just gather enough information on ourselves and the world, it will add up to a whole. But when you stand back and look at something, there is always something hidden from you. The integration of multiple perspectives into a whole can happen only when, like the astronaut bringing the photo back to earth, we bring this information back to the pelvic bowl, back to the ground of our being, back to the integrating genius of the female consciousness. The pelvic bowl is the original beggar’s bowl: it receives the gifts of the world—the male perspective—and integrates them. As you bring ideas down to the belly and let them settle there, they sensitize you to who you are and give birth to insight. Our task is to learn to trust that process.

The belly brain as begging bowl, receiving the gifts of the world. In some Buddhist traditions, monks are mendicants who own nothing but their robes and their begging bowls, in which they receive offerings of food or other gifts from the lay community. These gifts are not considered alms but rather are part of an exchange in which the community supports the monks physically and the monks support the community spiritually. So quite literally, every human being carries a begging bowl to the world, an intelligence that establishes itself in emptiness, in poverty, in suffering, in sensitivity, in loss. Without that bowl, we have no place for the works arising from the cranial brain to incubate and mature before they enter the world. Without cross-pollination from the pelvic brain, the fruits of the cranial brain are stunted and distorted, rooted in the illusion that we are separate from the natural world and thereby at odds with it. Aligning the two intelligences gives us the opportunity to see holistically, with the depth of binary vision.

Given my initial take on the Bible, it seems poetically just that it should lead me to a less literal, more personally demanding way of reading, one that required some self knowledge before I could make any sense of it. Like scripture, good poetry is a gift in the begging bowl, pressing the reader to claim hunger and absence before the equally great gifts of abundance and presence come to view. In his wrenchingly beautiful volume of poetry, Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved (from which the poems at the beginning and end of this post are taken), Gregory Orr looks at the world with at least two eyes, that trinitarian third eye of the heart figuring somewhere in this body of stern and tender wisdom. I don’t mind that I don’t understand it all; reading it, I find that I have been seen, known, understood.

I guess I’m fine with National Poetry Month.

The beloved has gone away.
Always, this is the case.
Each moment turns on its hinge
And loss is there, loss
Announcing itself as absence.

But that’s because we’re looking
Backward, looking in the wrong
Direction: so desperately clinging
To a last glimpse of the beloved,
As if loss itself is what we loved.

And all the time the beloved
Is coming toward us, is arriving
Out of the future, eager to greet us.

What we’re reading
Gregory Orr, Poetry as Survival
Martin: Rachel Hewitt, Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey

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