Words Without Borders: Hunger

I just learned about an organization called Words Without Borders. Exploring their webpage, my attention was caught by writing from Madagascar. Not much — comparatively speaking to French, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and many other languages — has been translated from Malagasy into English. So I was excited for this reason to read translated works, and also for the reason that I have been to Madagascar and seen the beauty of the people, the cooking, the music, the biological diversity, the forests, and the countryside.

Here is a link to an article about hunger in Madagascar during the time that the French were at war, and also suffering.

Last night, I watched In the Heart of the Sea. Warning: Spoiler alert. The most moving scene for me, surprisingly, took place in the outer frame of the story, the one in which a young Melville has traveled to Nantucket to interview Nickerson, who was only 14 (fact check) when he joined the crew of the whaleship Essex. Nickerson, in the movie, had been holding on to his story for years, not telling anyone, even his own wife about what happened. When he asks Melville, “Do you judge me?” And then expresses dismay over how he can still never tell his wife, and she steps into the room having listened the whole time, and tells him that she loves him, that she has seen his strength, then when he was a boy, and even now, and that if he had told her before they were married, she still would have married him. That, for me, was more moving than the portrayal of the starving sailors. Why?

I do not know. Perhaps it was the portrayal, or perhaps it is because I have an innate callousness protecting me from the grim realities of starvation, and how it changes people.

And yet, I do take issue with some of the portrayal. So much of the real story, the true horror and irony, was simply left out:

1.) The fact (fact check) that Captain Pollard ate his own nephew (and the purported, though likely fictitious line, “Know him, I ‘et him!”) and that expecting her brother to take care of her son, Pollard’s sister never spoke to him again.

And the actual circumstance surrounding the drawing of lots. It’s possible that what the movie portrayed happened, I suppose, but unlikely. Captain Pollard seemed to be telling the truth in his account, and those people he shared his story with were convinced and impressed by his integrity, so much so that they gave him another whaling ship to captain afterwards. And what motivation would he have to lie about something so grim? Was there an even stronger taboo against suicide? And yet, if his nephew had done something so noble as to sacrifice his own life for the captain, as depicted in the movie, wouldn’t Pollard have wanted to give him credit for it? No, I think it’s much more likely that Pollard’s account as described in the book is more accurate than the movie.

2.) The great irony that the decision was made to travel much much farther, so as to avoid an island that might have cannibals. But then of course, resorting to cannibalism to survive.

3.) The fact (fact check) that not one single African American man survived, and in fact were the first to die and be eaten (fact check). And why was this?

4.) The condensing into one scene (whether to go back to Nantucket to repair their whaleboats or keep on going ahead) of the multiple times that Pollard changed his mind, convinced by Chase, which ultimately cost the crew dearly. For instance, Pollard wanted to sail to the closer islands (fact check). It seems that the producers made the decision to make Chase into more of a super protagonist. The whole scene with Pollard mocking Chase’s farmer background seemed out of character from the Pollard in Nathaniel Philbrick’s account.

That said, there were scenes of great beauty and creativity, such as the scene when the captain’s log became flooded with water, and the ink clouded off the page into the sea. The achievement of visualizing Nantucket back in the day. The drinking from the tiny spring on the island where three or four men decided to stay. The eating of birds’ eggs. And especially, the subtle references and spaces in the dialogue between Nickerson and Melville, hinting at Melville’s not only admiration, but love, for Nathaniel Hawthorne. Was Melville bi? Does it matter? Would it be interesting to know what his innermost life was like? Sure, but everyone deserves privacy. But yes, the forgiveness Nickerson was finally able to find for himself with help from his wife and Melville through telling his story, in my opinion, that was the triumph of the movie.

To return to hunger, both the essay from Words Without Borders and also the story of In the Heart of the Sea deal with taboo being broken due to extreme hunger. Although it’s almost become a joke, “Finish the food on your plate because there are children starving in Africa!” It’s still a reality that hunger is out there, hunger so extreme that otherwise good people steal and kill. What can we do to help our neighbors? At the very least, what can we do to respect the food we have and acknowledge that our lives and happiness depends upon it?

Donating Your Birthday for Clean Water

photo1Tomorrow is my birthday, and instead of gifts, I’m hoping to raise $100 for clean water.

In 2012, I went on a hike into the mountains near Lake Natron in Tanzania and half-way in, my group’s water filter broke. We hiked to a village’s water source and were filling up our bottles when we noticed a dead rat floating in the water. Nobody had much choice but to boil/treat that water or risk severe dehydration. In talking with a new friend J.T. about the work he did for a water organization, remembering the time and effort during that trip to get clean water, remembering the example of a blog post by Seth Godin, combined with reading A Long Walk To Water, made me realize this birthday was a good one to donate to clean water. So, if you were thinking of getting me a gift, please instead donate whatever you’d like. I just donated $10. And if you want to donate your own birthday, you can do that here.

Click here to donate to help me reach $100 for my birthday. Thanks for reading!

The Rugged Days of Old

Today, I’m writing to share a poem by George Bilgere that describes the world’s greatest slingshot expert. But first, the poem brings to mind the protagonist from The Last American Man, a creative non-fiction book by Elizabeth Gilbert:

“By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.”

Such abilities like marksmanship were held to be admirable qualities in the rugged pioneer days when being handy with a slingshot or a knife meant you could nail a rabbit for supper. Now who eats rabbit for supper? With supermarkets, computers, guns, malls, factories, and industrial jobs, who needs to? This poem mourns how wonderful qualities like being a good shot with a knife or slingshot are now, at best, quirks and, at worst, useless in our technologically advanced society.

To listen to the complete poem read by Garrison Keillor, you can here. I’ve excerpted it below.

You Asked For It
by George Bilgere (b.1951)

“He was a grown man, as I recall,
and he lived in an ordinary place like New Jersey.
At a distance of ten or twenty paces
he could pulverize one marble with another.

He was the kind
of father I wanted to have,
an expert shot, never missing.

And I think of him now, perhaps long dead,
or frail and gray, his gift forgotten.
Just another old guy on a park bench
in Fort Lauderdale, fretting about Medicare,
grateful for the sun on his back, his slingshot
useless in this new world.”

“You Asked For It” by George Bilgere. © George Bilgere. (George Bilgere’s books.)

I can’t help but wonder: if the slingshot expert had continued to hone his abilities, how might he have used them? How can our society meet slingshot experts, and honor their gifts? Perhaps our society could ask the man to become an arborist, placing difficult lines in trees where the cherry picker couldn’t reach. Perhaps he could take that visual acuity and do landscape architecture. Or with that motor control, pick up a guitar for fretting with instead. Somehow, these solutions seem pat or condescending though. There’s no true replacement for being a slingshot expert except being a slingshot expert.

What is Eustace Conway up to these days? It sounds like he’s still out there as a student of nature, helping connect other people with nature, as an educator and a role model. On his website, it says:

“Studying modern America, he has found his most interesting subjects: people in cultural and environmental crises, his own people. Eustace started teaching about environmental ethics long before it became an “in thing.” He said, “Americans have separated themselves from the natural world. During the past eighty years we have been ‘advancing’ so fast that we are as infants trying to run. We would be wise to slow down and learn more about primitive (first) values. Today more than ever we need to understand and live by harmony and balance with nature, for truly, man separate from nature is a fantasy.”

All you slingshot experts out there, don’t lose hope. American kids still need real people — people who know how to throw a knife or make their own shoes — to look up to. We might just need a slingshot expert. Not someday, but now. We need people who can model what it’s like to embrace the wind and the cold. People who embrace our natural limitations.

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

Like every great quote, this one can be misinterpreted. Conway is talking about cleaning our plates instead of throwing half into the garbage. Of things being functional. He’s definitely not talking about over-exploiting our Earth. I can imagine someone advocating for space travel and resource exploitation on Earth and other planets misinterpreting this quote. I wonder what Eustace Conway would make of the film, The Martian. I’m certainly not opposed to space travel. I loved the film, with Matt Damon as Mark Watney. He decides that he’s not going to give up fighting for survival. To fight to return home to Earth despite the odds:

“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

What I am opposed to is the egregious waste of our shared resources, making not only survival more difficult for future generations of human beings, but especially that wonderfully immersive skin-to-ocean or skin-to-river experience of thriving on Earth, eating unfiltered fruit, fish, and plants from our gardens.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

What a horrible fate if human beings were headed for the post-apocalyptic setting described in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which so much of the biodiversity of life was lost.

Let’s return to what Eustace Conway said about slowing down:

“During the past eighty years we have been ‘advancing’ so fast that we are as infants trying to run. We would be wise to slow down and learn more about primitive (first) values.”

For more along this vein of thought, see Thich Nhat Hahn’s book How to Walk, in which he talks about how slowing down can help us live happier lives.

Thich Nhat Hahn talks about how amazing walking is for astronauts returning to Earth. He muses about how long that amazing feeling lasts — 10 days? A couple weeks? — and encourages us to really feel and love the Earth as we walk, for we walk,

“not only on matter, but on spirit.”

He says it’s possible to “arrive” in the present moment with each step, even without ever having visited the moon, or Mars.

For more great writing and ideas, see Maria Popova’s wonderful blog, Brain PickingsI signed up for Maria Popova’s weekly articles months ago, and a few days ago finally donated to her website because it’s just that good. 

Website Transparency and Credit

Note: This post is modeled somewhat on Maria Popova’s formatting: the way I included more quotations, figured out how to get an Amazon commission if you purchase a book through this website, and also how I’m recommending other things to check out at the end of the post.

At first, I felt weird about going for the Amazon commission. Is it a huge shipping force that’s putting local bookstores out of business? Maybe yes, maybe not. It’s certainly making local businesses adapt. Personally, I purchase books both at my local independent bookstores, and through Amazon. (For example, I purchased How to Walk from my local independent bookstore, but Teach Like A Champion from Amazon.)

If you figure out how to get book descriptions and book graphics while simultaneously linking to a reader’s independent bookstores, please let me know using my contact page!

Thanks to Harry Haines for introducing me to the Bilgere poem.