Dear Folks, Summer began yesterday, the first hot, muggy, lazy day of the year, the first one where I wanted to do nothing but sit in the shade, or the brook. The lettuce and peas and spinach — the spring-season plants — had been going on and on, well past their appointed time, in the cool and wet of the previous weeks. The corn and tomatoes and squash had been sulking and waiting for a day like yesterday — you could almost watch them leap into the humid sunshine. They are weeks behind schedule, but I have the feeling that their roots have been groping under the mulch, sequestering nutrients, waiting for their chance to fuel the turbo-growth of a hot July day. That day came only yesterday.
Of course I didn’t sit in either the shade or the brook, compulsive workaholic that I am. I spent a good part of the day getting five-foot-high burdock plants out of the barnyard. Burdocks are nature’s clever evolutionary response to the opportunity of sheep wool. They grab onto the sheep and hook rides to the deep manure-rich soil of the barnyard, the perfect burdock habitat. We try to keep them down, because they snarl up wool something awful. I hate getting the pesky stickers out when I’m hand-spinning. Bartlett yarns in Harmony, Maine, where we send most of our wool to be made into yarn, won’t take burdocky fleeces. And then there’s the fun of combing burdock out of dog and cat fur, people-sweaters, and little-girl-hair. So we put a high priority on getting rid of burdocks before they bloom and set their stickers. Yesterday they were covered with buds and I knew the time had come.
Digging out burdocks is like cleaning the basement. It always needs doing, no matter how much you do. But it’s also a task that makes you feel great, because you can see order emerging out of chaos (temporarily). I had warbling rose-breasted grosbeaks to serenade me as I worked, and corn and pole beans and pumpkins expanding luxuriously all around me. (We plant them in the barnyard after the sheep go to pasture, to soak up all that manure). I was sweating and cursing the burdock roots — as thick and as long as my arm — and having a wonderful time.
I picked black raspberries too. Two years ago I put in a dozen plants of a commercial variety to supplement the ones we pick in the wild. This year they are loaded. I’ve put 6 quarts in the freezer and made 5 pints of jelly, in spite of Heather’s constant grazing. She comes out of the house every morning and yells “blackberry time!” and runs down to turn her pretty little face purple from ear to ear. Still the berries keep coming.
Yesterday I put the berries into a huge fruit salad for our birthday dinner. It was Sylvia’s birthday and also Brenna’s (her sweet sixteenth!). So we had a farm feast that was a tribute to people who have the good sense to have birthdays in the abundant month of July. Rice and a stir-fry with broccoli, turnips, snow-peas, onions, all fresh from the garden. (And shrimp from our shrimp-bush, says John.) An enormous bowl of lettuce and fennel and radish salad. For dessert a fruit salad with the berries and pear compote from last year’s pear harvest and lots of mangoes from the supermarket, because Sylvia loves mangoes. (We had a discussion at dinner about whether we could build a greenhouse big enough for a mango tree.) And a home-made Sachertorte from our Viennese cookbook. Heather and I made it, Heather performing the important services of stirring hard and licking the bowl. And chocolate chip ice cream. And balloons and presents. Heather was so excited she bounced around and then got all cranky and then fell fast asleep.
It was such a nice day! It is so glorious here at this time of year! Sylvia and Heather and I have filled the house with bouquets. Pansies and johnny-jump-ups, delphiniums and tiger lilies and dahlias, bachelor’s buttons and achillea, gloriosa daisies and calendula and yarrow and coreopsis. Nicotiniana, which Heather calls “nickle-tickle-annie.”
With all this abundance I always told myself I didn’t mind that there were no roses. Roses around here always winter-kill. It’s OK, I said, I don’t much like roses. That was a lie. It was perfect sour grapes. This year I decided to try again and planted five old-fashioned roses, which are supposed to be extra winter-hardy. I find myself going out many times a day to admire them. When they started to bloom I couldn’t stop sticking my nose into them — they have that intense, wonderful fragrance that only old-fashioned roses seem to produce. I have one or two blooms in a little vase on my desk at all times. “Queen of Denmark” was the first to bloom, and I recommend it to you all. Super-double, light pink, beautiful smell. Of course I don’t know yet whether it will survive the winter, but I don’t care. I’m willing to put them in every year if necessary.
We got only half the hay in before the rains came — it may be too late to cut the other half; we may have to buy hay for the first time in many years. Chicks of various colors and ages, from Sylvia’s various clutches, are running around the yard and, unfortunately, being picked off by another mysterious predator, one who strikes in the daytime. Sylvia is writing another children’s book, this one about a gander who thinks he’s the boss of everything (patterned closely after a gander we know well). Don is making use of the long summer days to work two painting jobs at a time. John is refurbishing our basement, which is also our workroom, potting shed, laundry, and carpentry shop. Brenna worked as a waitress for awhile; now she’s spending some time with her Mom and winning tennis tournaments and plotting to get a driver’s license.
I’ve had only one trip since I last wrote you, and that was a nostalgic one. I went home to Chicago, in whose suburbs I grew up, and where my Dad still lives, My brother lives not far away in Racine, Wisconsin. I hadn’t seen either of them in several years, so when a Chicago radio station asked for an interview and refused to do it over the phone, I agreed to go out there.
Maybe the most formative experience of my life, the one that most explains who I am today, was watching what happened to the northwest suburbs of Chicago. When I was a kid they were interspersed with farms. My first and most beloved baby-sitter was a German woman who lived on a farm a few blocks from our house. I liked it best not when she came to our house, but when we went to hers. She had cows and chickens and pigs, and she’d give us hard feed corn from the corn cribs to play with. We’d shuck it and make patterns on the floor with the kernels.
All the farms are condominiums and shopping malls now. And the prairies where I’d go with my bike to hear meadowlarks and find wildflowers. And that fantastic topsoil, without a rock in it, which a farmer from New England can only dream about. OK, so I’m romanticizing memories of childhood, but I will never be able to think that the uninterrupted semi-urban slurb my hometown has grown into is an improvement over the elm-shaded, sweet, sleepy place where I grew up.
My Dad, who has always been a businessman and occasionally a real-estate salesman, profoundly disagrees with me. He has celebrated every new office building and golf course — especially the golf courses, because he is a crack golfer. I have grown up with all the arguments for growth. They have bounced right off me. My Dad cannot understand it.
Therefore it is sometimes a strain to go back to that place where I have to confront what I consider a grievous loss of paradise and too much Republican rhetoric. (My father and I try to maintain a strict cease-fire on political discussions, but neither of us can resist violating it.) But this trip was fun. We spent a day with my brother’s family in Racine, and another day we went into the city for the radio interview. We took the train.
The old Northwestern commuter line into Chicago is a powerful force in my memory. I still have dreams about it. Trains are associated in my mind with special treats. The time my mother took my friend Karen and me, ten-year-olds obsessed with ballet, to see the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Trips to the Art Institute and the Aquarium and Marshall Field’s at Christmas. Trips to hear open-air concerts in Grant Park, my first exposure to classical music. All those great memories came back as my Dad and my stepmother Lu and I rode into the city. The train also passed the places of small everyday memory — my grade school, my high school, the drugstore where I drank lime rickeys, the moviehouse where I had my first date, the bank where I proudly deposited the first paycheck I ever earned.
My family has its share of painful memories, but on that train ride only the good ones came up. Poor Lu had to listen to my Dad and me burbling about bushels of cantaloupe in the summer, and trips to Lake Geneva, and baseball games on the Fourth of July. You know, it’s easy to buy into all the pop-psych stuff about dysfunctional families. Mine was as dysfunctional as they come, I guess — my folks eventually divorced and both remarried and gave me a super set of step-parents. But still I have so many happy memories, more happy ones than painful ones. I was blessed. I would hope for every child in the world to have as simple and wondrous a childhood as I had in what was then decent, small-town America.
When we got to the city, we went to visit my step-sister Julie, who lives in a place that is, for me, as exotic as another planet. It’s a 46th floor condominium right on Lake Shore Drive, with the city on one side and the lake on the other and sweeping glass windows to offer breathtaking views of both. I have seen those high-rise buildings many times, of course, but I guess it never registered on me that they actually have insides, and that people LIVE in them!
Julie lives there with her friend Nan, who is a veterinarian and the world’s expert on the reproduction of rhinoceroses. Right, rhinoceroses. Nan and Julie use the Chicago condo as a jumping-off place from which they are called to zoos all over the world, to help rhinos have babies — which takes considerable research and some urgency, because science knows very little about rhinoceros reproduction, and there are fewer and fewer rhinos in the world from whom to learn.
As you might imagine, I was fascinated. I could have talked with them for days. Every now and then I had to shake myself to believe that I was really 46 floors up in this gorgeous apartment, with a city lighting up before me, engaged in a heated discussion of how to design devices to extract sperm from bull rhinos!
The radio station was just a few blocks away. Julie and Lu and my Dad walked over with me and stayed to listen. The show went on for TWO HOURS! Can you imagine the U.S. media permitting that long and thorough a discussion of ideas? The host is a University of Chicago professor. He had another professor as a discussant, and it was a call-in show, so listeners kept the talk from getting too university-heady. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Call-in shows are the only ones I really like doing. Thanks to the give and take with listeners, they stay real.
After the show Lu and Dad took the train home, I stayed overnight with Julie and Nan, went to O’Hare the next morning, and came home. Things have been real quiet since then, thank goodness. I’ve finished a chapter of my textbook, and, as you may have noticed on your mailing labels, I’ve completed a computer upgrade.
Thanks to the Pew Grant I received last year, I could finally afford to buy better computer equipment, and thanks to Beyond the Limits, I knew how badly I needed it. To set that book for publication we had to borrow computers. The ones Diana and I had been using weren’t able to handle the page-making program, and our small monitors didn’t let us see a full page. So (those of you who aren’t computer wonks can go to sleep now and wake up when you see ***) Diana got a double-page monitor and a Mac 2cii and I got a single-page monitor and an LC for my Dartmouth office. Then I brought my SE from Dartmouth home to replace my ancient Mac Plus, upon which lo these many newsletters and columns have been written. It was seven years old, and it was crashing and demanding a new power supply roughly every six months.
The trouble was, everything I had been doing at home used seven-year-old software such as Word 1 and System 1. (The computer wonks are all groaning at this. It’s kind of like confessing that you’re still using an outside privy. Just so you know how far behind I was, I’m now using Word 4 and System 7.) So when I replaced the Mac Plus, I had to replace everything, including my printer, the tele-communications program with which I send columns to newspapers, and the data-base program with which I print all your mailing labels. It took weeks to get it all figured out — frustrating weeks.
I am a poor participant in the computer age. I deeply resent the time it takes to learn new systems. I fume at the incomprehensibility of manuals. I can’t get rid of the idea that when I invest a few thousand dollars in a piece of equipment, and a day or two in learning to use it, I ought to get at least ten years’ use out of it. To have everything be antiquated in two years makes me not only furious, but stubborn. I hang on to the old system, no matter what the rest of the world is doing. And I waste more time running old, clunky programs than it would take to adapt to new ones. Now that I FINALLY have everything operating again (I think), my work goes much better, much faster.
*** You will notice that your new mailing labels remind you to renew and tell you when you’re expired. I give you a month of grace after expiration, before I take your address out of my system. If there’s anything wrong with your name, address, etc., please let me know.
One last item I’d like to share with you — excerpts from a letter from one of you:
“I have in the past had some trouble with your style, which I find to be somewhat holier than thou — the “thou” being the unwashed and ignorant growth-oriented consumer. I have been moved to write because of your telling of flying around Europe to plug your latest (for profit I assume) book about reducing growth. I would suggest that there are at least some benefits to the growth-oriented society, or how would authors such as you be able to so efficiently spread the word that growth was bad?”
“It seems to me that it is very easy for someone who owns her own farm in New England to wax eloquently to the worker scrambling to enjoy some benefits of development. I think you are too harsh with your critics. What about the “operate from love” principle?”
“Lest you believe I am more of an uninformed nut than I probably sound, let me tell you that I work for [a federal environmental agency]. I believe in sustainable development. I believe that we are definitely moving in that direction. However, I think it has to be in a growth environment. I understand that sustainable development and growth may indeed be mutually exclusive terms. I hope not, for otherwise we are on the road to disaster. I also think that sustainable development and poverty are definitely mutually exclusive terms and our time might be better spent limiting poverty rather than limiting growth.”
“Finally, and from a position of love, I thank you for caring enough to pursue your goals. Your writings are thought-provoking and enjoyable.”
Well, I thank you for the loving feedback. The Sin of Pride is the worst sin of all, and the one we world-savers so easily fall into. The last thing I want to do is sound holier-than-thou. What I believe is that we’re all in this together, and no one really knows the answer, and no one is ecologically pure, least of all me. But I am sure capable of going off into holier-than-thou snits. You all have my permission to point them out to me!
I don’t like flying around Europe, or anywhere. Except for the saving grace of seeing my friends in far places, I’d much rather stay home on my farm. I fight massively with myself every time I get talked into traveling for the sake of “saving the earth.” For that reason I turn down 99% of the speaking requests I receive, and I don’t feel real great about the remaining 1%.
You’re right that I have not always been kind to my critics. I have a hard time coming forth with love when I’m faced with hate, which, of course, is the time when love is most needed. When people sneer at me and Red-bait me and circulate false rumors about me, I call them fascist, which is a technically correct term, but hardly a loving one! Loving back in the face of hate is something I keep working on; one of the main lessons for the whole world to work on.
And I believe that a sustainable world can have farms for many more people than have farms now, and airplane flights, and new books, and growth not only in the material things that the poor need, but in the fun and beautiful things that everyone needs. I think it can have birthday parties, new and better computers, condominiums on the lake in Chicago. I don’t for a minute see it as a Puritan society, where we have to live a bare-bones life and get judgmental with each other for having fun. Ugh! Who wants to live like that? But it can’t be a society with limitless growth or with a cult of growth. It can’t be one that uses the earth’s resources faster than the earth can produce them. And — this is what worries me — the more of us there are, and the more thoughtlessly and wastefully we live, the less chance there will be for fun and luxury. I was once greatly impressed by a book about the Tikopia, a people who live on a Pacific Island and who maintain very strong traditions about controlling their population. They control it, they say, not so there’s enough staple food for everyone, but so there’s enough coconut cream — their favorite food, their party food — for everyone.
Let’s hear it for coconut cream! And black raspberries! And rhinoceros experts! And federal officials who take the time to write a critical letter that ends with love! Life is so good, the earth is so magnificent, people are so amazing, it is a terrible shame when we turn our blessings into greed and hate and waste and ugliness!