American Dirt, Temple Grandin & the Conversation With Death


Sunday, March 8, 2020. We walked across town and back, got out in the sun, hung out in Barnes and Noble for a while because it’s next to the Whole Foods we ate lunch at and Angie had a gift card for $25. Her book club is reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and she took the opportunity to pick up a copy. I meanwhile wandered around, noting what seemed different from the last time I was in the store, perhaps a year ago: gone is the Kindle promotional stuff in front of the store – it’s all print books on display; also, crazily from my audiophile standpoint, is the return of vinyl records in their music section. Such a lousy sounding, clumsy way to listen to music, my freaking god I just don’t understand the people’s fetishizing of this inferior format. Sentimentality on behalf of us oldsters, perhaps? Yes, the larger artwork is nice but that’s it. Younger folks must just find it another way to be contrary – that’s the nature of being young, isn’t it? – or perhaps they honestly like having to haul around heavy, warped, lousy sounding albums, maintaining a quality turntable and cartridge, being unable to skip songs and having to flip the damn record over after a mere twenty minutes of music. That, and of course you can’t get hardly any music on vinyl. Otherwise, I don’t know, I just don’t get it. FLAC and high resolution (hi-res) streaming is such a vastly superior audiophile experience that I can’t begin to fathom this stumbling back into a retro fantasy world. It’s pure insanity and that why the idea just won’t die – it’s been years and years for Christ’s sake – is beyond me.

What struck me about hanging out in a large, two-level bookstore for the first time in quite a while was how much things really haven’t changed: (1) there’s just not many books in a bookstore, and (2) massive amounts of square footage is still consumed by either empty space or shelf upon shelf of toys, games, the occasional crappy musical instrument of all things, and cruddy, non-book-related kitsch. The modern bookstore more resembles the public library without the child day care component. I don’t find it pleasant. I suppose I’m devoted, completely, to the idea of online sales where I can enjoy drilling into the virtually limitless selection, following my nose into the vast panoply of published work of which a so-called brick and mortar retail environment can only dabble. What books get into bookstores? New Science Fiction is a section on display, for example, at B&N and it includes, what, thirty titles?

I probably sound like I’m biased by my own indie authorship. If my novel, that is, were in the store I’d be okay with bookstores. Frankly, I can’t imagine TIME CRIME in the store; it’s hard to visualize, somehow, not that I wouldn’t be pleased to see it. But I’ve been frustrated by bookstores seemingly forever, or at least since the demise of Borders in its heyday, where you could, in the beginning at least, enjoy a real bookish vibe. Here’s an image of perhaps the keenest example of the polar opposite of my own author experience (my photograph):

This type of exposure, of success is frankly incomprehensible to me: I literally cannot visualize my book having its own table with a poster and Oprah’s endorsement. Well, I can if I try really hard and allow myself to get carried away. Cummins’s book was featured on table displays elsewhere in the store and I found Angie browsing a copy of it from the fiction shelves. You’d assume all of us wannabes would be impossibly envious or even defeated by this type of amazing attention for a book. But it’s impossible to be envious, let alone jealous of this woman’s career – the first thing that strikes me is the idea that she has to sell all these copies (and the boxes of books in the storeroom) or they’ll be returned to the publisher. And whether she’s earned out her advance yet, which was so enormous as to put what has to be an unholy pressure on sales. It’s a really spectacular phenomenon. What would it be like to be Jeanine Cummins? What if she walked into the store? Could she saunter about freely, like a regular shopper, or would somebody recognize her and instigate a brush-with-celebrity mob of autograph seekers and the vaguely curious? Who is she? Oh, don’t you know, that’s Jeanine Cummins, she wrote American Dirt, see? – oh my god, it’s crazy she’s right her in the store….!

I really do wish this woman the best. Thrust into the limelight. Instantly adjudicated for and against by folks who haven’t even read her book. Just because she hit the jackpot, won the lottery, got rich and famous seemingly overnight. All those years she must have been writing alone, with only her dreams to keep her going, and then her dream came so remarkably true. You get fans and critics alike, of course, the folks who automatically make it their job to criticize you on principle. But what a ride she’s got to be having. I don’t follow the news so I don’t know anything about her experience, what she’s doing, where’s she’s been – I probably wouldn’t even recognize her if she indeed walked into the store. Celebrity author. Wow. It’s crazy.

Me? Yesterday, remarkably enough in my own comparatively polar-opposite version of the author experience, I sold an eBook. Hooray! My first sale outside of my circle of acquaintances, right? Well, almost. I’d shot an email to Laura H., one of the editors who queried me when I’d posted the Time Crime job on the Editorial Freelancers Association site. I’d really appreciated some of the helpful, clearly wholehearted, selfless responses I received and made sure to reply to each of the folks whom I really thought did their best to connect with me or at least the synopsis on a mindful level. Laura was one of those and when she went as far as to tell me to let her know when the book was published so she could read it, I took her up on it. “Congratulations!!” she replied, “I’ve just downloaded it, it’s next on my reading list!” And sure enough, I checked my Amazon sales report and there it was.

Yes, it’s a pretty pathetic chart, isn’t it? But it’s more than the zero that has been haunting me, killing me, so I’ll take it. My second eBook sale! As Joe Campbell writes somewhere, on the topic of the art-craft grind and keeping one’s faith in oneself, it takes so very little.

DOP1 VINTAGE POST – Temple Grandin and Farm Animal Welfare

Soon after I was fired from my job in Texas City, I began work on my Farm Animal Welfare User’s Guide: A Global Summary of Standards, Programs & Issues. My motivation was my own interest in the subject. When I began, humiliated, forlorn and ultimately relieved after being forced from my job (I had been working to find a more suitable position for several months by the time I was finally asked to leave), I immediately plunged into this project, creating the tenants of it as I went along, ending up with a document for which I knew no marketable outlet. Updating it in June of that year, I had it printed and spiral bound at the nearest copy center, as a way to make it easier to reference (should I ever have to) and to simply see it in some version of print. Soon after completing the updated version, I tried to send it out into the world-of-action. I forwarded a copy to Ari W. (apologizing later for assuming he had the interest or time, as a writer himself, to look at it), a publishing agent I found listed in Writer’s 2011 (promptly rejected) and, as probably my best chance at garnering some attention, to somebody Angie identified at NSF who was at least indirectly connected with their European division which itself had a division engaged in some aspects of farming certification. Both Angie and I half-hoped it might lead to a job as a consultant or some other paid employment related to my new interests. It garnered no attention whatsoever at NSF, despite Angie’s eager support of it there.

It’s hardly noteworthy, but I should mention that I submitted an early version, in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, to the United Nations Gateway to Farm Animal Welfare which was at the time a brand new website accepting submissions on the topic. They accepted my slide show (they were then accepting what seemed almost like anything and everything) and posted it. Encouraged by this semi-publication, I soon submitted my first version of the Guide, only to have it ignored. From what I could gather by looking at the burgeoning list of submissions of all types, formats and languages, the Gateway had quickly become overrun with academics whose main interest of course is always the work of other academics. In any case, I remain quite proud of the Guide such as it is – it was a great deal of work and kept me intensely engaged during a time of unique transformation towards the unconventional life I pursue to this day. The abstract follows:

Abstract: In 2010, animal welfare is a rapidly expanding field of interest for both the animal agriculture food chain and consumers. The wide range of standards and programs, which include voluntary welfare codes, corporate programs, product differentiation programs (certifications), legislated standards, and international agreements, all serving their different political and commercial purposes, may pose an overwhelming challenge to those of us interested in the details of the current state-of-affairs.

It is the author’s goal to summarize the many resources that exist in a way that may serve as an introduction to the subject of animal welfare for those with a determined interest, while also presenting a reference guide that may in fact be helpful to current or future “users” of animal welfare resources. It is organized by country of origin and further divided into various legislation as it may exist, animal agriculture industry organizations, retailers, NGOs, third-party certification bodies, and intra-governmental groups. The focus in each case is a concise ′snapshot′ of a particular resource and the value it attempts to provide to the field. Website addresses are provided. Color reproductions of many documents, or their cover pages only (in an effort to preserve brevity), are included, with no particular emphasis implied by the author regarding the importance of one group over another unless stated.

Finally, the author’s essay Reimagining Animals is presented which attempts, through selected excerpts from various cultural and creative sources, to expand the concepts of animal welfare beyond the food chain and into the philosophy of animal kinship. Through recognition of its ancient origins in Native American culture, a connection is sought between the past and our modern attempts to repair, or reopen, a neglected connection to those animals we raise for food.

Please note that animal welfare, as discussed in this presentation, will refer exclusively to animals in food production, otherwise known as farming or agriculture. Intentionally omitted are organizations whose agenda, however effective in improving animal welfare, is the elimination of the practice of animal agriculture. Included is one exception – Farm Sanctuary – which expresses a desire to work with other NGOs who do not share the vegan viewpoint and has done well to help codify the various U.S. NGO standards on their website.

Ultimately, the growing quantity and variety of animal welfare resources begs the question of which entities will in fact survive in the so-called marketplace. With global consensus on what constitutes many of the fundamental aspects of acceptable animal welfare being effectively codified across so many organizations, we may in fact see a unified global standard emerge. Until then, as the ethics and commerce of animal agriculture continue to drive robust and integrated applications of farm animal welfare concepts around the world, the resources identified here will be challenged to establish their position and utility in what has developed into a dynamic field of interest.[1]

Reimagining Animals

What follows, as a separate chapter, is the above-titled essay as it originally appeared in my User’s Guide to Farm Animal Welfare:

The phrase “Reimagining Animals” is borrowed from Howard L. Harrod who, in his book, The Animals Came Dancing, suggests that “There is a hunger among many contemporary people for a recovery of ritual relationships between humans and the natural sources of their lives – plants, animals, and the earth itself.”[2] He describes a sense of distance from food sources as well as a lack of ritual performance in relationship to them as characteristic of much of contemporary human experience, and believes that if the questions that are raised by this “hunger” are not addressed, “then all of us – Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Euro-Americans – will find ourselves living in a symbolically diminished, more lonely world.”[3]. He continues:

The structural alienation from animals that characterizes the experience of many contemporary North Americans, no matter what their “communities of origin” [e.g. if they are hunters, raise domesticated animals, visit national parks and see animals in the wild, etc.] appears perhaps most clearly in the production and consumption of food. Especially in urban centers, many generations of children have matured into adulthood without any primary experience of domestic animals and no practical knowledge of where food products…originate.

Even further from the experience of such persons is the reality of slaughtering animals for food. The living animal as well as the blood, entrails, and hair out of which meat products emerge are matters far from the consciousness and practical experience of most people, especially those who live completely within the web of an urban culture.

What this means is that many modern people have lost a sense of relationship to the living sources, both plant and animal, of their food supply.[4]

By contrast, the American Indian hunters who inhabited the Northern Plains were introduced as children to the shared traditions that surrounded killing animals for food. “Oral memories were rich with examples of how animals gave their bodies to the people, often agreeing to become food because they had established kinship relations with humans.”[5] In fact, there were consequences that followed from the violation of “foolish hunting behavior” and violation of hunting “taboos.” The animals could and would withhold themselves from the careless or disrespectful hunter.[6]

Blood is the name of a Blackfoot Indian from the Northern Plains group called the Piegans. According to Harrod, much of the following information regarding corralling of buffalo comes from Blood’s oral narration:

The Indians built a buffalo corral at the base of a short cliff. This corral was constructed of heavy logs and was built high enough so that the animals could not escape. The drive path was marked by piles of stones forming two lines shaped like an open-ended “V,” the narrowest part of which ended at the edge of the cliff. Often the drive path was curved so that the animals could not see the edge of the cliff until it was too late to turn.[7] The drive lines themselves could extend as far back as two miles from the edge of the cliff.[8]

Blood is quoted saying,

The [Blackfoot] were the people that were always corralling. From that they got plenty to eat….All the people climbed into the corral. From there they shot down. When the buffalo were running around, they would not kill them all. They only killed the bulls that they needed. And to the others they opened the corral. And they ran out.[9]

Harrod continues:

Whether or not a corral was built at the base of the drop-off seemed to depend upon the height of the cliff. If the drive lines led to a sheer precipice, there was no need for a corral since the animals would either be killed or so severely injured that there was no chance they would escape. Another consideration is also relevant here: the number of animals that were being hunted. Large herds of animals could successfully be driven over high cliffs, whereas a smaller group of animals was very difficult to kill in this manner. Smaller groups of buffalo could more easily be driven into an arroyo or into a corral built on relatively level ground, although there are clear examples of driving larger numbers of animals into corrals as well.

Driving buffalo over cliffs or into corrals built at the base of a drop-off that was not high enough to be lethal was practiced in areas of the Northern Plains where such landforms were plentiful. In other sorts of terrain, additional methods were used, such as driving animals into a cul-de-sac or into a corral that was constructed on relatively level ground.

The buffalo corrals built by the Blackfoot had walls as high as seven or eight feet and varied in size

[sometimes with a circumference of a hundred yards]

. Although many of the corrals were constructed of logs, the building materials could vary. Some were built with lighter materials, and among the Cheyennes there was evidence of corrals being constructed out of brush. Apparently buffalo would not break out of a structure if they were unable to see through the walls; instead they would run around the circumference of the corral, making it easy for the hunters to kill them.

Archaeological evidence indicates that Northern Plains hunters drove buffalo over cliffs, into corrals, and into cul-de-sacs for a very long time period. Thus the knowledge and skills associated with this type of hunting were deeply shared, very old traditions that informed the societies encountered by Europeans. These traditions had been learned from predecessors and transmitted from generation to generation.

The knowledge and skills surrounding butchering animals and processing their flesh for food and their hides for other uses also had deep cultural roots. Once killed, buffalo had to be butchered, the flesh eaten on the spot or preserved for future use, the hide removed, and the other useful parts of the animal taken. Among the Blackfeet, almost every part of the beast was utilized.

During the summer and fall the hunting of buffalo continued as the group…moved about from place to place. Their movements were not random but were coordinated with the rhythms of the buffalo, the ripening of roots and berries, and the unfolding of the seasons. Their activities were structured by the projects that had to be accomplished in order both to sustain daily life and to insure that life would flourish in the coming year.

During the crisp days of late fall the people moved closer to the mountains, where they hunted deer, elk, and moose. During this time, according to Blood, the people began to enjoy what was a favorite food item among the Blackfoot – soup made from guts, tripe, fat, and dried berries. “No one,” said Blood, “would turn his head away from the soup.

After the first snow, the people would move to lower elevations near streams and rivers, where they would spend the winter. The buffalo now possessed luxuriant winter coats, and the hunters continued to kill animals both for meat and for robes that would warm their families during the winter. If the year had been a good one, then the beginning of winter was positively anticipated, according to Blood: “Oh, happy times there would be in the beginning of the winter, from the food that they got.” Blood’s description recalls Marshall Sahlins’s understanding of the “original affluent society” of hunters and gatherers who were normally able to satisfy all of their material needs and have time left over for ritual and leisure.”

The pattern of reliance upon medicine persons and ritual processes when engaged in communal hunting was widespread on the Northern Plains….Clearly the role of medicine persons was viewed by these people as essential to the hunting process; without the prayers, use of sacred objects, and the enactment of rituals, they believed that the hunt would be in jeopardy. [10]

A Cree welcome to the buffalo as they entered the corral may be illustrative of earlier attitudes:

My Grandfather, we are glad to see you, and happy that you are not come in a shameful manner, for you have brought plenty of your young men with you. Be not angry with us; we are obliged to destroy you to make ourselves live.[11]

Temple Grandin:

Sacks, Oliver. Photograph from the article, “A Neurologist’s Notebook – An Anthropologist on Mars,” The New Yorker, December 27, 1993. p.107.

The engineering similarities between the processes of communal buffalo hunting, as practiced by the Indians of the Northern Plains, and animal handling at modern slaughterhouses, including corralling and the blind curve design of the drive path as presented by Dr. Temple Grandin, are worth noting – they demonstrate the practical understanding that it is easier to kill an animal that is unaware of its circumstances. Is it also more ethical or humane? Oliver Sacks, in his 1993 article in The New Yorker, “An Anthropologist on Mars,” describes Dr. Grandin’s pioneering humaneness as they inspect a slaughterhouse:

We walked slowly up by the side of the gently curving, high-walled ramp, where cattle walk in single file, blithely unconscious of what is to come, up to the stunner, with its lethal bolt. Temple has been a pioneer in the design of such ramps, and her name is associated, in the trade, with the introduction of curved chutes. As we ascended the catwalk, looking over the chute’s walls, Temple told me of their special virtues, how curved chutes prevented the animals from seeing what was at the other end of the ramp until they were almost there (thus preventing any apprehension), and, at the same time, took advantage of the cow’s natural tendency to circle. The high walls prevented upsetting distractions, and served to concentrate the animals on their walk.[13]

At the top of the ramp, inside the building, the animals found themselves moved, almost insensibly, onto a conveyor belt running under their bellies. (This “double-rail restrainer” was another innovation of Temple’s.) A few seconds later, the animal is instantly killed by a bolt shot by compressed air through the brain….I got a sense of horror as Temple showed me the stunner, but the cattle, she assured me, had no intimation, no apprehension of what was to happen to them; her whole effort, indeed, was to remove anything that could frighten or stress the animals, so that they could go peacefully, gently, unknowingly to their death.[14]

Grandin says:

Properly performed, slaughter is more humane than nature. Eight seconds after the throat is cut, endorphins are released; the animal dies without pain. It is similar in nature, after sheep have been ripped up by coyotes. Nature has done this to ease the pain of a dying animal.[15]

Sacks adds, “What is terrible, the more so because it is avoidable, she feels, is pain and cruelty, the introduction of fear and stress before the lethal cutting, and it is this that she is most concerned to prevent.”[16]

Temple Grandin does not refer to the American Indian relationship to animals, but her work is permeated with the same sense of what humans share with animals, namely certain basic feelings, and a certain basic need to live life, given the opportunity, in concert with one’s natural tendencies. Again, Oliver Sacks does well to describe her unique perspective when he “quizzes” her about her Ph.D. thesis:

[H]er thesis was on the effects of enriched and impoverished environments on the development of pig’s brains. She told me about the great differences that developed between the two groups – how sociable and delightful the “enriched” pigs became, how hyper excitable and aggressive (and almost “autistic”) the “impoverished” ones were by contrast. … “I got to love my enriched pigs,” she said. “I was very attached. I was so attached I couldn’t kill them.” The animals had to be sacrificed at the end of the experiment so their brains could be examined. She described how the pigs, at the end, trusting her, let her lead them on their last walk, and how she had calmed them, by stroking them and talking to them, while they were killed. She was very distressed at their deaths – “I wept and wept.”[17]

Temple’s deepest feelings [Sacks continues] are for cattle; she feels a tenderness, a compassion for them that is akin to love. She spoke of this at length as we made our way to our next destination, a feedlot – how she sought gentleness, holding cattle in the chute, how she sought to transmit calmness to the animals, to bring them peace in the last moments of their lives. This, for her, is half physical, half sacred, this cradling of an animal in the last moments of its life; and it is something she endlessly tries to teach the people who operate the chutes in the slaughter plants.[18]

The emotional, ritual and spiritual “connection” to an animal’s life and death, one that goes beyond the elimination of physical pain and suffering and introduces the more sophisticated ideas of a death providing emotional comfort and well-being, may be represented in the promulgation of animal welfare standards as they are developing around the world – a substantial percentage of people seem naturally determined to want to repair the “alienation” that exists between ourselves and the animals we kill for food. Is this an intuitive attempt to reestablish the “conversation of death,” whereby the animal, according to the American Indian, must be willing to die?

The Indian believed that dying was not a tragic event. It was important to the Indian that he died well, with dignity, to consciously choose to die even if it is inevitable. This kind of self control in the face of death earns a warrior the greatest glory. This way of thinking is similar to the moment of eye contact when a wolf meets its prey. This “conversation of death” determines whether the prey lives or dies. The prey must be willing to die. There is a nobility in this mutual agreement.[19]

Harrod suggests that the term “alienation” is descriptive of a condition that is not often clearly experienced but that instead lurks at the edges of consciousness as a vaguely disturbing reality.[20] A more modern expression of this alienation can be said to occur in James Dickey’s poem “The Heaven of Animals.” In its almost childlike imagery and expression of sentimentality there is a desire to confront and resolve the mystery of death in the animal world:

Here they are. The soft eyes open.

If they have lived in a wood

It is a wood.

If they have lived on plains

It is grass rolling

Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,

Anyway, beyond their knowing.

Their instincts wholly bloom

And they rise.

The soft eyes open.

To match them, the landscape flowers,

Outdoing, desperately

Outdoing what is required:

The richest wood,

The deepest field.

For some of these,

It could not be the place

It is, without blood.

These hunt, as they have done,

But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.

They stalk more silently,

And crouch on the limbs of trees,

And their descent

Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years

In a sovereign floating of joy.

And those that are hunted

Know this as their life,

Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge

Of what is in glory above them,

And to feel no fear,

But acceptance, compliance.

Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle’s center,

They tremble, they walk

Under the tree,

They fall, they are torn,

They rise, they walk again.[21]

There are also the words of Chief Dan George, which may serve to most simply express this relationship as the Indians perceived it:

If you talk to the animals
they will talk with you
and you will know each other.
If you do not talk to them
you will not know them,
and what you do not know
you will fear.
What one fears
one destroys.

Finally, from Henry Beston’s Outermost House:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature though the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not our brethren, they are not our underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.[22]

[1] Ewing, Keith, “Farm Animal Welfare User’s Guide – A Global Summary of Standards, Programs and Issues,” 2010, 120 pages, (manuscript is available upon request).

[2] Harrod, Howard, L, “The Animals Came Dancing – Native American Sacred Ecology and Animal Kinship,” 2000, University of Arizona Press, p.xxv.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p.xxiv.

[5] Ibid. p.xii.

[6] Ibid., p.xii.

[7] Note how this “blind curve” design appears again in the animal handling corrals built by Temple Grandin.

[8] Harrod, p.9.

[9] Ibid., pp.9, 15.

[10] Harrod, pp.9-16.

[11] Ibid., pp.16-17.

[13] Sacks, p.120.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p.115.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., p.113.

[18] Ibid., p.121.

[19] McCann, Deborah, internet reference, 2010.

[20] Harrod, pp.xxiii-xiv.

[21] The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by J.D. McClatchy, November 1990, Vintage Books, pp.163-164.

[22] Beston, Henry, The Outermost House, 75th Anniversary ed., (Holt Paperbacks ed. Reprint), St. Martin’s Griffin, New York: 1949, original copyrite 1928, pp.24-25.