Here’s an update on the sisters of the convent adjoining Acorn Abbey. Though Sister Patience continues to hold office as Mother Superior, she is widely expected to announce her retirement when Sister Evangeline gets just a little bigger.
Archive for June, 2012
Last summer, I somehow resisted the temptation to make fried squash, partly because it makes a mess in the kitchen. But tonight, after coming home peckish from a county commissioners’ meeting and needing a snack, I opened the refrigerator, saw one of those beautiful yellow squash, and decided to fry it.
Fried squash is a Southern classic. Some people fry it in batter; some people roll it in a beaten egg and then in seasoned flour. Some people add their secret mix of spices; some people use just salt and pepper.
The mess in the kitchen wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, I fried it. And I’ll probably do it again.
As for the county commissioners’ meeting, there’s a whole nother issue we’re now fighting here in Stokes. Someone in the western end of the county wants a permit to start a “bioremediation” facility for toxic waste. Why would we allow that, in a beautiful county like Stokes in which tourism is an important part of the economy? People are drawn to the county’s mountains, state park, and rural beauty. Toxic waste doesn’t fit in with that plan.
If you set out to fight evil in this world, there’s plenty to keep you busy. Fried squash is as good a compensation as any.
Of all the old-fashioned farm and kitchen chores I do, making sauerkraut is probably my least favorite.
Yesterday I pulled all the cabbages. There was a wheelbarrow load. Six hours later I had two full crocks — about 30 pounds — of sauerkraut starting to ferment, plus a few heads of cabbage to eat fresh. It’s hard, messy work. I washed each cabbage up in the garden area, with the hose. And then after bringing them down to the house, I washed each one again in the kitchen sink. The cleaning and washing alone is work enough, but shredding cabbage is even more miserable. It takes forever to shred that much cabbage, and it gets all over the kitchen. In any case, it’s a nice feeling of accomplishment when the work is done.
Early in the season, the cabbage was damaged pretty badly by cabbage worms. It took me too long to wise up and spray Bt, but that killed the worms, and the cabbages recovered far better than I ever would have expected. I saw only one cabbage worm while cleaning the cabbage. Next year I’ll know better. I’ll spray early and pre-empt the worms with Bt spray. The same is true of peaches, by the way. Peaches are highly susceptible to some kind of insect that lays eggs that hatch into larvae that tunnel into the peach. Next year, I’ll try to stay ahead of the enemies of the peach tree, probably with neem oil or a pyrethrin spray. By the time you first see them, they’ve already done a lot of damage.
So Armistead Maupin is leaving San Francisco. For those of you who have read his books (Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, etc.), this is a big deal. That aura of myth and magic around San Francisco was partly created by two very important writers, both of whom published in the San Francisco Chronicle (from which I retired in 2008).
The other writer, of course, was columnist Herb Caen, who died in 1997. Both Maupin and Caen loved San Francisco passionately. Both wove webs of magic around San Francisco’s places and people. Armistead Maupin’s magic was a more personal magic, contained in the lives and loves and heartbreaks of the characters he created. Caen’s magic was more extraverted. It was largely to be found in places — bars, eateries, hangouts — often lurking in the fog. Caen once said, “One day if I do go to heaven, I’ll look around and say, ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.’” Caen’s magic was easier to find. Even visitors could find it, just making the rounds, living well, soaking up the atmosphere. Maupin’s magic was much more elusive. For Maupin’s magic, you had to have a life, even if that life wasn’t what you always thought it would be. And you had to have people in your life who understood how to help each other create magic out of everyday materials.
The center of the universe
I have thought a great deal about a magical power that writers have. They can cause the center of the universe to move. Pick a setting, any setting. It might be San Francisco. It might be a shack in Mississippi. It might be a beat-up old car rolling down a highway in Tennessee. It could be a hospital room. It could be a back yard in suburbia. It could be an imaginary place, out among the stars. But wherever that place is, if a writer can tell a true and beautiful story in that place, then that place becomes the center of the universe.
There is a wonderful line in George Lucas’ Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is a bored, dreamy teen-ager, living with his step parents, doing chores on the desert planet of Tattooine. One day two droids show up — R2D2 and C3PO. While Luke is repairing the droids, C3PO says, “As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure what planet I’m on.” Luke Skywalker replies, “Well, if there’s a bright center of the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”
To feel ourselves far from the center of the universe contains more existential pain than we ever admit.
But what Luke Skywalker doesn’t suspect is that, at that very moment, he is at the bright center of the universe. That is because a true and beautiful story is being told — Luke’s story, partly — but Luke doesn’t know it. It’s a secret for only the storyteller and the reader to know. But a good storyteller also knows some things about the reader that the reader doesn’t know.
It has been my good fortune to have known lots of good writers. One writer I knew back in the 1980s, at the time he published Ender’s Game, is Orson Scott Card. He used to say that the key to the best stories, to the truest stories, is that the storyteller is telling the reader’s own story. But the reader, who is unable to tell the story himself, doesn’t know it.
That was certainly true of Armistead Maupin’s stories. Maupin showed people a whole new way to live — simple, sweet, kind. He taught people how to not be too hard on themselves, or on each other. In his stories, the most ordinary events could contain a world of meaning and bring us to tears. His stories changed people’s lives.
When we are the center of the universe, we feel happy. We feel that life has meaning. Orson Scott Card would say that this is why people are so hungry for stories. Stories — good stories, at least — help us find our place in the universe. When we can’t do that, we become depressed, miserable. It’s hard to find meaning in our lives.
A friend from my San Francisco days now lives in Sacramento. He has to deal with a recurring sadness: He is having a great deal of difficulty creating magic in Sacramento. He pines for San Francisco. As any writer knows, settings do make a difference. Some kinds of stories just can’t be told in some kinds of places. A shack in Mississippi is the natural setting for only certain stories. The same is true of San Francisco. Stories certainly could be told in the suburbs of Sacramento, but to find that story may require a very difficult existential struggle. When we feel ourselves beaten down by that struggle, we instinctively turn to storytellers for help.
Most psychologists would say that living too much in the imagination is not healthy, that human beings function best when they are well-adapted to their actual environment, that excessive mythologizing can even be kind of dangerous. Maybe. But I don’t think so. I have long understood that I was happiest when I felt surrounded by magic, even when sustaining that magic required a certain level of delusion. That was one of the reasons I moved to San Francisco, more than 20 years ago. I could no longer sustain a sense of magic where I was. I needed a change of setting if there was to be any hope of finding magic.
To leave San Francisco is frightening, in a way. One has fears and dreads about what kind of magic — if any — exists outside of San Francisco. I remember telling my sister, when Acorn Abbey existed only in my imagination, that I wanted a place that felt as though magic was possible there. Settings matter. One feels one’s setting in one’s everyday life. Other people might feel it too. It’s possible to create magic alone. Magic also can be a co-creation. Even groups can create magic, though group magic is likely to be unstable, because people change, and people come and go. San Franciscans have created a powerful magic, as a group. But in 1997, when Herb Caen died, a powerful source of that group magic was lost. As my friend Rob Morse wrote in the San Francisco Examiner the day after Caen died, “We’re on our own now.”
And now San Francisco must make its magic without Armistead Maupin.
Just don’t forget: The center of the universe can be absolutely anywhere. It’s all in the story you tell.
Postscript: Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is being made into a movie starring Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford. It will be released in 2013.
I am starting to feel optimistic that the frighteningly hot, dry, droughty weather of the past few years was abnormal, in spite of climate change. I am hoping that we are returning to more normal temperatures and levels of rainfall. When I say this, I am ignoring the clear global trend of extreme weather events. I am thinking selfishly only of this little part of the world, and of my ability to grow things here and to endure being outside in the summer without being baked to a crisp.
I suspect that La Niña was the culprit. La Niña, of course, is one extreme of a normal oscillation of water temperatures across the tropical Pacific. This oscillation still is not well understood, but it has been observed for hundreds of years. This oscillation causes a redistribution of rainfall on both sides of the Pacific. If India and Indonesia are getting more rain than normal, then here in the American southeast we are getting less. And the reverse is true.
Typically this oscillation occurs every three to seven years. Often La Niñas are 10 years apart. But since 2008, the pattern has been unusual. The La Niña of 2008 was quickly followed by another that lasted from 2010 until 2011. This La Niña ended in this past few months, and it was one of the strongest ever recorded. It was the cause of a devastating drought in Australia and probably last year’s drought in Texas as well.
Those years since 2008, unfortunately for me, were the years I’ve been working so hard to build Acorn Abbey and to get a garden, orchard, and landscape going. No wonder I have been so discouraged and exasperated at times, watching young trees die and gardens baked to a crisp.
The amount of rainfall varies greatly from spot to spot of course, especially the rainfall from thunderstorms. Thunderstorms are the source of most of the rainfall in this area during the hot part of the year. One spot can be flooded, and another spot 10 miles away can be high and dry. So I realized that I needed my own accurate rainfall record, and I started collected data on Sept. 1 of last year. Since Sept. 1, 39 inches of rain have fallen on Acorn Abbey, well on the way to equaling or exceeding the official average of 44 to 45 inches for this area. That is most encouraging.
I also am finding that, with normal weather, I need far less air conditioning at the abbey. So far this season, I have not turned the air conditioning on at all. The highest temperature we’ve had so far was about 92. The temperature in the house reaches 86 or so on a day like that, but after the sun goes down and the outdoor temperature drops, I turn on the attic fan and the indoor temperature comes back down to the upper 70s. I can live with that. But when the temperature gets above 95, I probably won’t be able to take it.
I’ve often mentioned in this blog how odd it seems that a fanciful house such as a Gothic revival cottage can be so practical. Here’s another way it’s practical: It’s livable when it’s hot outside. Actually, that was one reason I liked the design. There are lots of big windows, as with older houses. The high ceilings and large attic help. If I had large, grand shade trees — as I hope to have in 10 or 15 years — this house would be as livable in hot weather as any Southern country house of the 19th century.
A lot of the readers here are building houses, including Gothic revival cottages like mine. So I can add a few points to lessons learned after living in this house for almost three years. Large, south-facing windows are pure gold. They will warm you in the winter, and yet in the summer when the sun is overhead, they admit no direct sun at all. West-facing windows, however, are a different story. Heavy sunlight pours in on summer afternoons. You’ll want deciduous shade trees outside your west-facing windows. Lacking that, awnings would be good, though window shades are better than no protection at all.
I cringe when I look at some modern houses. The windows are tiny. Some people probably never even open them and instead rely on their heating and cooling system year-round. That would make me crazy. I like hearing the birds. And if a chicken squawks to alert me to some emergency, I can hear her.
Watch this first, to better understand where I’m coming from
Once upon a time, the gods were in your own back yard. To get an idea of how that might have felt — the wonder and magic of it — watch the video above. Or think of the world of fairy tales. Fairy tales, of course, are some of the very few remnants of that old world. In the West, it was Rome, and the Catholic Church, that stamped out that world. I don’t claim to know a great deal about this period of history, but one area of this history in which I have done some reading is in the history of my ancestors, the Celts. The Celts, of course, held some of the finest real estate that the Roman armies took — much of Spain, all of France, the British Isles, and Ireland.
After the Roman conquest of the Celtic lands, it literally took centuries for the church’s priests to exorcise the old gods from the woods and fields and rocks and streams. There were special rituals for it, and there were severe punishments for any peasant who was caught in the woods communing with the old gods. Even in Joan of Arc’s time, in the 15th century, there were still fairies in the woods. At Joan of Arc’s trial before the Inquisition, much was made of charges that she, like the other children, had danced around the fairy tree in some magical woods near her childhood home. In the remote highlands of Scotland, the old ways actually persisted into the 19th century. The localization of religion had come to an end.
The work of keeping religion centralized, where it can be controlled by its priesthood and milked for power and income, is never done. Why, if there were gods in the rocks and trees and stars, then anyone could commune with them for free, and no one would be able to skim a profit from that, or claim to speak for such local gods. And it isn’t just the Catholic church. In the U.S. today, there are a host of protestant preachers who fly around in corporate jets, live taxfree in multiple multimillion dollar homes, and suck in millions of dollars from people who see god in the greasy, unctious preacher on their television screen rather than in their own back yard.
As I go about my daily business of sifting for information about the state of the world (I’m trying to stop calling it “news,” because “news” is a centralized corporate product), it’s alway enormously fun to come across pictures and quotes from the old fools in dresses who run the Catholic church. Just this weekend, for example, we learn that some American nuns, who have gotten in trouble with the Inquisition for acting like Jesus and actually caring about the poor, have been called to Rome to be scolded by Cardinal William Levada, who currently heads the Inquisition (formally called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — very centralized, you know). And let’s not forget that the current pope was the head of the Inquisition before he became pope and the title went to Levada.
A couple of days ago, driving back from a trip to town, I passed five or six acres of woods, newly bulldozed. It’s now a gash of red dirt and gullies. The church next to it, which has the words “Living Waters” in its name, apparently has outgrown its prefab building and is building something bigger. To them, the woods mean nothing. There are no gods in the woods anymore. And besides, what could gods be worth anyway, if they’re free? No, those folks need a building, and a praise band, and lots of taxfree contributions, and someone paid to shout at them about their centralized god.
Who is crazy? Them or me?
Probably me. I do know, though, that I would go crazy if I didn’t have a tiny refuge from a world raped and globalized and delocalized to the breaking point, a world in which ridiculous old men in Rome, wearing dresses, are outraged that not everyone — even nuns! — will do as they say.
But really there is no escape. Ken reports, after a four-day hike in the Smoky Mountains, that visibility from those mountaintops is ruined by smog and haze, and that the park service has posted signs explaining that the smog and haze is pollution from Midwestern and Southern cities. As for my tiny refuge, the corporate puppets in Raleigh, thanks to money from the oil and gas companies, are about to make it legal for corporations — not the government, mind you, but corporations — to take my land if they say they need it, to drill underneath it, and to inject poisons by the millions of gallons into the underground aquifer that feeds my well and upon which all the life around me depends.
Sometimes I’m afraid that this is hopeless. They have won. There is no local anymore. There isn’t anything they can’t take. They even claim the gods. We let them do it. And every step of the way, they said it was for our own good, and we believed it. They threatened us with hell. It’s odd that they can so vividly imagine such a place, but can’t imagine themselves in it. I can.