Landscape with pork brains

Thanks to Via Negativa reader Matthew Albright for his generous gift of a used digital camera (a Kodak DC220 Zoom). If any other readers feel moved to make contributions to this not-for-profit blogging effort, my address is PO Box 68, Tyrone, PA 16686. Thanks. (Oh, by the way, tomorrow’s my birthday!)

Out of the eater

This past weekend, at our blogger conclave, I brought up the subject of positive valuations of female avoirdupois in country blues songs from the 20s and 30s. Since apparently the phrase “pigmeat mama” isn’t as widely known as it should be, I decided to Google it and came up with the following. Sexology and ethnography are always funnier in German – especially if, like me, you don’t actually know German.

Die Figur der Big Fat Mama ist dem oriental-afrikanischen Schönheitsideal entlehnt. Damit war keineswegs eine formlose und anerotisch-fettleibige Frau gemeint, sondern eher eine groíŸe, deren weibliche Kurven bis an die Grenze der Ertrí¤glichkeit ausgebildet waren. GroíŸer, schwingender Busen, ausgebildeter Bauchtí¤nzerinnen-Hüftspeck, breit ausladende, gebí¤rfreudige Hüften, massiv-pralle Schenkel, groíŸe FüíŸe und einen provokativ aufreizenden Gang. Tommy Johnson besang diesen Frauentyp folgenderart: “Big Fat Mama, meat shakin’ on her bones and everytime she shake it, some skinny girl goin’ lose the home”. Blind Lemon Jefferson singt von einer “Heavy Hip Mama”, die die Mí¤nner so lange ausnahm, bis ihr alles in der Nachbarschaft gehörte, wí¤hrend Ed Bell, ein Alabama-Bluesman von einer Frau berichtet: “She makes the blind man see and the dumb man call his name”. Auch Prediger und Geistliche waren vor der Unwiderstehlichkeit stramm-üppiger Weiblichkeit nicht gefeit: “She makes the preacher put his bible down” und Son House sang: “I got me religion on this very day, but womens and whisky would’nt let me pray”….

Die manchmal respektlosen Bezeichnungen, die man Frauen zudachte, hatten oft mit ihrer Stellung in der lí¤ndlichen Gesellschaftsstruktur zu tun und waren nicht immer abwertend gemeint. Beginnt man mit der “Milkcow”, wie sie durch Kokomo Arnold, Big Bill Broonzy, oder Son House besungen wird, beschreibt durchaus eine Art von existentieller Wichtigkeit. “…ain’t had no milk an butter, since my cow been gone”, oder “…if you see my milkcow, please drive her home”. Milk and Butter konnte eine Sexmetapher sein, aber auch Liebe und persönliche Obsorge. Doch es hieíŸ auch “Strange bull in the pasture.”, wenn Gefahr von einem Rivalen drohte, oder die Angetraute im Verdacht stand, fremdzugehen. Ehemuffel, die sich bloíŸ auf den GenuíŸ erotischer Abenteuer beschrí¤nken wollten, meinten lakonisch: “Why buy a cow, if I can get milk under the fence”. Frauen, die eher nymphomanischen Charakter hatten, waren bloíŸ “Pigmeat”, Schweinefleisch. Aber was bedeutete die “Pigmeat Mama” bei Blind Lemon, wenn er sang:” I got a call this mornin’, my pigmeat mama was dead.” Lemon ruft den Doktor, aber der sagt, daíŸ sein Pigmeat ganz gesund sei, aber “…she done gone dead on you”, also ihre Liebe war gestorben. In einem anderen Lied stellt Blind Lemon fest:” I love my baby, just like a farmer loves his jersey cow…”, wohl eine Reizzeile für moderne Emanzen. Wer setzt da eine Kuh mit dem Wert und der Würde einer Frau gleich. Die Kuh war oft das Einzige, was ein armer Pí¤chter besaíŸ und eine Frau war oft leichter zu bekommen, als eine Kuh. Ob es Liebe im höheren Sinne gab, kann ich nicht sagen, denn das Leben war für die Schwarzen so hart, daíŸ sie mit dem Existenzkampf und dem Damoklesschwert des Rassismus soviel Probleme hatten, daíŸ der Alltag nur rudimentí¤r-primitives Denken zulieíŸ.

Here’s a translation by Babelfish. (The robot assumes that the entire text is German; thus, the quotes in English are also “translated” to the best of its ability.)

The figure of the Big Fat mummy is taken to the oriental African ideal of beauty. Thus by any means an informal and anerotisch fettleibige woman was not meant, but rather a large, whose female curves to to the border of the bearableness were trained. More largely, swinging bosom, trained Bauchtaenzerinnen Hueftspeck, broadly unloading, bear-joyful hips, substantial-solid thighs, large feet and a provocatively up-provoking course. Tommy Johnson besang this woman Mrs. the following following: “Big Fat mummy, meat shakin ‘ on ago bones and everytime she shake it, some skinny girl goin ‘ draws the home”. Blindly Lemon Jefferson sings from a “Heavy Hip mummy”, who excluded the men so for a long time, until you belonged everything in the neighbourhood, during OD Bell, a Alabama Bluesman reported of a woman: “She makes the blindly one lake and the dumb one call his name”. Also prediger and clergyman were not protected before the irresistibleness of stramm sumptuous femaleness: “She of makes the preacher PUT his bible down” and Son House sang: “I got ME religion on this very day, but womens and whisky would’nt let ME pray”….

The sometimes irreverent designations, which one zudachte women, had to do often with their position in the rural social structure and were not always devaluing meant. If one begins with the “Milkcow”, like her by Kokomo Arnold, Big Bill Broonzy, or Son House besungen become, a kind of vital importance quite describes. “… ain’t had NO milk at butter, since my cow been gone”, or “… if you lake my milkcow, please drive ago home”. Milk and butter could be a Sexmetapher, in addition, love and personal Obsorge. But it was called also “strand bulletin into the pasture.”, if danger of a rival threatened, or the Angetraute in the suspicion to foreignhappen. Ehemuffel, which wanted to be only limited to the benefit of erotischer adventures, meant laconic: “Why buy A cow, if I CAN GET milk more under the fence”. Women, who had a rather nymphomanischen character, were only “Pigmeat”, schweinefleisch. But which meant the “Pigmeat mummy” with blindly Lemon, if he sang: ” I got A call this mornin ‘, my pigmeat mummy which DEAD.” Lemon calls the doctor, but it says that its Pigmeat is completely healthy had thus died, but “… she done gone DEAD on you”, their love. In another song blindly Lemon determines: ” I love my baby, just like A more farmer loves his jersey cow… “, probably an attraction line for modern Emanzen. Who sets there a cow with the value and that became for a woman directly. The cow was often the only one, which a poor tenant possessed and a woman was often more easily to get, than a cow whether it to love in the higher sense gave, cannot I not say, because the life was for the black ones so hard that they had problems with the struggle for existence and the Damoklesschwert of the racingism as much that the everyday life permitted only rudimentary-primitive thinking.

Setting aside the question of whether characterizing a vital folk tradition as “rudimentary-primitive thinking” itself constitutes “racingism,” here’s another unintentionally humorous passage for the sake of contrast. It’s an excerpt from an excerpt of Carol J. Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory, included in Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke, eds. (Indiana University Press, 1992):

There are some incontrovertible assumptions that determine our approach to life: Stories have endings, meals have meat. Let us explore whether these statements are interchangeable – stories have meat, that is, meaning, and meals have endings. When vegetarians take meat out of the meal, they take the ending out of the story of meat. Vegetarians become caught within a structure they attempt to eliminate. Our experience of meat eating cannot be separated from our feelings about stories.

This last strikes me as a highly debatable and culturally biased assertion. The bias becomes even stronger in the next paragraph, where universality is assigned to Western storytelling conventions:

We are the species who tell stories. Through narrative we confer meaning upon life. Our histories are structured as stories that postulate beginnings, crises, resolutions; dramas and fictions animate our imagination with stories that obviously have a beginning and an end. Narrative, by definition, moves forward toward resolution…Often meaning can only be apprehended once the story is complete…

Meat eating is story applied to animals, it gives meaning to animals’ existence….Animals’ lives and bodies become material fit to receive humans’ stories: the word becomes flesh….

Vegetarians see themselves as providing an alternative ending, veggie burgers instead of hamburgers, but they are actually eviscerating the entire narrative. From the dominant perspective, vegetarianism is not only about something that is inconsequential, which lacks “meat,” and which fails to find closure through meat, but is a story about the acceptance of passivity, of that which has no meaning, of endorsing a “vegetable” way of living. In this it appears to be a feminist story that goes nowhere and accepts nothing.

Alternately, of course, it may appear to be bullshit. Which is, of course, entirely “vegetable” in origin. As are we, according to that most patriarchal of texts, the King James Bible: All flesh is grass.

In vernacular cultures the world over, the boundaries between bodies are never very clear-cut. It may be true, as I wrote yesterday, that every being is a slow fire. But we are also, potentially, food – a statement that can be seen as either tragic (the vegetarian assumption) or comic (the Rabelaisian position). In a new essay at Wild Thoughts, Hank Green has a great little essay about the experience of being tongue-kissed by a gray wolf. It begins:

As humans we have the capacity to be both predator and prey. Vegetarian or not, I promise you, get a good hunger started in your belly and cute and fuzzy things will look much less like companions and much more like corndogs. I’ve looked at squirrels that way and they can tell. Generally they are indifferent or curious, but when I’m real hungry…they keep back.

Just as animals that were once our prey can see my hunger and my intent in my eyes, we can see the same in animals that were once our competitors or our predators.

I remember my first time face to face with a lion. At one moment the gigantic thing was obviously concentrating very hard on a nearby leaf that had fluttered across his vision. They are, after all, still cats, still curious and cute. The next moment the lion locked eyes with me and my knees weakened. I knew what the squirrel felt like under my hungry gaze; to that lion, I was the corndog.

A coherent philosophy of food would have to take account of predation, sex, sacrifice, gathering, hunting, cultivation, and diverse methods of food production, including those that involve animal and fungal helpers (dairy products, honey, beer, yeast bread, etc.). It would have to develop aesthetic systems for all five senses. Why has Western philosophy so limited itself to the world perceived by the mind’s eye? “The sage is for the belly, not for the eye,” says the Daodejing. That’s because “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing,” as Qoheleth observed. But the belly – the belly knows its limits. It’s not a question of narratives and endings, really, but of emptiness and fullness. Or as Memphis Minnie put it, “Keep on eating, baby, till you get enough.”

For more in this vein, see Our booty, ourselves.

Cibola 43

This entry is part 42 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (2) (cont’d)

Sending his thoughts
ahead of him like this, Esteban
startles. Sunlight glances
off something way out in
the middle of the scrub, & rounding
a covert, he can make out
a crumpled shape.
A body.

He picks his way slowly over:
if a plant isn’t brandishing spears
it’s set to burst underfoot–
willing to wait beyond death itself
for ecstasy.

Curled up like a fawn on
the bare ground, a boy of ten
or twelve, eyes shut, mouth open.
Esteban lays two fingers against
the throat just below the jaw
& counts. At three the first
weak beat, the next at seven.
No sign of an injury. Laid out
at his head & feet & to either side
four crystals: black to the west,
blue to the south, translucent
to the east & to the north
a rose-colored quartz–the one
that glinted.
Esteban sees it then: a trap,
the boy both bait & hunter.
He backs away.


black to the west… These are the colors associated with the sacred directions in O’odham/Hohokam cosmology, not Zuni cosmology

The individualistic power quest on the part of shamans and shamans-in-training was a feature of O’odham (and presumably Hohokam) religiosity; in Zuni (Shiwanna), such an extra-institutional quest would almost certainly be identified with sorcery


Just as we are about to pass through our very first gate, we encounter the woman with barking tits. Two terrier pups are riding in some sort of holster with her coat wrapped around them so that only the heads poke out. When she sees us staring, she gives them a little boost, lifting them to mid-chest level and making them yip. She smiles beatifically for what must be the hundredth time today.


One goes to New York for the people, I say to myself as we sit in gridlock traffic outside Hoboken, NJ on Friday evening with no clear idea of our destination and a non-functioning cell phone. Someone leans on their horn, triggering a brief outbreak of automotive keening like the lowing of cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse. By the time we get close to where we figure we should be going and find a phone, we aren’t sure of anything anymore, and the person we were supposed to meet has given up and gone somewhere else. But the lights! The lights of mid-town Manhattan after dark, across the Hudson River, are almost worth all our anxiety at being trapped and lost. Each building is an icy beacon, a scroll of unreadable Morse code.


It turns out we never were lost; we simply thought we were. Is that a consolation or not? If you could place perfect trust in the universe at all times, you would never really be lost, would you?

Pace Dante, the middle of a dark wood is precisely where I feel most at home. It’s these goddamned cities that throw me for a loop. We have built a landscape that says There is no center other than what we can construct or recover from the chaos of our transactions. But if we allow ourselves to believe that the world is without any true mooring, can we ever banish that feeling of being small, helpless animals?


On the ferry the next morning, the skyline seems no less fabulous with the sun pouring through the glass canyons. What had shone was now being shone upon, an almost sexual shift in position between buildings and sky. One way or another, the great Western city expresses a yen to cut all ties with the earth. On this soft and swampy island to seek such permanence, to crowd so many erections into a single sky is beyond schizophrenic. What underwrites this?


Nueva York de cieno,
Nueva York de alambres y de muerte.
¿Qué angel llevas oculto en la mejilla?
¿Qué voz perfecta dirá las verdades del trigo?
¿Quién el sueño terrible de tus anémonas manchadas?

The New York of mud,
New York of wire meshwork and of death.
What angel do you carry, tucked away in your cheek?
Whose perfect voice will recite the verities of wheat?
Whose terrible dream of your soiled anemones?

Federico Garcí­a Lorca, “Oda á Walt Whitman,” Poeta en Nueva York


The poet in New York is forever giving wings to the pigeons, adding pages to a finished book, carving out tunnels in the subway. It’s more or less what everyone has to do to stay sane in the midst of so much superfluity. Christo and Jeanne-Claude with their thousands of helpers, their millions of visitors, have merely given this reflex a name and a frame. Each step we take might as well cross an invisible threshold. What had seemed superfluous has turned into a superfluid, “matter in a unique state characterized by extraordinarily large thermal conductivity and capillarity,” as Webster’s New Collegiate puts it.


The New York of mud was fertile enough soil for Frederick Law Olmsted. In the very heart of the wire meshwork of streets, this open, female space pulses with orange carnival. It definitely belongs here, we agree – but what else would you expect from four bloggers? Everything about our online medium spells transience; our very thoughts dress themselves in unrhyming orange.


Meeting old friends for the first time, one invariably says about these gatherings of on-line acquaintances. Lorianne writes memorably about gates and strangers, Leslee fills in a number of other details, and our gracious host Elck pledges that his Gates Blog will be as short-lived as the installation it documents.


New York is a city of transients and refugees, students and exiles. I sat out on the sidewalk at 8:00 o’clock at night like a ferryman with a broken tiller watching the river flow past: Fire engines. A rumpled looking guy in a tweed jacket. A uniformed security guard doing his best to walk like a cop. A stray sheepdog with so much hair in its eyes it must navigate the streets by sound and smell alone. Young lovers speaking Catalan and kissing in between puffs on their cigarettes.


I like this time of year in large part because of the way the low sun lies across the land, turning evergreens and the rare but regular splashes of orange and red incandescent. But I have plenty of opportunities for solitary contemplation at home. The crowds and festive atmosphere in Central Park suit me just fine. I wonder if this woman with a mask on the back of her head might be thinking of the saffron-colored tigers of the Sundarbans, whose preference for the backs of necks can be thwarted in just such a manner? Dogs bark or attack when you stare at them; members of the cat family are famously chary of meeting the eyes of their prey. But what about the man with the waxed moustache? Himself an artist and a photographer, he’s grateful to be photographed, he says.


Here on Brush Mountain, every summer we go looking for chicken mushrooms, so called because of their firm flesh and meaty taste. They’re not hard to spot: they form large, bright orange-yellow shelves on rotting logs and at the bases of dead trees. Unlike soil-based fungi, chicken mushrooms are transient – you seldom find them in the same location two years in a row. They stay fresh for a couple weeks – long enough to attract the beetles that eat and spread their spores. (Actually, I’m not sure, but I think that’s how they reproduce.) Sometimes it’s easy to forget that everything wasn’t placed here for our delectation, that it has its own, obscure intentions which our consumption may either serve or thwart.


Two beggars on the subway, the first a sad sack who marches from car to car reciting her sorrows and asking people to find it in their hearts to give her whatever small change they can part with. Nobody budges; we all stare sullenly away. But on the stairs to the street, another mendicant makes a merry rhythm by shaking a cup with some coins in the bottom. He’s reclining on one elbow with his knee up, and all he has to do is meet our eyes and we give him all the change in our pockets. “God bless you,” he calls out in a strong and laughing voice, and goes back to jiggling the cup on his knee, now just a little bit lower in pitch. We feel blessed indeed. “I only hope he spends it all on booze,” I say when we get up the street.


We drive home in a blinding snowstorm. I-80 is famous for its multi-car pile-ups in bad weather; it’s always the other drivers you have to look out for. So we creep along with the four-way flashers on, orange orange orange. Other cars take the hint and hang way back, switch on their own flashers. Twice we pass fresh accident scenes, signalled by flares and the lights of emergency vehicles.

Ecological historians tell us that fire is the first and most powerful language that human beings ever mastered. Its colors spell fortune and disaster, food and death. Every living being is a slow fire, I think as we pass the first unfortunate car crumpled into the trees of the median strip. We are a beacon and a warning. Each guardian angel wields a flaming sword.

Cibola 42

This entry is part 41 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (2) (cont’d)

For with the right roots & powders
all things are possible, as even
Galen admits. Any would-be
sorcerer could slip
something in his food,
activate it with a few muttered words.
His best protection lies in
the gourd, his feathered
medicine rattle, instrument
& emblem of a doctor–curandero
by the grace of the Great
Whoever–& thereby
safe from attack, the gourd
both guide & passport,
an envoy even through the thick of battle.

And it speaks, this calabash,
a voice he knows from earliest childhood
in the slave quarters of Azemmour:
a call no drum, no exiled Jinn
can ignore. When the stones
in its belly murmur
the copper bells on its feet
start to shrill,
& when the stones holler
like a woman in labor
the shakers cry like a newborn,
& Esteban attending keeps
the thin stick body firmly
in his grip, while its skirt
of red & white feathers
flies like the crown of a palm tree
through the heart of the sky.

Appalachian Winter

At last, Appalachian Winter is here!

I don’t mean the season. I mean the book.

This completes the tetrology my mother began in 1991 with Appalachian Spring. Each of the Appalachian volumes is a synoptic nature book: that is to say, it takes the form of a journal in which every entry is a true account of a real day, but the book combines entries from multiple years. The personal and geopolitical events of a single year are used to provide an over-all sense of continuity.

Because of their journal format, their attention to the details of a single place, and their frequent engagement with local, national and planetary issues, this book and its companion volumes should appeal to anyone who enjoys reading blogs. I realize anything I say here is going to sound a bit biased. But let me at least make clear that my mother and I are very different people, though we do draw plenty of inspiration from each other. Marcia Bonta is an exceedingly down-to-earth writer – you won’t find much wool-gathering or flights of fancy such as I indulge in here, though she does like to quote poetry and the classics from time to time. Instead, she has in spades something I am quite deficient in: real, in-depth knowledge of the natural world. She has an enormous nature library and keeps up to date on all the latest discoveries in the scientific journals. And in fact, scientists are among the biggest fans of her writing, because they recognize her ability to popularize their findings and theories without distorting them. So expect to be educated as well as entertained.

Regular readers of Via Negativa who want to know more about the mountain I live on (and even a little more about me) should be interested in Appalachian Winter. My mother even stuck in a poem I wrote for this blog last winter, “In the Ice Forest.” (Thanks, Mom!)

But enough of my blather. Here’s part of the description at the publisher’s website.

Winter is the season that most tests our mettle. There are the obvious challenges of the weather–freezing rain, wind chill, deep snow, dangerous ice–but also the psychological burdens of waiting for spring and the enduring often false starts that accompany its eventual return.

On the surface, perhaps, winter might seem an odd season for a nature book, but there is plenty of beauty and life in the woods if only we know where to look. The stark, white landscape sparkles in the sunshine and glows beneath the moon on crisp, clear nights; the opening up of the forest makes it easy to see long distances; birds, some of which can be easily seen only in winter, flock to feeders; and animals–even those that should be hibernating–make surprise visits from time to time.

Appalachian Winter offers acclaimed naturalist Marcia Bonta’s view of one season, as experienced on and around her 650-acre home on the westernmost ridge of the hill-and-valley landscape that dominates central Pennsylvania. Written in the style of a journal, each day’s entry focuses on her walks and rambles through the woods and fields that she has known and loved for over thirty years.

Along the way she discovers a long-eared owl in a dense stand of conifers, tracks a bear through an early December snowfall, explains the life and ecological niche of the red-backed vole, and examines the recent arrival of an Asian ladybug. These are but a few of the tidbits sprinkled throughout the book, interwoven with the human stories of Bonta’s family, as well as the highway builders and shopping-mall developers that threaten the idyllic peacefulness of her mountain.

This is the fourth and final volume of Bonta’s seasonal meditations on the natural history of the northern Appalachian Mountains. Her gentle, charming accounts of changing weather and of the struggles faced by plants, animals, and insects breathe new warmth into the coldest months of the year.

This will be my last post until Monday.

Cibola 41

This entry is part 40 of 119 in the series Cibola


Esteban (2) (cont’d)

Before he got sold to the Spanish
he used to play hare-&-jackal in
the back alleys with the other
slave-children & never lost,
whichever role he took. In Spain
they’d never heard of that. No jackals,
he supposed, meant
they only knew how
to be mean like wolves–
or dumb as sheep. At any rate
he was almost too old for games by then
& don Andrés didn’t want a hunter,
it seemed, but a personal servant
& an amanuensis. Taught him
to chase down words in four
more languages. Said
an astrologer had told him he’d someday
need an interpreter, a master of the Word.

True enough: without him, Dorantes
& the other two would still be slaves,
toiling naked for savages
in those godforsaken
mosquito-haunted saltwater swamps.

Instead, mutatis mutandis
he bears a letter
from the viceroy,
a commission to lead this brownrobe
north into lands unknown, to claim them
as a conquistador for the crown,
to plant crosses & the gospel hope
in every town & village, up to
& including (if need be)
the Seven Cities.

He’d grimaced at first when he read
through the almost impenetrable legalese,
a tangled rot of ill-begotten synonyms–
Castillian by way of Bologna
& Salamanca, great troughs for pigs
& pig Latin–but ended by folding it
into a little wedge that just fit inside
an old brass locket. Sewn into his shirt
it nearly balances the weight of the image
of the Holy Child of Atocha,
patron of all who travel on foot–
a parting gift from the ever-more-pious
don Andrés before he set sail.

These–& the gold cross & the leather
pouch of tobacco–he continues to wear
long after having handed the breastplate
over to one of the porters, because
however much they chafe, it somehow seems
they keep him safe at least
from forgetting himself,
from one day stripping naked again
& wandering into the sunset . . . or
running after some heat-addled vision
of Saint James astride his stallion
tall as a thundercloud . . . or snatching
a blade & running it through
the nearest native–be it nothing
more than a toddler–on a sudden
Moor-killing frenzy.