Culture-Bereft Poison Ivy Control Program
Greetings Friends and Neighbors,
Returning to the Farm Sunday evening I experienced a staggering homecoming. Six hours on the road. Travelling through waves of Thunderstorms. Four days sitting in the teaching hall of a practicing Elder, gathered around the flickering light of the question “How did it come to be this way?” The Orphan Wisdom School in the Ottawa Valley of Ontario is, amongst other things, a two-year course on the unauthorized history of North America. The Orphans would be those of us whose ancestors left their Dead and their Culture behind when they fled the Old Country. This Letter amounts to a Thank You Note to the generous folks who host the School: Nathalie and Stephen, Kaz, Lola Jean and Dustin, a way of reporting that their labors have lapped upon these shores.
I arrive home Sunday to a place transformed during my short absence. The Farm has been kissed by the first heat of Summer, and urgently called forth from Winter slumber. Lilac laces the warm evening Air. Old Maple, in bud just a few days ago, now casts deep green shade upon the ground. The Cows and Sheep are in danger of being swallowed by Grass, so fast it grows. The place glistens with the arrival of the Greening and the passage of afternoon Rains. Around the back of the farmhouse, I check the recently discovered beds of Asparagus and Rhubarb, planted many decades ago when humans lived here. Sure enough, they’ve jumped to knee-high since I left, and I gather handfuls for dinner. But the Greening brings more than Lilac blooms and fresh Asparagus. Poison Ivy pushes out its first glossy leaves, and I am suddenly aware that the three-leafed rash maker swells from every hedge, edge and un-mowed corner of the Farm, blocking the footpaths I’ve walked every day since I moved here in March. Clad only in shorts and a t-shirt, I am literally stopped dead in my tracks. Pausing to take in this new awareness, Mosquitoes rise from the rain-wetted hedgerow in a hungry cloud. I dig pants and boots from my pack and I eventually do make it past the Ivy and back to my little house. Overwhelm begins to subside as Asparagus sizzles fragrantly in the fry pan and I stir Maple Syrup into the simmering pot of Rhubarb. And then I feel something crawling on my stomach and reach down to pull off a Tick, which I proceed to drop on the carpet before I can deposit it in the tick jar. Turning the heat down on the stovetop, I begin madly vacuuming in an effort to rid the house of the rogue invader.
One of the central questions asked by the Orphan Wisdom School is, “What is culture?” As an undergraduate student in Anthropology decades ago, a professor offered me the following answer. He said, “Have you ever wondered why, when you serve a special meal, you are more likely to dim the lights? Wouldn’t you want to see the carefully prepared food?” By that measure, culture refers to all of the things we do without thinking about it, including our modes of provisioning and speaking and making sense of the world and our relationship to it. Stephen Jenkinson, principal instructor at the School, articulates a slightly more demanding definition of culture:
Cultures are cultured not because they have more books, of more leisure time, of more well-being, but because they have glimpsed the deep unwelcome consequences the concentration of too many people visit upon the place they claim to love as their home. The spirit algorithm of the thing is part tragedy, part love story. Societies are brought to the tempered achievement of “culture” by seeing and learning the end of what they hold dear, and then by entering into a self-governance of restraint and obedience to limit….Being willing to live with less, to be less—not all—of what you can be, that is how cultures serve their world. Without the tutelage of limits and endings, you have no elders to practice and incarnate the wisdom of “enough,” no culture recognizable to cultured peoples, no record of noble restraint that would make of you and ancestor worth claiming, no defeat of the nobility-making kind. (Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, p. 44)
I will go out on a limb here and say that if you’re reading this you likely have never seen anything that resembles this definition. It’s the morning after my return home and I scroll the internet for information on organic Poison Ivy controls. Clove oil and Vinegar and a whole lot of labor is what it says. I enter my debit card number to order a plastic pump sprayer and several gallons of organic Clove-based herbicide. Without humans in residence for the past seventeen years, the Wild has had its way with this old Farm, the place we now call Goose Landing. And this morning I wonder, with significant sorrow, if all I know of culture amounts to a protracted war on the Wild. But if I use the word “culture” to refer to the society in which I’ve been raised, how will I employ the same language to entertain the possibility that it hasn’t always been this way? You may have noticed that in my writing I use the term “our way of living” to refer to the war-like practices that I rely upon simply to get through the day and on to the next thing. I will climb even farther onto the proverbial limb here and guess that, upon reading this, you might be wondering, “Well then, where would someone who looks like me find a culture?” I can tell you that I haven’t come across any cultures for sale for a reasonable price on the internet. So I order organic herbicide instead.
This has been a difficult piece for me to write, and I am guessing this means that we’re getting close to the heart of what I try to describe in a thousand different ways in these Newsletters. These questions of culture and loss and longing will be at the center of any and every invitation to gather here at Goose Landing. “How does someone who looks like me go about finding a culture?” It is an intentionally impoverished formulation of the question, the formulation born from the very malady that we might be trying to do something about by asking it. Maybe we could start somewhere else, by describing the malaise without immediately proposing a cure. From Stephen’s book Die Wise:
Here is the logarithm of progress: The more you pursue being saved from the drudgery of going through your days, the ordinariness of being around, the venality of physical limitation and vulnerability, the more is taken from the physical world to provide you that salvation and the more remote you will be from what grants you your security.
Remember that question, “How did it come to be this way?” The question invites us to run our finger tips along the broken edge of the malady, gloves off. There is a lot here in this short piece, and many projects knocking on the door of the little house, including preparations for my culture-bereft Poison Ivy Control Program. There are surely more stories to tell from the trip, including my stop at the Mohawk Tribal Headquarters. Until next week, I thank you again for reading. It means a lot.
With great care,