Friday, September 16, 2011

In Praise of the Mutilated World

On the way home to New Jersey from our visit to Wellfleet, my friend Catarina started to reminisce about her life growing up in Sweden. How I wish I had been able to grab my video camera and record her story in her own vivid words.  But I was driving, so here is my best recollection of what she described as we plummeted down Route 95.
Last month she went to a little antique show at local volunteer fire house, a charitable event which is held every year in our exclusive, pastoral, horse-country exurb of New York.  Perusing the display in a booth that specialized in old tools, she noticed a device designed for castrating cattle. She recognized its purpose because it reminded her of a summer long ago.  As a teenager she spent the season migrating with the Laplanders, in an exercise intended by her father to restore strength to the muscles of her ankle, broken in gym class, for competitive cross-country skiing.  He had obtained special permission from the village for her, an outsider, to be temporarily adopted by a family.
The Laplanders are a short, dark-haired people originally from Siberia, whose lives revolve around the vast herds of reindeer indigenous to the region...and fish. Each reindeer is the recipient of a particularly shaped mark - cut, like a brand, in one ear - denoting the family to which they and their offspring traditionally belong. Unattributed renegades who manage to escape the yearling roundup are eventually auctioned off, once caught.  Catarina caused some mirth when, caught up in the excitement of the annual tradition, she called out a bid...only Laps are legally permitted to own reindeer.
Anyway, she spent that summer trudging along with them on their march, following the reindeer, up, up the steep slopes into the mountainous range that divides the country from Norway. At the summits are lakes where they made camp for the summer, to labor chopping and gathering wood, cutting and drying grass for layering into boots.  Every night they laid fish nets to be hauled to shore in the morning.  Each day they spent cleaning their catch, which is almost exclusively their summer diet.  Surplus filets were layered in salt for transport to the lower altitudes, where the Laps overwinter in the shelter of the valleys. They also smoked the fish.  Fish, smoked and salted. And they were happy to eat it.  As fall neared they collected berries, wary of bears.
Every part of the reindeer they used.  At night they slept on their hides, in the day, they composed their clothing. The choicest portions of smoked meat, a delicacy, were sold as their main source of money. Everything else was used including the heart and the kidneys. The blood was drained and dried for use in sausage, or for a special treat, even dumplings. The women chewed the sinews to form sturdy ties and thread to sew, which over time wore their teeth down to stubs.
But what got the attention of the dubious dealer back at the antique show was Catarina's anecdote about the pincer used for castration. As she explained, the Laps must carry everything they need for the entire summer on their backs, so even the most minute contribution of weight to their packs must be essential and irreplaceable. So, rather than lug a metal tool night after night for a few hours of utility, the Laps preferred a time-honored method they had learned, to knock the young male reindeer onto their backs, and use their teeth to sever the connection between testicles and penis (because this makes the young males more docile...and plump.)
We had a merry conversation speculating on how or why or by whom this method of increasing the yield of poundage was first discovered...but I won't get into that!
Instead - Catarina continued, and told me more - about her grandparents, on whose farm in the southern part of Sweden she often stayed and worked. They had four cows, some sheep and chickens, and every year raised a pig. In the garden they grew potatoes, carrots, cabbage and rutabaga, which were stored overwinter in a root cellar.  After the harvest, her grandmother spent the winter weaving, knitting, and sewing, and of course caring for children and the animals.  Meanwhile, her grandfather went into the forest for a month at a time, taking with him a stash of simple food, so that from his shelter he could chop wood and then coax slowly burning, painstakingly arranged pyramids, twenty-four hours a day, into sell to far away factories for fuel.  That and extra milk, sold to a producer for shipment to the city, was their sole source of cash.
Catarina said that the food was simple, unadorned...and delicious.  When I hear an amazing story like hers, of people living so close to subsistence, I worry that the world of natural abundance has vanished, and the world of high-tech innovation based on cheap energy is taken for granted.  I have to wonder why we have prepared our children for video games and not self-sustenance - just when it will be most needed in the mutilated world they are inheriting.

Following are pictures from our rambles in Provincetown, but first, a poem written by Adam Zajewski.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watch the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather of a thrush lost,
and the gentle lights that strays and vanishes
and returns.

 - Adam Zagajewski
   (translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh)
  published in The New Yorker, 9/24/01

I mentioned in an earlier post that the trees in Wellfleet looked dreadful.  Last Saturday, we took a spin up to Provincetown to compare.
The leaves on the shrubs and trees were the same.  Brown, and falling.
The first person we asked about it said it happens early like this every big deal.
She claimed that it would all return, just beautifully, in the spring.
I can only assume this is a case of shifting baselines, where each successive season is incrementally worse than the one prior.
People tend to compare today's current degradation with the recent past.  They forget years before when the world was truly verdant.
Some of them are just too young to realize that trees didn't used to look disgusting in early September, or that trees undergoing this apocalyptic desecration can't survive for long.
The next woman we asked said disgustedly that Hurricane Irene had killed all the leaves, with salt spray.
This is certainly not the first storm to be associated with such damage.
And in fact in some places, the damage looks consistent with exposure to salt-laden winds.
On the other had, there are so many unnatural threats to plantlife, it's difficult to tease out separate influences, let alone the synergistic effects between them.
It's quite likely, for instance, that since ozone is highly reactive, and is known to strip the protective waxy coating from the surface of foliage, that it becomes more sensitive to desiccation whether from drought or salt.
Ozone is known to cause even marble and limestone to decay, ruining historical buildings and statues...not to mention lungs that inhale it.
In any event, it was just bizarre to see the throngs of tourists wander the streets lined with such decay, seemingly oblivious.

Some of the trees were clearly dying well before Irene hit.
This lichen has spread dramatically since I was last on the Cape.

The staining of bark is comparable to what can be found the past couple of years in New Jersey, and certainly occurred over a season or more - not the two weeks since Irene came through.

The beaches also present a conflicting picture.  Clearly, the really dead trees have been so for more than two weeks...
...while there is green growth that somehow escaped the salt, if that is the source.

The scrubby tree below that has exposed, bleached wood is an oak.
The following pictures are from Monday, back in New Jersey.  Bark is falling off more and more.
Although the leaves aren't quite as uniformly shriveled as in Massachusetts, none of them are a healthy green.
It's not because they are turning autumn colors early, either.
When looked at individually, it's clear they are injured.

It's true no matter what species is examined.

By mid-October, when the hills should be brilliant gold, flaming orange and scarlet, they will instead be mostly bare, and brown.
Just watch the newscasters and tourist agencies blame it on too much rain.

I'm going to wrap up with what Richard Somerville of Scripps Oceanographic Institute says of climate change in the last few seconds of the youtube that follows:

"We can do something about it but that only works if we do something about it QUICKLY - if you RAPIDLY reduce the rate at which we put heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere...that's ABSOLUTELY MANDATORY."

I take him at his word - we don't have time to pander to the audience.  They - the Ignorers - need to be told we are facing an imminent existential threat - and massive sacrifices must be made.  Gardening and buying local are useless if we don't drastically reduce emissions.

I say, scare the WITS out of them.

I avoid the hoopla around 9/11.  This youtube was the only thing I saw worth watching if only because it demonstrates the absurdity of the official explanation; and Chris Hedges had the best column, "We are What We Loathe".

1 comment:

  1. Unbelievable, if you know what I mean.

    Remember the Maine!



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