When my mother called me in from the woods, she told me I was going to repeat the eighth grade and this time with Latin, American history and a real English teacher. And so, off I went to a lonely boarding school outside Boston with bee’s waxed floors and gas lanterns on the wall. And then, not long after, Lincoln Steffen’s autobiography came into my hands. I remember exactly where I was sitting all those years ago, and I remember the feeling of being transported to a world that was not centered around myself.
In the sixties I was a graduate student at Berkeley in Germanic Languages and Literature and read Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi, the Last of His Tribe and her biography Ishi in Two Worlds. The books had such a powerful influence on me that I would still like to have my ashes strewn on top of a certain cliff that looks down over Deer Creek Canyon northeast of Chico, California, where I found my better spiritual ancestors. Where Ishi lived and where the rest of his people were wiped out by white people for sport or bounties.
Reading Paula Dunning’s memoir, Shifting Currents, has now provided me with a third epiphany, this one explaining what I was doing for thirty-five years on a small, non-producing farm one and a half hours north of San Francisco, on a ridge that divided the dairy country to the south from the apples, plums, and grapes to the north. Her chronicle gives shape to what remains only a vague understanding of my own “farming” years, where I raised two children by myself and taught full-time at a nearby university. It was more that we kept animals, as well as ourselves: cats, dogs, pigeons, chickens, a few milking goats, a few Black Angus beef cows, two pigs, two sheep, a donkey, a pony—now and then a horse. Most of which got loose, or broke through old fences. Or, in the case of sheep, were attacked by big dogs from miles away.
Dunning and her husband Jack emigrated from the United States to Canada in the 70s and, in a moment of divine insanity like my own, bought a large farm in Ontario and, like me—but on a much larger scale, “went back to the land.”
For me, Dunning’s prose raises a reoccurring question, and that is, what is she doing to evoke this sense in the reader of being in the presence of something larger than ourselves. The closest I can come to an answer is that she anchors even the smallest, every day images and rhythms of farming in an epic sea. Not in the wine-dark sea of Homer, plowed by Greek ships, but rather in the loamy one that the Dunnings’ tractors pass over, following the curve of the earth, plowing Canadian fields into chestnut-browns, that sprout and become Alfalfa and Timothy in emerald greens—that form waves when the wind blows across them. In late summer, those fields morph into rows of drying hay and under them, calms of yellowish gray stubble left standing after the cutting. Followed by the rhythm of baling, hefting the bales onto the hay wagons, stacking them, and then raising them into dark, sweet smelling lofts. All of it, an ocean of activity bounded by the dark hill at the end of the property that serves as one navigation pole, the bend in the river as the other.
Dunning describes what many of us who have lived with animals have sensed, and that is being near to an Otherness that we do not really fathom. An intelligence, a spirituality, that lives behind the rectangular pupil of a Nubian goat, in the sweet breath of a cow, in the exuberant playfulness of pigs. Beings that depend on us and yet whose souls, for want of a better word, remain unreachable and beyond our control.
From cave paintings we know about the spiritual connection that used to exist between humans and animals—as opposed to, say, the tight-wrapped packages in the meat department. It helps to think of Dunning’s writing as similar to ancient cave painting. Her images hint at what we still sense. It may be what Rilke meant about the poet’s task being naming the unnamable. Or what Goethe described as symbol, where, through an image, an idea remains active but also unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, cannot be put into words.
There are no saber-tooth tigers in this book, but there are dangers. Machinery that can eat children. Six hundred pound, water-filled tractor tires that can trample us all. Chimney fires that can blow through chinks in the brick and consume the whole house and the family that lives inside it. Damp hay, baled too soon, can smolder and ignite. A river close by to drown in. And the constant possibility of being rendered dead or maimed by hoof, horn or machinery, all of which can cut, hurl or drag.
In the 60s and 70s, there were other costs in “returning to the land.” Most “normal” people didn’t heat with wood, try to grow their own food or raise children “at the North Pole,” as Dunning’s mother believed she was doing. As my own mother believed about my child rearing. “In the 70s,” Dunning writes, “we felt we should be able to do everything, from scratch.” Which diluted our development in certain areas. And so there was always an undercurrent of self-doubt, the nagging question, “Did I make the wrong choice?” And so we suffered gently numbing embarrassment when tennis-playing urbanites visited with their clean shoes and spotless sweaters. With their expectations of unexposed drainage ditches in the yard, or of available hot water for showers and of functioning toilets—both of which seemed to stop working at just the wrong moment—in a comedy of irony and mortification.
Dunning chronicles the social tensions. The farmer neighbor, conservative in her views of school sex education, let alone birth control, was completely practical on how to use three fingers to get a calf to begin sucking and therefore to survive. A young “liberated” leader led Dunning’s women’s group—subdued and cautious people—through the early feminist guidebook “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” with its explicit drawings of women’s bodies and how they function. In a delightful scene, Dunning describes how a session devolved to snorting and laughter—and friendship.
Or the pitfalls possible when Dunning’s “normal” parents visit and a symbolic patricide occurs, a shift in familial power. Dunning yells at her father when, in his innocence, he gets in the way of mischievous, escaped cows and blocks their passage through a critical gate open to where they’re supposed to be going. Then, still full of remorse, she tries to honor her father by asking him to carve the Thanksgiving Turkey—the relationship now changed forever.
Living with animals in the 70s included taking their lives, intentionally or not intentionally. Farming presupposes the role of life-taker. An assumption sometimes only challenged by a child, as when Dunning’s young daughter—a one-person Greek chorus—wails, “Why does everything have to die?”
When a cow is to be slaughtered, Dunning, pregnant, feels she should help, but dreads participating. She is relieved when her neighbor Morley appears to take her place and comments, “Has Jack been reading that damn book again?” Some how-to-slaughter-a-large-animal guidebook that we back-to-the-landers might have bought back then in a counter-culture bookstore. Morley continues, “And you shouldn’t be anywhere near. It could upset you and harm your baby. This is not something to mess with.”
But Dunning has always messed with it. With the Otherness. Always walking a line close to something larger than herself. Something she is aware of and paints with her imagery. Pointing at things that most of us—deep down— know something about.
Dunning confesses to a lingering self-doubt on the Ontario farm. Her husband also taught at a university; while she at times worried, she may have been “just a farm wife.” But when you read her writing, you see she was no such thing. She was becoming a psychagogue in the sense of someone who—in this case, with words—can lead us right up to the edge of other worlds. Someone who offers us a path to understanding the Land and the Creatures on it that we live with—human and non-human. Aside from also being one of the finest and strongest writers I have ever read.