I don’t know why I trust death so much. As much as I enjoy life, every now and then I can foresee a time when I will have had enough ice cream, enough sunrises, enough Mozart.
All my life, the thing that has always been there for me, always sustained me, has been the natural world, of which death is a necessary part. I am not a death worshiper, but I am a worshiper of the system that contains it, uses it.
I am angered and saddened by wasteful death, untimely death, violent death, and hate-filled death, but the deaths of my mother- and father-in-law were as beautiful as they were sad. They transformed my wife. I watched her become greater than she was and participated in the daily ceremonies that kept her parents’ lives meaningful to the last minute.
Sy Safransky — or, rather, his friend Carolynn — hit upon the toughest thing about death: having to say goodbye, having to leave the party [“Winter Was the Season,” December 1999]. Sadly, life is no party for too many of us (for all of us, sometimes). But departing from the familiar into the depths of the mystery, leaving all those you have loved and who have loved you — that’s what’s hardest for me to deal with.
That’s when I have to go outside and gaze up at the stars and let my mind loose into that black infinity. I always end up thinking, Well, just what the hell do I know about it all anyway?
Death has been in business a long time. There’s nothing I need to do about it. It’s all taken care of. This gives me comfort.
Derrick Jensen’s interview with Joel Dyer [“Armed and Dangerous: The Desperation of Rural America,” December 1999] was disturbing and disappointing: disturbing not because of any real issues raised, but because of its distortion of the truth; disappointing because The Sun’s editors thought that an objective account of rural America and its farmers was going to come from an urbanite liberal who hangs around with fringe, extremist groups.
The interview does contain some good points and some truth, but Dyer’s picture of poverty-stricken farmers with guns to their heads is a serious distortion, apparently based on misinterpreted suicide statistics. The main reason that “five times as many farmers now die of suicide as die from equipment accidents” is because of the vastly improved safety of equipment, not because of any significant increase in the suicide rate. Most farming is now done sitting in an air-conditioned cab manipulating levers.
I grew up on a farm in North Dakota. My parents left the farm when I was seventeen, after years of poverty and struggle. Later, as director of a non-profit agency in the San Francisco Bay Area, I became quite familiar with urban poverty and blight. What struck me on trips back to rural America to visit friends and relatives was the comparative level of prosperity.
A farm is a business like any other: you have to remain competitive in a changing marketplace. The main difference between farms and most other businesses is that farms have traditionally been protected by the government through subsidies and price-protection schemes. What other family businesses has the government bailed out when they were going under? Not the corner grocery store, nor the family-run hardware store. They have been subject to the same economies of scale as everyone else. I don’t like it. I hate those megastores (well, except for the lower prices). But that’s reality.
And, by the way, hogs on the hoof are currently about forty cents per pound, not fifteen cents, as Dyer claimed.
Joel Dyer responds:
Gietzen’s argument that farmers are not taking their own lives at a disturbing rate flies in the face of every piece of research I have seen. The suicide rate for farmers is three times that of the general population. This does not include suicides made to look like accidents, which would push that statistic even higher. While safer farming methods might affect the ratio of suicides to equipment accidents, they would have no bearing on the actual number of suicides, which has remained extremely high since the farm crisis of the 1980s.
As a retired union organizer who worked with both factory and farm workers, I agree with many of the truths Joel Dyer expressed. But the interview left me with some questions:
What if the stock market doesn’t collapse, causing a major depression? And what if the economically disadvantaged remain an “insignificant” percentage of the population and continue to eliminate themselves through suicide, violence, and prison? What happens to the wives and kids who “pick up and leave”? Are they able to find jobs and support themselves with the added burden of children in tow? If so, can their coping methods be used by or taught to men?
Waiting for another major depression is a sorry strategy for change. After all, the misery index was pretty high in the 1980s. We desperately need new strategies — but what are they?
Joel Dyer did an admirable job of describing the desperation of farmers and the causes of their frustration. But when he said farmers caught in an economic bind could either get counseling, become self-destructive, or become militant, he left out a fourth option, one that farmers all over the country are taking: becoming organic.
Organic farmers and their local and statewide associations promote land stewardship, local marketing, and a sustainable, regional food system that bypasses the corporate structure entirely. Going organic necessitates major shifts in outlook, management, and marketing techniques. It also takes courage and vision. The good news is that the market demand for organic produce continues to increase, encouraging more farmers to take this option.
Peter Makuck’s “The Trouble with Smitty” [December 1999] reminded me of an experience I had as a teenager. A youth with low self-esteem, I was convinced by my peers to borrow my father’s BB gun and join them for a Good Friday outing. I tagged along to an empty lot where the boys took turns shooting at targets.
I remember killing a robin at precisely 3 P.M., the time Catholics begin a period of reflection on the Crucifixion. An altar boy, I felt funny holding the dead robin and thinking about the figure of Christ on the cross. At home, I guiltily sneaked the gun back into my father’s secret room and vowed never to shoot another living creature.
Now, at age sixty, I am a naturalist teaching children respect for all life.
In light of the recent “Battle in Seattle” over the World Trade Organization’s role in the global economy, I want to thank The Sun for providing its readers with a good understanding of what all the noise was about. Derrick Jensen’s interviews with John Zerzan [September 1998], John Stauber [March 1999], and most recently, Joel Dyer, have shown readers the dangers of transnational corporations and their influence on governments and media around the world. These interviews, combined with essays like Jerry Mander’s “The Rules of Corporate Behavior” [December 1997], present a strong argument against the further corporatization and globalization of our economy.
The specific concerns of the anarchists, environmentalists, and labor unions in Seattle did not come across in the corporate media, but Sun readers should know exactly what the protesters were yelling about. I have no doubt that The Sun’s contribution to this worldwide movement (may we soon call it a revolution) is due at least in part to its idealistic refusal to accept advertising.
I am casting my lot with other long-time subscribers who increasingly castigate The Sun for its obsession with the dark side. Is enlightenment valid only when forged in horror? Balance is the elusive condition achieved by a truly great literary publication. Angst is easy, Sy, though I suppose you will never lack a following if you pander to the pain.
I’ve been a subscriber for five years. A couple of years ago, I got bogged down in the dismal subject matter, particularly the essay by the homeless alcoholic who wrote of eating his own feces. [“Eric, Recovering Wino,” by Eric Granskou, September 1997]. I felt ready to quit.
Then my boyfriend’s brother called us from jail, again. His life had been one long struggle with alcohol and drugs, and his family had almost run out of forgiveness. So I showed my boyfriend the article. I made him read it. That night, he called his brother in jail with tears in his eyes and offered to help for the first time.
I think that is why I always renew my subscription. Because, no matter how hard it sometimes is to read, The Sun opens me up to the truth, not as it is portrayed in the media, but as it exists in the minds and hearts and lives of my fellow human beings.
I find many of the essays and stories in The Sun emotionally heavy going. And as a celibate monk living in Bangkok, I chalk most of it up to “the way things are in America.” Now I intend to move back to the land of my birth after twenty years in Thailand. I don’t assume that The Sun is representative of such a huge place and people, but I believe it provides glimpses of what I can expect: a wide-open mystery, full of suffering and at the same time trembling with life.
The narrators in many Sun stories are living through — not just living out — their pain. Buddhism has taught me that no suffering can defeat us if we face it and go through it. This isn’t easy. I’ve been working through the loss of a teacher I loved very much. Until I faced the loss and grief and love, a nasty anger kept slipping out.
I wouldn’t mind more upbeat material in The Sun, like the interview with Frances Moore Lappé [“The Broken Promise of Democracy,” by Derrick Jensen, November 1999]. Nonetheless, a more profound hope and joy lies within the dark, gloomy meditations by people who are facing the painful messes of their lives, gaining insight, finding meaning, and writing about what they have learned. Deep down, these are writings of faith and love, faith and love of the hardest kind, the kind that changes us and the world.
In the interview we printed with Marc Ian Barasch [“Body Language,” January 2000] we neglected to mention that his book The Healing Path can be ordered from Healpath@aol.com.