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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.

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We sat in the Café Zopilote Mojado. How shall I translate it? The Café Wet Buzzard? The four of us, his wife and mine, sipping cappuccinos and nibbling at a rich, perfect flan. I had also ordered pastel de nuez. Nut cake. My friend, an esteemed veterinarian, said, “You ordered nut cake?” He frowned in bewilderment. “But you don’t even know what kind of nuts.” My friend is cursed with a literal mind, and by a need for certainty.

“No, I don’t know what kind of nuts they are,” I admitted, inviting his skepticism. I know my friend, and I was glad to diddle with his need for verifiable information. I watched him, and took the measure of his doubt.

“Aren’t you going to ask them?” he smiled. He was referring to the two young women who were waiting on us and preparing the food.

“I doubt they know what kind of nuts they are,” I said. His look of bewilderment grew. There was a short pause, while he shook his head.

“You don’t care what kind of nuts they are?” he asked, as if we were getting to something about my character. Like a missing gene. I said I didn’t care, I would accept whatever they brought me.

Eventually, the cake came. Along with my second cappuccino – a luxury I seldom allow myself. I spread out the accompanying whipped cream with my fork, then cut into the cake. There were no discernible nuts. There were many very small dark flakes of something slightly larger than the flour. The cake went down easily. I was quite happy.

“You didn’t get any nuts,” my friend observed.

I nodded, and added that I also didn’t know what kind of nuts I didn’t get. His wife and mine, meanwhile, were having a different kind of conversation. They were talking about how they had met us, the men. He had been studying at the University of California, Davis. They had found each other in a sociology class. Their conversation caught my friend’s attention, and he joined in. He had done post-doctoral studies in literature and sociology in order, he said, to make himself more attractive to women. At that point, our wives smiled, erected a gentle invisible wall, and resumed their own conversation.

He turned back to me. “To snare more beauties,” he said, with a wink and an understood jab-jab in the ribs. His wife clearly had been a beauty and still was in her sixties.

“I had trouble in the literature class,” he said. “But I loved literary criticism.” I had helped him read some Spanish headlines in the Mexican political weekly Proceso earlier in the afternoon. He had thrown up his hands at the first unfamiliar word he came across.

“It’s the same problem I had with poetry, only worse,” he said, referring to the Spanish. “But I loved symbolism,” he said.

I thought about that now. He loved symbolism, but not vagueness, and not any kind of delay in understanding, not puzzling out meaning, whether in poems, or articles in Proceso. I could not resist my lower nature. I said, when I had his attention, “According to the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a symbol changes a phenomenon (Erscheinung) into an idea (Idee), the idea into an image (Bild), so that the idea in the image remains always active and unapproachable, and, though expressed in all languages, including art, can not be put into words. Erscheinung, Idee, Bild.” This was something I had learned in graduate school, and I wasn’t sure I understood it any better now, as I said it, than I had then.

My friend looked at me as if I had just denied the existence of gravity.

“A symbol stands for something else,” he said.

“That’s allegory – the direct knowledge of what is meant. But what we have here – the nuts – is nothing more than simulation.”

He looked at me, uncomprehending, resisting what I had said, but also with sympathy – for a deficiency in me only a veterinarian could sense.

I continued. “If there had been nuts, instead of merely dark flakes, they could have stood for something, like for the essential nature of this cake. That would have been allegory. Nuts stand for essence.”

I was fairly impressed by my discourse, so I continued. “You know, like when Melville refers to the wild watery loneliness of Starbuck’s life. Wild watery loneliness stands for ocean stands for Starbuck’s life. Double allegory,” I observed matter-of-factly.”

At that point, not quite sure about what I had just said, I took a little more whipped cream on my fork, cut down on the cake, lifted the morsel, popped it into my mouth, and slowly chewed. I took a sip of cappuccino.

“They’re symbolic!” my friend said, with a fierce smirk of certainty. “The flakes are symbolic.”

I smiled at him indulgently and did not pursue the matter. He was a man cursed with a literal mind, and nothing Goethe, Melville, or I could say was going to change anything. He had snared his beauty, he was still with her, he had a successful veterinary practice – and he knew a symbol when he saw one.

When he died suddenly a year later, from an unexplained and permanent drop in blood pressure, three unaccounted for older women showed up at his graveside memorial. They were dressed in fashionable black and, like his wife, were enduring beauties. All three stayed in the background, but mixed graciously, when the occasion arose.

My friend’s college roommate, a man of many chins, bathed in a pallbearer’s sweat, explained in muttered confidentiality who the women were. I watched them as the minister spoke inaccuracies and other well-deserved praise about my friend. I could not take my eyes off the women. How had he done it? What explained this cadre of attractive women that had come to mourn him? There was some explanation, some cohesion of significance that hung just at the edge of my grasp. For some reason, I recalled the conversation mentioned earlier. Us sipping cappuccinos in the Zopilote Mojado, The Wet Buzzard. And now I did not know whether I stood before symbol, or an allegory. All I could think, as I watched his casket sink down out of sight, and what I heard now in my mind, was that he had been right about the nut cake, and that it had represented something more than just nut cake. But beyond that, I could take it no farther, other than to say that he was a man who, in the end, had been blessed with a literal mind, and had represented something I understood but could not express. Least of all in words.

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