Tag: metaphor

My Review of Paula Dunning’s Memoir, Shifting Currents

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.

Ode to Joy, Ode to Sorrow

Something really wonderful happened in Mexico today (Saturday, August 11, 2012). I heard choruses of shouts coming from across the plaza. Café owners typically place television sets outside so guests can watch important soccer matches. Non-guests, passers-by, assemble on the sidewalk under the branches of the Indian Laurels to look on, some on benches, some standing. Mexico was winning 2 – 0 against Brazil for the Olympic gold medal–something nearly beyond belief because, in the minds of many Mexicans, their country is condemned to lifelong disappointment.

I went over to my favorite café in the Plaza Baratillo. They were showing the game inside. I was welcomed to sit with strangers. There was just enough time to see the final scene of the drama. Mexico was exhausted, Brazil–the soccer giants of South America–was angry.

Mexico had been outplaying them, but now the Brazilians were going to put an end to the farce. They seemed unstoppable–one of them was called Hulk. They scored easily in the three-minute overtime. They attacked again and missed a header that should have gone in.

I could feel the gloom gathering in me. Were we going to see it all slip away? Was Mexico to be fate’s stepchild once again? But the Brazilians had rallied too late. The referee blew the final whistle, and Mexico had won the Olympic gold in soccer. Everyone in the café cheered, including me–and the announcer held a manic fifteen-minute soliloquy on the unbelievable glory of it all.

All of Mexico must have been cheering that something so wonderful had happened and that it had happened at a time when Mexicans needed it most. The team’s trainer Luis Fernando Tena, interviewed on the field minutes afterward, said, “This comes around once in a lifetime, it’s for Mexico, for its people, to relieve them a little of the troubles we have and to give them, at least for a while, rest and relief.”

Yet I know from young people here that not everyone could feel the relief. They were still too stunned by the July 1st presidential election, which they considered fraudulent, on a scale Americans may not be able to grasp.

And the rest of it–the barrels full of body parts, the SUVs full of corpses with signs of torture, the continuing and unresolved attacks against women in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and other places–the attacks against journalists.

Mexico has the largest number of assassinated journalist of any country in the world. Activists like Lydia Cacho (http://www.lydiacacho.net/english/), whose 2004 book “Los Demonios del Edén” exposed pedophiles and sex traffickers, has recently had to flee the country because of continuing death threats against her.

The threats are said to have started after the publication of seven pages excerpted from Olga Wornat’s recent book “Felipe el Oscuro” (Felipe the Dark One)–a reference to Felipe Calderón, current president of Mexico–published in Mexico’s Playboy Magazine. The publisher of the magazine Garbiel Bauducco, along with Lydia Cacho, also received death threats. The two women have had to leave the country. In her book, Wornat describes the government of Calderón as “six years marked by death, poverty and social disintegration.”

Then there is also the suspected July 1st election fraud and manipulation by the PRI old boys’ club that rules Mexico–huge amounts of off-shore money (an estimated 417 billion dollars, a portion of it more than likely narco-generated) laundered through upstanding Mexican and U.S. banks for massive vote buying–moneys hidden from taxes that could be used to stimulate an economy where there is so much hunger, unemployment, lack of affordable education. The same club enlisted the two TV monopolies as its private electoral campaign propaganda branch. The electoral commission and judicial electoral court enable the charade and are institutionally incapable of guiding a truly fair election.

In too many other areas, the country is losing. For example, the day before Mexico won the gold, there were coordinated fire bombings at gas stations in or around something like eight cities my state of Guanajuato (Guanajuato capital, San Miguel de Allende, Salamanca, Salvatierra, Yuriria, Moroleón, Uriangato, Celaya).

In most cases, the attacks were accompanied by robberies of the attendants and the customers who were having their tanks filled. The term firebombing was used loosely it seems. In many case, it consisted of using the pump to dose the stolen car the attackers had arrived in, or the customers’ cars, and then igniting them. The attack in Guanajuato occurred in the tunnel between La Plaza Los Ángelos and El Jardin de la Union, and three cars were set on fire. Drivers and passengers remained untouched.

Coordinated attacks like this spate of car fire bombings usually carry a political message. But unless the armed groups say, no one really knows what the message is. A few weeks ago, a group attacked four PepsiCo-Sabritas Company installations and burned forty trucks. The company makes and delivers various kinds of delicious deep fried chip-like things that are bad for you. One could make the argument the arsonists were taking on a monopoly to extort protection money. But no one seems to really know–or want to say. One rather implausible rumor circulating is that the Government was using Sabritas deliverymen as spies against the drug cartels.

As for the gas station attacks, the local press says it was revenge because of the shoot-out between the Army and narcos in Apatzingán, in the state south of us (Michoacán) the day before Mexico won the Olympic gold. Armed men set up various roadblocks. They stopped a bus and a trailer truck and firebombed them. Another reliable source said it was twelve vehicles in all. The most recent source talks about three different events, all of them shootouts with the Familia Michoacana, group which, in my opinion, is half narco and half political, as in challenging the government for power. In one account, when the Army arrived, gunmen fired on them from areas above the highway. (Read “Jorge and the Santa Muerte” at www.sterlingbennett.com to get a feel for the social pathology at play.) Other sources say it is unknown ho the shooters were.

Apatzingán is in the area called the tierra caliente, the hot country, where there has always been trouble as long as anyone can remember. As in Chiapas, the Army has permanent bases just to keep the lid on things having to do with political rebellion, narcos, and lawlessness in general.

If you look at a map, there appears to be some sense to the attacks against the gasoline stations. If you draw a line through the cities you have, roughly, an oblong running north and south that intersects the major highway between Mexico City and Guadalajara. That route continues all the way to the border at Nogales (Tucson). Another important highway runs north and south between the Pacific port Lázaro Cárdenas, through Morelia, and on north through Zacatecas to Ciudad Juárez (El Paso). A third route runs north and south from the major industrial city Querétero through San Luis Potosí (recently under attack by armed groups) through Monterey to the border at Nuevo Laredo (Laredo, San Antonio). Those would be three important routes for transporting narcotics–or goods and services. An armed enclave centered in that oblong could cut Mexico in half, if it comes to that. Apatzingán lies just to the west of Nueva Italia on the Lázaro Cárdenas (Pacific Coast)–Laredo, Texas route. For an overview of the wild goings on there, Google “Apatzingán tiroteos” (“tiroteos,” as in shoot-outs).

As for the fire bombings, I suspect there may be another agenda, as well. Perhaps it is to announce that the State of Guanajuato is no longer violence free—which also makes limited sense since it was mainly just the capital (Guanajuato) and San Miguel de Allende that were relatively free of violence. Local lore has it that the calm in those two cities was because the sons and daughters of the narcos attend the state University of Guanajuato, while their wealthy parents live in Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende. Perhaps a dissident group in one of the cartels is announcing that the sanctuary is no longer a sanctuary.

The chaos in Mexico seems widespread and, on its face, incomprehensible. But the end of May, 2012 the Tribunal Permanente de los Pueblos (The Permanent Peoples’ Court), held a meeting titled “Libre Comercio, violencia, impunidad (Free Trade, Violence, and Impunity,” in Ciudad Juárez, on the border with El Paso, Texas. At the meeting, participants examined what they called the systematic use of social, economic, and political chaos to further the interests of the few.

Something like: while the chickens fight, the foxes steal the eggs. They cited the use of the public instruments (the power and authority of the Mexican Government–judicial, economic, political) to benefit narrow private interests (the old boys’ club), to the devastating detriment of the Common Good that the government should be protecting. Myself, I’m not so sure it’s an intentional old boys’ modus operandi. I would say it is more the consequence of not being able or wanting to work together with the rest of society.

An example would be the peasant struggle in Cherán, Michoacán, where the people enjoy none of the legal protections of the Mexican Government. They are Purépecha Indians who are organizing (with AK47s) against organized crime-supported loggers (with AK47s) before the passivity and corruption of government and police. The struggle has already found its way into song. A friend supplied me with source. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbhwt4m8E1E

Another cause of the social and economic chaos would be the un-remediated enforcement of taxation. During the Calderón administration there was a 48% increase of in tax avoidance-refusal. The in-country tax avoidance as of June 2012 was almost 800 billion pesos (roughly 62 billion dollars)–an incredible sum that could be used for training a competent and reliable police, as well as improving education.

On the same day Mexico won the gold in soccer, there was a substantial hike in the price of gasoline and diesel. The incidents of stealing gas from Pemex’s pipelines are increasingly alarming. As I write this, there is one more fire burning: a refinery in the state of Tamaulipas, in the northeastern part of the country. The reported cause of fire is “lightening”–more than likely a government statement to cover up the real reason. To me it seems unlikely that such installations are not fully equipped with lightening rods. Maybe you have heard of lightening striking and igniting refineries. I haven’t.

As I write, a caravan of Mexican victims of violence, intellectuals, activists, and artists has crossed the border into the U.S. with a message for U.S. citizens and government: Stop the so-called drug war, because it is killing us. Stop the flow of your weapons into our country, because they’re killing us. Stop treating our border-crossing citizens as criminals; they are coming because they are victims of NAFTA and the economic policies of the 1%, in your country and in Mexico. Their leader is Javier Sicilia, whose son, along with six other youths, was gunned down by organized crime March 28, 2011 in Temico, in the state of Morelos.

They crossed the border at roughly the same time Mexico won the Olympic gold in soccer against Brazil. The caravan is asking the U.S. to work together with Mexico to stop the violence. The Mexican soccer team demonstrated what could happen when people worked together in a framework of respected rules under the eyes of a reliable authority–the referee. Local newspapers are beginning to say it. The youths’ cooperation–they beat Brazil because of it–puts us to shame. And they are right. All the players in Mexican society tend to have only their own interests in mind. The modus vivendi is “He did it, not me.”

Midfielder Jorge Enríquez exclaimed, “Today Mexico can look an rival in the eyes and tell the world that we are here, that we made it work and that we have players with a lot of quality to take on all with talent.”

They were the metaphor for what Mexico could be like.

Here in Guanajuato, on the day of the victory, I saw three boys in the back of a pickup truck, leaning over the cab, holding Mexican flags. They were he age of the muggers that plague most cities in Mexico, but these youths were beaming their pride at being Mexican. And as a friend of mine would say in California, “There you have it.” If the Mexican society and government were organized the same way as the Mexican soccer team, it might be a society that could reject corruption and violence–and embrace working together.

My Apology to France

I take back—if I may—what I said about the TGV (le train à grande vitesse) being a metaphor for why France—where my great-great-grandfather was born—could not conquer Mexico between 1864–1867. For those of you who remember anything about your U.S. History, that was roughly the time of our Civil War. And maybe the only reason we didn’t intervene against both France and Mexico.

I know that’s a lot of information to take in. Especially the part about my great-great-grandfather, whose place in my family tree grants me one thirty-second French blood, and therefore clearly the right to pass judgment on things French.

You can read the whole truth about my great-great grandfather at www.sterlingbennett.com, under the title “French Blood,” where you will learn that he owned slaves, traded in the Caribbean with chartered schooners, shipwrecked off the coast of Florida, swam ashore, and was shot full of arrows by Seminole Indians who thought they were getting too many immigrants in their area.

The trolleys of Montpellier run on the same nuclear energy produced électricité that the TGV uses, but do not stop or slow down for bad weather. Why I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because they do not aspire to de la grande vitesse. In fact, they poke along, for the most part, until the drivers—both male and female, I point out—see an open stretch, and then open up the throttle to as much as forty miles an hour.

Maybe this lesser speed has something to do with their shape: they closely represent California’s banana slugs, but that is the extent of their throw-back character, and my thirty-two parts French blood is immensely proud of their technology.

Any great city of the world would be lucky to have them crawling over their streets. They ding their bells a lot but otherwise progress with space age avionics. The drivers sit enclosed in air-conditioned booths with switches and levers and blinking lights and various digital readouts. Cameras point rearward on both sides to alert the driver that a passenger has only managed to get half way in—or out. The drivers’ seats are cushy. The trolley’s progress is coordinated with all kinds of outside track signals that say proceed or slow or proceed with caution. This is to prevent various kinds of collisions with other wheeled but un-tracked vehicles. It doesn’t help at all with passengers that get out and then cross the track right in front of the tram just as it’s about to start; or against the unlit cyclist at night who performs a daring fly-by, in front of the moving trolley, ignoring its three warning dings.

Very much like mating banana slugs, as many as three cars cling to each other. But unlike slugs, you can walk from one car to the other—and bring bikes and animals inside.

So, all in all, France is doing very well, judging by the trolleys of Montpellier. Every city should have a rout of them (group name for snails). And for between cities, maybe a TGV or two. But the type that does not build up static electricity and cause delays and explosions and mysteries for its passengers—and eventually become a metaphor, justly or unjustly deserved, for the country it breaks down in.

So much for my apology. No doubt the country is heaving a sigh of relief, having been redeemed by this one thirty-second of a countryman.