I’ve only made it through the preface of Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane—an “epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself”—yet rich quotes abound:
“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful. Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives). Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions). Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets). Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”
“Force yourself to see more deeply.”
“The underland is vital to the material structures of contemporary existence, as well as our memories, myths and metaphors.”
“Our ‘flat perspectives’ feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit, and to the deep time legacies we are leaving.”
“‘Deep time’ is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years.”
“When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”
Somewhere on the Internet I stumbled upon this print from the artist Nina Montenegro’s series Against Forgetting:
It struck a chord in me not only because I’ve been reading the tree-centric novel The Overstory, but also because six days ago I became a father. And I’ll tell ya, I know I’m barely a week into this, but there’s nothing like having a child to make you reconsider everything you think you know about time.
Got Pinery Boys: Songs and Songcatching in the Lumberjack Era as an unexpected Christmas gift from my dad. Given our shared appreciation for and history in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (though not in lumberjacking or songcatching unfortunately), this was a delightful read. It’s partly a reprint of Franz Rickaby’s 1926 collection Ballads and Songs of the Shanty-Boy and partly essays about Rickaby himself, folk songs of the lumberjack era in the late 19th and early 20th century Upper Midwest, and the tradition of capturing that folklore. Over 60 songs are included, with introductory notes, full lyrics, and even music notations.
What was really fun to read was Rickaby’s original introductory text. People don’t write like this anymore:
Meanwhile, the shanty-boy came into his own. Up and down and across the country he roamed—here today, there tomorrow; chopping, skidding, rolling, hauling, driving great logs that the snarling saws might be fed. The free life called him, the thunder of falling majesties intoxicated him. Amid this stately presence, along these avenues of “endless upward reaches,” he rudely trampled the whiteness of the earth. His axe bit deep as it shouted, and his saw-blade sang in the brittle air. The soft aroma of the woods at peace sharpened to an acrid redolence, acute, insistent—the cry of wounded pine. The great crests trembled, tottered, and thundered to the earth in a blinding swirl of needles and snow-dust, and the sun and sky at last looked in. The conqueror shouted as the proud tops came crashing down, though the places made vacant and bare meant nothing to him. Long hours of hard labor, simple fare, and primitive accommodations hardened him; the constant presence of danger rendered him resourceful, self-reliant, agile. It was as if the physical strength and bold vitality, the regal aloofness of the fallen giants, flowed in full tide into him and he thus came to know neither weariness nor fear. Neither Life nor Death was his master. He loved, hated, worked, played, earned, spent, fought, and sang—and even in his singing was a law unto himself.
And yet, Rickaby acknowledges the excesses of the Lumberjack Era:
The lumber industry still moves on. In the East, the North, the South, and the far West the trees still fall; for men must still have lumber, even more than ever. But it is now a cold and calculated process, with careful emphasis on selection, salvage, and by-product. The riot of wasteful harvest is no more: the unexpected vision of impending want, of imminent ugly barrenness, has quenched the thrill of destruction. The nation, having allowed the candle to be burned at both ends, tardily awakes to the necessity of conservation, a sort of cold gray “morning after.” Such a morning has its good and holy uses; but whatever forms of exultation may finally come of it, it must be noted that song is not one of its immediate possessions.
He marks the turn of the century, once the lumber business was industrialized along with everything else, as the turning point for lumberjack songs as well:
It was evident that some grim chance was taking place, killing the song in the hearts of workers, not only in the forests, but abroad in the world as well. Instead of singing, they read or talked or plotted; or if they did sing, the song was no longer of themselves. The complexion of the shanty crews changed. Where once had been the free-moving wit, the clear ringing voice of the Irishman, the Scotsman, the French-Canadian, there appeared in greater numbers the stolid Indian, the quiet, slow-moving, more purposeful Scandinavian.
Rickaby identifies three traits most common to “bona-fide singers of shanty-song”:
“Intense application to the matter at hand”, meaning they were very focused on singing, sometimes even closing their eyes;
A willingness to sing;
A habit of dropping to a speaking voice on the last words of a song, sometimes “talking” the entire last line to indicate the song is finished.
Besides those commonalities, every rendition of every song could be slightly different depending on who sang it and how he made it his own. I look forward to trying to make some of these old folk songs my own too.
I’d heard a lot of great things about Asheville, North Carolina, so my wife and I finally made a trip there happen to meet up with some Durham friends for a long weekend in the mountains. Surprise: It was wondrous!
Our Airbnb was a cabin on a mountain farm in nearby Black Mountain, complete with sheep named Frodo, Samwise, Arwen, and Twiggy (the last one was named by previous owners). This was the view the first morning:
We missed Peak Fall foliage, but there was still plenty of color to mix with the barren branches:
And cozy morning frosts—very Hygge™ indeed:
One morning we hiked up Lookout Mountain in Montreat based on the recommendation of our Airbnb host. We were not disappointed by the Misty Mountain-esque view:
Asheville proper offered lots of walkable streets, good southern food—had chicken & waffles for the first time—and, among other Liberal College Town accoutrements, several “poems while you wait” street typists:
We flew into Atlanta and drove up to Asheville through South Carolina, but on the way back we drove through the Great Smoky Mountains. We did this not only to enjoy the gorgeous terrain but to stop and see the remnants of Camp Toccoa, the World War II paratroopers training camp made famous by Band of Brothers:
The camp site was closed, but we could see the famous “3 miles up, 3 miles down” Currahee Mountain from town.
I took pictures on a few other occasions, but so often my phone pictures failed to capture what I saw with my own eyes. That’s OK: being there in the moment was reward enough, as was hanging with friends, finally seeing Asheville, and getting to enjoy a crisp autumn weekend in Appalachia.
One of the many things I love about fall and winter is sunrise happens later in the morning, thus allowing me to go for a run in the darkness of the morning without having to get up at WHAT o’clock. On a recent run I broke my rule about not taking pictures of the sunrise or sunset. I was running to the lake as usual and saw this guy standing atop the large boulders buttressing the shore:
Several people along my route were gazing at and taking pictures of the sunrise. It occurred to me then that if there’s ever an apocalyptic event and I’m somehow stranded with strangers, I’d like to be stranded with the kind of people who wake up early to photograph the sunrise.
Here is the same sunset one minute later, made more dramatic by my iPhone camera viewing it through a playground and trees:
Plus a bonus pic atop a viewing station at Blue Mounds State Park in Wisconsin:
Winter is a time of superlative life. Frosty air sets our blood to racing. The nip of the wind quickens our step. Creatures abroad at this season of the year live intensely, stimulated by cold, using all their powers, all their capacities, to survive. Gone is the languor of August heat waves. Winter provides the testing months, the time of fortitude and courage. For innumerable seeds and insect eggs, this period of cold is essential to sprouting or hatching. For trees, winter is a time of rest. It is also a season of hope. The days are lengthening. The sun is returning. The whole year is beginning. All nature, with bud and seed and egg, looks forward with optimism.
Alone among the seasons, winter extends across the boundary line into two calendars. It is the double season. We meet it twice in each twelve months. It embraces the end and the beginning of the year. It includes the great holiday times of Christmas and New Year’s. Alone among the seasons it retains its original Anglo-Saxon spelling. Spring began as springen, literally “to spring” as the grass springs up; summer as sumer; and fall as feallan, referring to the falling leaves. But winter was always winter.
In Station Eleven, survivors of a global pandemic and subsequent post-apocalyptic chaos decamp to an abandoned airport in Michigan and eventually establish a Museum of Civilization, comprised of assorted artifacts from life before “year zero,” when the pandemic paralyzed the world and rendered much of the stuff that had comprised their lives useless. The Museum was a place of remembering — the old ways, the things they had once cared about — but also for preparation. Though the world of Station Eleven is dark and uncertain, if civilization were ever to rise again from catastrophe, the wares and wisdom held in the Museum, however haphazard and incomplete, would form the basis of renewal.
This wonderful and trenchant book popped into my mind as I read a different but just as wonderful and trenchant book: Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher. I’ve followed Rod’s blog for years, and read (and recommend) his memoir The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Though Crunchy Cons was published in 2006, standing as the Republican Party now is before a dark abyss, ready to jump as soon as Donald J. Trump is named their nominee for president, Republicans need the Crunchy Con Manifesto more than ever.
As a self-proclaimed social conservative, Dreher focuses his criticism and encouragement on his fellow conservatives and those under the Republican Party umbrella. But I couldn’t believe, as a moderate independent who tends to lean left but supports some small-c conservative principles, how much I was nodding along while reading this book. Anyone who doesn’t fit into tidy political molds or abide all the shibboleths of establishment Democrats or Republicans will feel at home with one of the topics Dreher spotlights, which include consumerism, food, home, education, the environment, and religion.
The original subtitle lays out the thesis well: “How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).” Bombast aside, the juxtaposition of otherwise contrary stereotypes establishes the general sense of counterculture that pervades the book. Whether Dreher is talking to conservative homeschoolers or liberal organic farmers, their common refrain is a disillusionment or dissatisfaction with the status quo, with the cult of the bottom line and efficiency, or with how “everybody else” does things. It’s why Dreher can find more common ground with liberals on anti-consumerism than the free-trade fanatics in his own party, and why he feels more comfortable spending a little more for quality food at Whole Foods than get unethically produced cut-rate meat at the nearest SuperMegaMart.
Take the chapter on Home, or more specifically houses and how their style and place can affect their owners’ lives. The McMansions and cookie-cutter homes littering suburbia may be efficiently built and ostensibly indicative of financial success, but as bland, soulless carbon copies they fall short on fostering hominess and familial integrity. (One guy in the book likens getting one to dating the prom queen with a drinking problem: it’ll start out nice but quickly sour when someone prettier comes along.)
As an insecure teen I sometimes felt ashamed by my family’s simple, one-story house that wasn’t as big as some of my friends’ houses, that didn’t have its own rec room or backyard golf course or enormous kitchen. But in retrospect I’m glad for it, and glad my parents still live there, in a cozy house with character that they didn’t hastily buy with a bad mortgage and have to dump when the economy crashed. Despite my siblings and I having our own rooms, the more intimate size of the house allowed (or forced as it sometimes felt) us and my parents into closer proximity. It was harder to flee to our rooms and avoid each other. Obviously the size of one’s house doesn’t directly correlate with the quality of the family within it, but it does help create a culture — for good or for bad.
Similarly, the choices we make about education can have profound effects on the quality of the upbringing of one’s kids. The Drehers are passionate about (and financially capable of) homeschooling their children for several reasons, the biggest one seeming to be that they’d rather take responsibility for their kids’ rearing than abdicating it to others:
If you don’t educate your children for metaphysical truth and moral virtue, mainstream culture will do it for you. Absent shared commitment to these spiritual and moral verities, it is hard to see how we renew our families, our communities, and our country with an ethic of duty, self-restraint, stewardship, and putting the needs of people, not the state or corporations, first.
Though I’m a proud public school kid, and made it through without the scars others have (and may still harbor), the idea of forming my own children, rather than letting the state and wider culture do it, makes more and more sense as the state of public education gets bleaker and less hospitable to anyone who deviates from state-sponsored directives.
The same theory applies to religion. Though I didn’t go to a private religious school, those I know who did seemed to have an equal or even less chance of remaining in the faith as those who got their religious education solely from church. What matters most, I think, is the example that’s set by parents and the larger community, more than what is said or dictated. A kid whose parents set a positive example of marriage and life, who let their deeds speak for them rather than adopting a “Because I said so” strategy, will probably be much more likely to buy in to whatever religion or ideology they’re steeped in.
Whatever it is, it has to mean something more than whatever the wider culture is providing. “A religion in which you can set your own terms amounts to self-worship,” writes Dreher. “It has no power to restrain, and little power to inspire or console in times of great suffering. No matter what religion you follow, unless you die to yourself — meaning submit to an authority greater than yourself — it will come to nothing.”
Above all, according to Dreher, the crunchy con values authenticity: “In a world filled with the cheap, the flashy, the plastic, and the immediate, we hunger deeply for things that endure. We are the kind of people who long for the Permanent Things,” a phrase borrowed from Russell Kirk, the putative godfather of the crunchy con movement. The book Dreher is working on now concerns the “Benedict Option,” a model of community and cultural engagement (or lack thereof) for Christians who find the secular world increasingly hostile to people of faith. I suspect it will dovetail directly from the crunchy con impulse for smaller, enduring, and prudent living, and hope it will provide more practical wisdom for how to live out the crunchy con creed.
My fool’s hope for the Republican Party is that whatever emerges from the rubble of the modern GOP will include Crunchy Cons as a foundational text. A party that supports families fully rather than sundering them, that protects rather than pillages the environment, that promotes prudence and virtue over consumption and the bottom line, that values humanity and the living over materialism and Mammon — that’s the kind of party I could join.
Rebanks tells of growing up in a farming family, hating school and the anti-farming condescension that came with it. He covers a lot of interesting aspects of the profession that has run in Rebanks’ family for centuries: training sheepdogs, the long-range strategy required for successful breeding, the arduous sheep birthing process (“Imagine a couple of adults looking after several hundred newborn babies and toddlers in a large park”), the disturbing yet oddly endearing way orphaned lambs are paired with ewes whose own lambs had died, and the unexpected legacy of Beatrix Potter in his region.
But this isn’t a kindly pastoral. The region of the Lake District in northern England, made famous by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, is tough terrain at any time, let alone during the long, cold, glum slog of winter, which the hardy sheep can endure but only with help from the equally tough expert farmers. Though lauding its natural beauty, Rebanks openly resents the tourist-attracting romanticization of the region and the at-large decline of his profession and way of life.
Neither does he spare the gory details of life with livestock. It’s hard, sweaty, demanding, low-paying, seemingly never-ending work. Yet even when, almost in spite of himself, Rebanks attends Oxford (his account of which drips with wry bemusement), he tends to his farm work on weekends and holidays and sticks with it even when the possibilities of the “outside world” beckon.
I’d like to think Rebanks has read or at least heard of Wendell Berry, whose writing on farming, community, and modern life echoed in my head as I read The Shepherd’s Life. Odds are Rebanks would feel at home in Berry’s pseudo-fictional community of Port William, and Berry in the Lake District. Both men deploy a simple yet vigorous writing style, the occasional flourish surrounded by spacious prose — not unlike the rural landscapes they inhabit.
Formally educated or not, Rebanks makes good use of the local dialect. Words like heaf, croft, heather, tup, fells, beck, ghyll, and shearling look and sound positively British, and help to ground us in the turf right alongside the sheep. (Check out the names of the fells — my favorite: Barf.) I also liked the book’s four-seasons structure, which, like two other nature books I love (A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson), gives readers the energizing feeling of spending a year on the ground with a wise, seasoned guide.
“It’s bloody marvelous,” H Is For Hawk author Helen Macdonald blurbed on the book’s cover. From one nature writer to another, she was right. Check this one out.
On what he learned from a terrible experience in school:
This crappy, mean, broken-down school took five years of my life. I’d be mad, but for the fact that it taught me more about who I was than anything else I have ever done. It also made me think that modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.
On physical work:
Later I would understand that modern people the world over are obsessed with the importance of ‘going somewhere’ and ‘doing something’ with your life. The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn’t count for much.
On the pull of the landscape:
The landscape is our home and we rarely stray long from it, or endure anywhere else for long before returning. This may seem like a lack of imagination or adventure, but I don’t care. I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.
On how city life can shortchange us:
I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we had seen just enough of the wider world to know we liked our own old ways and independence best. My grandfather went as far afield as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once. He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous, and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control. The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home.
On functional beauty:
My grandfather had an eye for things that were beautiful, like a sunset, but he would explain it in mostly functional terms, not abstract aesthetic ones. He seemed to love the landscape around him with a passion, but his relationship with it was more like a long tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair. His work bound him to the land, regardless of weather or the seasons. When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried the full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow, and rain to get to that point. He clearly thought such things beautiful, but that beauty was full of real functional implications—namely the end of winter or better weather to come.