Monday, February 23, 2015

Chicken Soup for the Soul

I just heard a funny story from my teaching colleagues here at Dodge:

A boy in the Spruce Room was cooking in the play kitchen. He appeared to be making soup for a nearby baby doll who was ill. He said something like, "This soup's almost done. That'll make you feel better." As he stirred his pot of pretend soup, he walked toward a teacher, to tell her the news. He began to say, "I'm making some chicken s--," but as he walked and stirred, he brushed by the cage of the classroom pet chicken, Goldie, and she caught his eye. He began again, eyes on the chicken, "I was going to say, 'I'm making some chicken soup...'" His voice trailed off and it was evident that the wheels were turning:  chickens as pets, chickens as soup...

Our little friend was struck by a conundrum that we all face, sooner or later. If you stop a moment and think, whether you are vegan, vegetarian, omnivore or carnivore, you must account for your role in the food chain. I, personally, think it behooves us not to take food lightly. The latest plant intelligence research suggests that we have only just begun to understand the lives of plants; plants, it turns out, have a complex sentience that may supersede our own in terms of community orientation and biological imperative to nurture youngsters. Some plants can change their biology in a matter of hours, altering their DNA (!) to meet reproductive needs-- turns out that plants are uber "smart." And we eat them.  

I think that we should sit with a certain amount of discomfort about how we sustain our existence. Whether through food or fossils, we fuel our life by consuming other things. There is no getting around it. We can, and should, talk as much as we can about how to go about this consumption ethically, morally and sustainably. We should also honor the conundrum it presents to us every day in every way:  no life without death. I think the natural world helps us mull over our relationship to death and our role in the web that is life.

My grandmother died just after the New Year. She lived a long life and her death was relatively peaceful, and still I struggle to reconcile her passing. As my dad said, "It is stunning. We live this long, complicated life full of emotion-- worries, joys, desires, everything. We go and go and go and it comes to this one fine point, a moment where you are and then you aren't. Whatever life is, it's almost impossible to understand." My mother said, "I'm not spiritual, but to go from everything in you alive, cells and all, to not...It's sort of beyond comprehension." And then, both my mother and father, on the phone with me, late in the evening of the day my grandmother died, worked to understand what they were going through:  "Someone dies and you drive down the road and you realize that the trees, the leaves, the dirt, the snow-- The car! Houses, other people. Dogs! They all have bits of people and everything that's ever lived in them. We're carbon and we always will be. Again and again and again. That's the thing that is mystifying. It's bigger than us."

I am struck by how I can hear natural, scientific relationships in how my family talks through death. In my experience as a teacher, a mother and just a person, I find that the more I learn about the complexity and inter-relatedness of the natural world, the more I am moved to a deeper appreciation of life and a greater sense of wonder. Wow! That sentence sounds so hokey, but I really mean it.  

Not too long ago, a hiking group of mine met up with another small hiking group. David, lead teacher in the Willow Room, was poking around in the prairie with his students, looking at deer scat. There was a scrape of snow on the ground and his kids and my kids toed around the poop, chatting about what deer eat and mulling over the ins and outs of consumption. Some of us turned around to scan for more deer sign and we discovered blood and feathers in the snow-- clues of another sort. "Look!" I said with glee (for every naturalist loves a good kill site), "Whaddya think happened here?"

Then many things transpired. Kids bent over, or jockeyed for viewing position. Some looked up and around, trying to find more feathers. Some tried to stick their mittens in the bloody snow. Others just stood right on top of the evidence inspiring irritation in their fellows. One hiker shrugged and returned to the deer scat, bent over and decided to sample one jelly bean-sized poo. Commanding the adventurous forager to spit out the scat distracted us for a moment, but interest in the feathers and blood continued. While each child had a different response to the carnage, every child knew blood for what it is. I suspect this is because they have intimate, first-hand knowledge of their own blood. And most of the children remained interested for some time. A child shows her interest through gesture, gaze and language. Here are some of the things we heard:  "It got dead."  "Something ate it."  "I'm hungry."  "Animals get dead."  "Feathers."  "A turkey!"  "The deer ate it!"  "The deer ate a turkey again." "No, a coyote."  "Grey feathers."  "Pigeons are grey underneath."  ""Other birds have sharp beaks."  "It attacked."  "A coyote killed it."  "It's dead."  "Where is it?"  "It takes it."  "Ate it."  "The bird is gone."  

Now the bird was gone. Just feathers and blood. Not a bit of bone. I'm pretty sure the kids were just clocking a physical fact. Sign of a bird, but no bird. But the equation of grey feathers and blood, the implication of violence in the snow, added up to death-- just like roadkill, or squished bugs. Something is one way and then it changes. Something is alive and then it is dead. Kids and people understand the nature of life through this kind of daily exposure to what we often think of as the darker partner to it, death. It's that old yin and yang, the black and white cookie of a conundrum...again and again and again.  

I was thinking about the kids and the feathers when I sat down to write something about my grandmother. I was wondering about the life the bird had before another bird ate it (no coyote tracks at that kill site). I imagined the bird's parents, the nest they built, the other fledglings in the nest. What had become of the parents, the siblings? How would those lives work out? When and how would they end? What were the daily yearnings, loves and hardships that would be the stuff of those lives (yes, I think birds love and yearn). It got me thinking about how much I didn't know about my own grandmother, how many questions I have about her, now that she's no longer around to answer them. And then, of all things, I thought of eels.

Eels. Really. Grandma was like an eel, I thought. No, she didn't look like an eel. But the mystery of her life, the elusiveness of her interior self, that was what got me on to eels.

American Eel

You see, science still doesn't know a lot about eels. But here is a brief rundown of what we do know about the American Eel, Anguilla Rostrata. Anguilla Rostrata is born in the Sargasso Sea, in the region of the Caribbean (now you know how the island of Anguilla got its name). All eels migrate to this region to mate. Nobody has really seen this happen. But they find teeny weenie baby eels (they start life as nearly microscopic clear, leaf-shaped things) are found there. The leaf babies float toward the coast of North America. As they float, they eat and metamorphose into more eelish things and by the time they get to mouths of great rivers, like the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence, they are glass eels. As they swim up these rivers they change more, getting a bit bigger and streamlining. In this phase, between not-quite-an-eel and fully-realized-eel, they are known as elvers. Now, as far as science understands it, male eels do not continue to the farther reaches of these rivers and they never gain the Great Lakes as the females do. The females grow stronger, turning green and bronzy to match the terrain of the upper rivers and the lake bottoms they travel. They swim the Great Lakes, even Superior, and find their way up the tributaries of these lakes. They turn golden in color and and mature in the smaller streams of these tributary rivers, even finding their way overland to the inland lakes. And one day, when they are perhaps twelve, or even twenty years old, they begin the long journey back to the sea. 
On the journey home, the female eel turns from gold to silver. When silver, she can camoflauge more readily in the ocean, increasing her chances of surviving and arriving at her ultimate destination. Her eyes enlarge and migrate to the sides of her head, the better to see through the depths, and locate her partner in the end. What a life! So singular, so determined, and so secretive and solitary. And what happens in the end, after she meets her mate and gives birth? We presume death. But we can only presume. 

My grandmother looked forward to a reunion with my grandfather, who preceded her in death. Before my grandmother's memorial, I said to my mom, with some trepidation, "So where is she?" My mom nodded to the table behind me. I turned and looked at the array of photos and memorabilia from my grandmother's life that my mom had arranged and displayed for the family. I looked back at my mom, confused.

"Ruthie's right there."

Perhaps a certain part of my brain was willfully ignoring the plain square bronze box that sat amid the letters and snapshots. Something of my grandmother was physically right there all along, standing amid all those tokens of memory and history. But of course she had changed. The box was small, but so heavy. The weight was solid and still, so different than the weight of a child in your arms, or a bird in your hand. I think I began to understand the nature of my grandmother's death in another way in that physical moment. My grandmother, Ruth, looked forward to a reunion with my grandfather, George, who preceded her in death. We cannot underestimate the power of nature to teach us about ourselves.