Wednesday, July 25, 2012

More Fun with Blood & Guts

A map of Floyd County where groundhog is a venerable component of traditional Brunswick stew.

I made a joke about a week ago about keeping the next groundhog we caught to eat it and skin it. Polly took me seriously, and when one turned up this morning, she asked me if I wanted it. Well, yes, actually, yes I do.

Nii'Anung, Polly's husband who is from Ghana, is the Resident Expert on Slaughtering Things, and he got kind of excited about the whole project when I asked him to show me how it's done. Apparently they have some similar critter in Ghana called a "grass cutter" and they're considered quite tasty. If you have a surplus, you just hang them over the wood fire and let them cure.

So that's how I found myself lugging a wire cage out of the pickup truck, trying not to get bit by an angry member of the squirrel family. I mean, I'd be mad, too.

I had never actually seen anything be shot before today. Ron did the honors with his .22, and after two little bloody explosions, the groundhog was sufficiently dead--though its nerves hadn't got the memo and it kept twitching for a while. Actually it kept twitching even after we cut off the head. (I'm sorry, again, about being graphic. I live on a farm. What do you expect.)

I confess that, like the chickens, the whole experience made me a bit nauseous. It's weird--I have absolutely no problem intellectually with killing and eating animals. None. In fact, for us to eat the groundhog is more reasonable than us just shooting it and dumping its sorry carcass in the woods, which is what we normally do. And yet, I didn't want to look--I didn't want to see it get its little brains shot out as it nosed toward the sky. I didn't want to look as I helped Nii'Anung take its skin off like a little rabbity-smelling shirt. What was I afraid of when we hacked off its hands and feet? I was afraid.

One of my professors in college often talked about the fear of violence--that desire to avert one's eyes, or Gawain's flinch, or the small cry the person next to you in the movie theater makes as the hero almost dies. You know that the act is moral, you know you are safe, you know the actor isn't hurt--and yet somehow in watching that violence, you are implicated in that act and you are afraid. The flinch testifies. For me, it's actually worse watching someone butcher an animal than doing it myself. As if that little act of voyeurism, that being-a-human-being as I participate in death in an animal kind of way, confronts me with the reality of violence even more than committing (morally sanctioned) violence.

The fear of violence: The realization that violence is always serious even when it is not morally wrong, even the death of a groundhog.

When I have kids, I want to teach them how to slaughter animals. When they read about blood in books, I want them to know the smell of fascia and muscle and entrails. Why? Because I think that butchering confronts one, even subconsciously, with the strange paradox of being a human being--an animal and not an animal, "both in and out of the game, watching and wondering at it" to quote Uncle Walt. I don't want them to have a dichotomy of violence in their minds: violence which is morally sanctioned and violence which is evil. I want them to know that violence is always serious.

So I'll thank God for this little extinction of being as I dig into dinner on Friday (I have to let it sit in brine to mellow out the gamey flavor). I hope it's tasty.

Floyd's Been Occupied

When I went to the health food store on Saturday, the Occupy movement shopped with me. Or at least this woman did. She's touring the U.S., spreading the message of the 99%, letting people paint her car (I regret not doing this), and setting up palm-reading booths to make a few dollars. No joke. A week ago I talked to an older guy for about a half an hour; he, too, is touring the nation, calling himself a modern-day Jack Kerouac, and selling little paintings along the way. Completely insane and a really nice guy. I gave him a dollar.

Apparently the younguns spearheading the movement are not exactly the most organized of people, and older folk like her are getting involved to help them realize that they need things like water, healthy food, and funding to get along. She told me about an older nurse who took care of everyone on one of the last marches, even buying food with her own money. Apparently one young chap made the fatal mistake of wearing boxers instead of briefs and ended up with a swollen scrotum. I'm sorry for being graphic, but that's what she said, and I only speak the truth. Gentlemen: Consider yourself duly warned when you attend your next rally.

I'm actually tossing around the idea of attending the Occupy Monsanto rally in North Carolina next month. Don't be hatin'.

In other news, next Sunday I'll be seeing Allison Kraus at FloydFest. I'm planning on wearing my fabulous silk Indian skirt, sandals, and fitting right in. I may even borrow a tie-dyed shirt. When in Rome, my friends.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I'm on a bus going through the "Garden" state; ennui ensues

New Jersey, I believe, is the Ohio of the Eastern Seaboard. They both feel like they'll go on forever, which is just peachy because they're also two of the last states you could possibly want to never end. Jersey springs eternal, which might be the single worst thing I can think of.

Wet Postcards and Wasp Stings: Part II

Bringing the harvest back to the barn. 

I keep a pad of sticky notes around to jot down brilliant lines and phrases as they occur to me. I generally stick them on the water cooler, meaning to write them down more permanently later, but the wind usually finds them first. Oh well, it was a nice thought.

The top note right now, however, never got tore off or even completed: "A yellow jacket buzzes in--." I had been composing a few lines to the echoes the insect made inside a Mason jar. The poem aborted, however, as I accidently put one of the yellow jacket's compatriots inside my mouth. It had landed to sample the honey which I like to eat by the spoonful straight out of the jar. I think I experienced a moment of bug-eyed horror as the little body thrashed around behind my teeth before spitting it out, poetry completely forgotten. I sprinted out to the meadow to find broad leaf plantain, imagining my entire mouth swelling up and cutting off my respiratory system as the yellow jacket's venom paralyzed my tongue. I can be a little bit of a hypochondriac.

Now, being stung on your tongue is not only very painful even when it doesn't cause any problems (thank goodness), it is also very humiliating to be caused so much pain and horror by such a tiny excuse for a wasp. My mouth and my ego hurt just writing about it.

The yellow jacket stings, and nature breaks in again through the apparently-impenetrable walls of my intellect and appreciation for beauty and gives me the finger before racing away. I'm too hobbled by the shock to follow. (Of course, I'm also blogging about it, so call me ironic or a liar if you'd like.)

I save the spider, but the raccoons occasionally pillage my trash and bang pots around at 3am. They do, however, leave the eggs on the shelf at the back of the stove, and this arrangement seems good for both of us. They get my rotten chicken after I forget to change the ice in the cooler, and I get... I'm not sure what I get. Living on the top of my hill is less like communing with creation than living in a sort of old mafia neighborhood. You pay the fees, turn a blind eye, and you tell yourself you're better for it when really it's the same buggers who are hitting you up who would be hitting you.

Mornings, the many little whorls in the needles around my cabin assure me that in the night I have been surrounded by a great encampment of little animals.

Friend or foe? No answer. I'll keep the door closed, thank you, even though the mice still get in and rustle around in the corners as soon as I turn off the lights.

A few summers ago, an intern woke up from an afternoon nap to realize that a possum had bedded down beside her in her sleeping back. I'm glad that hasn't happened to me. I'm not Annie Dillard desiring to be covered in locusts. No, that's stupid. My first mother was the queen and mother of creation, and I expect this my inheritance to keep a respectful distance. My subjects seem to have the same idea for the most part, staging occasional coups, of course, but what would a kingdom do without a little sedition with the morning coffee?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Wet Postcards and Wasp Stings: Part I

Everything I own is wet.

For starters, every time I decide to do laundry (which I must do frequently because the machine in the barn sort of sludges mud about and spins a whirl or two before deciding--erroneously--that it's finished) the windows of heaven open. This is so reliable that whenever I hear Polly complain that the soil is too dry, I just pop a load in and wait for the storm cloud.

And so today: my sheets, towels, and bathrobe are all strung festively, if a bit damply, around the moldy confines of my cabin while I wait for the rain to stop. I've just got off work, and I go to make myself a spot of dinner (polenta with marinara and apple pancakes for dessert). Suddenly, the drizzle turns to a downpour so violent that the rain sort of hisses and rebounds when it hits the forest's floor and turns into a sort of mist so that you have a disconcerting feeling that you're suddenly underwater. Well, I was distracted by the news and by sizzling pans of polenta, so I turn around too late to save the books and papers on my picnic table from shriveling and turning to goo. I spread them out on my counter which is now the only dry spot in my kitchen as the roof has also started to leak in scalp-tingling drops.

The real tragedy, however, occurs when I go into my cabin to find my shoes and I realize that my sink has backed up, flooding the counter and my floor with muddy drain water. A little rivulet, however, has diverted the main flow away from the floor and into a large cardboard box full of all my valuable papers which are now floating in about eight inches of water. There is something of the tragicomic nothingness and nobility of human existence about a cardboard box full of water and four years of poetry and letters--and then lugging it to the door and tipping it out into the forest bed, hoping the bottom won't fall out.

Is this, I ask the sky, necessary today?

So now all those letters from friends and postcards from my dad from the last four years are all spread out in a several-sheet-thick layer over my picnic table (which I had to mop off to make it reasonably more dry than the sad little refugees I stacked there). I peeled apart photographs, homemade cards came apart in my hands as the glue softened, and the colors of the many self-portraits dad has sent me ran together like a Rorschach test of love sent over continents and time. Photographs hold the ghost prints of news articles and handwriting on their faces; a pink heart my father cut out from construction paper my freshman year melts onto a letter I got last summer.

The transformation certainly better represents the state of memories in my skull--all mixed up and melting into one another--but I had liked that that stuffed envelope had kept them preciously distinct. Well, not any more. In the morning, they'll be permanently wrinkled as well as stained. There's nothing I can do about that.

Nature is none but its own, and it likes to remind me of that fact when I get too rapturous or content. Both attitudes are idolatrous--that is, they try to make what is transcendent controllable by making it small, shaving it down to something manageable. "Things are precious before they are contributory," Fr. Capon reminds me in his superbly delightful book The Supper of the Lamb. "It is false piety that walks through creation looking only for lessons which can be applied somewhere else."

So I let the spider by my door handle stay even though he found a mate and then had little babies which turn up in my bed sheet. I try not to succumb either to aestheticism or convenience in this. My idea is simply that if I lack ill-will toward the beasites, they'll do me the same favor--and usually it works. Infrequently, however, I do wake up with itchy, two-punctured bites on my hand to remind me that our treaty withstanding, they are outside of my control--as is the rain, as are these fragments of my past spread out on my kitchen table. I have to live in the absurd romp of the "unneccessary now," as Fr. Capon calls it.

I'll go grab the mop the now.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

And now for dessert

Here's a delicious recipe I invented last night which basically qualifies as the worlds best dessert because a) it contains only honey, no refined sugar, b) no refined grain, c) coconut oil is really good for you, and d) it tastes amazing. Ye who look askance at healthy desserts will love this, I promise or your money back, guaranteed. It's also gluten-free and dairy-free, so even my Mom can eat it.  It has no name at present, but if you come up with a good one, you win a free meal next time you come and visit me.  I wish I had pictures... but no.

- polenta thinly sliced
- coconut milk
- honey

Heat your oven to 400 degrees or so and cook the thin slices of polenta on a lightly oiled cookie sheet (very lightly oiled or non-stick). You want them to be very crispy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. This may take a half an hour or so. Read a book or eat dinner while it cooks.

Just when the polenta is ready, heat a heavy frying pan or an iron skillet up very hot and then throw in the coconut milk. Panic as the delicious goodness of the coconut milk begins to hiss and boil away to nothing. After you swear and tear drawers apart looking for an  oven mitt (because the handle is goshdarn hot as pan-makers have not yet discovered that consumers want to cook only food and not their hands), pull the pan off the flame and pour the now-thickened and toasty coconut milk into some container that will not melt. This whole process should take about 15 seconds or you didn't heat the pan enough.

Take the polenta out of the oven, arrange them on a plate and pour--don't drizzle--the coconut milk all over it. Finish off with flourish of honey to taste. Enjoy.

I discovered this dessert by accident last night when I found my self craving something sweet but lacking any normal ingredients except some leftover coconut milk from curry I made the night before and polenta which I had just eaten with the world's best pasta sauce which I had simmered up from tomatoes the crows had pecked apart, and our fresh basil and garlic.