My favorite city is Montpelier, VT, the United States’ smallest capital city. Within a one-block radius in Montpelier are three independent bookstores, all of which I am quite fond of. The Book Garden, across State Street and down a ways from the Statehouse, is mostly used nonfiction books and new games, with new books on beekeeping, wild food foraging, gardening, yurt-building, and all kinds of alternative cookbooks for everything from healing with foods to brewing beer. Rivendell Books is around the corner on Main, full of lots of used books and new bestsellers. Their kids’ room is almost as big as the main room, and contains a little tortoise habitat for their pet, Veruca the Russian Tortoise.
Kitty-corner to Rivendell is Bear Pond Books, which sells new books. I have one of their t-shirts, with their slogan Eat Sleep Read. It would be perfect for me if they added “Hike” to that list. I love this place. I belong to their Reader’s Club, for which I get a 10% discount, and I stop in there nearly every time I’m in Montpelier.
I was extremely psyched last month to see that Bear Pond’s June line-up for author appearances included not only Alison Bechdel of Dykes To Watch Out For fame, but also Bernd Heinrich.
Bernd Heinrich is an entomologist, though he is perhaps best known for his bird books, especially Mind of the Raven, one of my favorite books ever. It reads more like an anthropology of ravens than ornithology. Despite being trained as a scientist at a time when science was skeptical (to put it mildly) of animal intelligence, emotion, and language, Heinrich’s open-mindedness and naturalist sensibilities make him less dismissive than some of his colleagues, to the point where he can conceive of ravens as moral beings. One of the things I so appreciate about his writing is that, by delving deeply into animal life, he inspires questions about human behavior. In reading about gender expression in ravens, for instance (in which ravens in groups are genderless for the most part; only the alpha male and female display gendered behaviors), I wonder what we might learn about the social impulses behind gender expression in humans if we watch animals more closely.
Tim and I saw Dr. Heinrich at Bear Pond on Tuesday evening, where he discussed his newest book Life Everlasting. Originally titled Nature’s Undertakers, the book discusses the natural processes that come into play after an animal’s death. A dead whale, for instance, eventually falls to the ocean’s floor, where it becomes its own ecosystem. A “whale fall” supports many species that are found in only a few other ecosystems. In another example, a male and female burying beetle find and bury small dead vertebrates, laying fertilized eggs close by for their larvae to feed on when they emerge. In these ways, Heinrich says, death truly does lead to new life on a biological level.
Interestingly, the questions and discussion after Dr. Heinrich’s talk mostly revolved around human death (which is, itself, what inspired his writing Life Everlasting). Heinrich seemed to be, for a few people in the audience, a kind of secular priest with a very earthy promise about life after death. As he put it, “Nature is the most glorious thing, so who wouldn’t want to be part of it forevermore?” As a Christian with a questioning faith, I was moved by his compassion for those needing reassurance, as well as his and others’ faith in life’s persistence. And as an earthy believer, I was right there with everyone else on the preeminence of nature. The way I figure it, whether you believe that nature is the highest good or that it is the creation of God, you must find praiseworthiness in it.
Alison Bechdel speaks at Bear Pond Books this coming Tuesday evening at 7 o’clock. As in the picture book of the same name, the focus of Bechdel’s new memoir Are You My Mother? is not on the mother herself, but the child’s search for her. It’s a cerebral memoir, but paradoxically made concrete by the fact that it’s as much picture as it is text.
I wrote a review of the book elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here in great depth. But I was struck by Bechdel’s point that discovering she was a lesbian saved her, that she was in danger of living wholly in her mind but that coming out drove her to be more aware of her body. One of the things I love about her long-running comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For is the way the narrative structure gives concrete form to issues facing lesbians, women, and Americans in general in the two decades it ran. In discussing family as a patriarchal family that (according to one character) needs to be smashed, another character asks, What about Raffi’s family? Do you want to smash them?, referring to the son of their two friends Toni and Clarice. Marriage equality, bisexuality, the pros and cons of therapy: everything is presented not as an abstract but in the flesh, lived out in the body, as confusing, ambiguous, and messy as that can be.
Bechdel came out early on in her college career. For me, college was the chance to indulge my cerebral nature to the full. Day after day I’d realize at dinnertime that I had forgotten to eat lunch that day. And while I spent a good amount of time in the acres of woods on campus, I wasn’t really paying attention to my body or my surroundings in the way I do now.
I was paradoxically “saved” by almost dying in the summer after my first year. It’s a long story, but I was left with permanent damage to my respiratory system, a compromised immune system, and broken ribs whose jostling damaged my nerves before they finally healed 9 months later. I’d worked as a camp counselor that summer, on duty 24 hours a day, six days a week, always in the service of others. My near-death experience and the damage left to my body woke me up to my physical needs as no amount of skipped lunches could do.
It’s not a joyful experience the way coming out of the closet is, but sickness has a lot to teach us. Anything related to the body teaches us, if we let it, though some of need help even giving the body the attention to learn from it. In my case, I need the constant intellectual food of writers like Bechdel and Heinrich to nourish my body-awareness as much as I need my daily hikes and nature rambles, my foraging and cooking experiments, my relationships with human and nonhuman animals alike. In my “Eat Sleep Hike Read” life these are a few of my favorite things, the people and places that keep me living in my body as well as my mind: Bear Pond Books, Bernd Heinrich, Alison Bechdel. The community of the living-dying natural world, the pen-and-ink community of dykes and bi-dykes, the society of ravens, the community of flesh-and-blood people who care about these things. Thank you, all.