Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Vegan Paradox Part I: Morality

"Joel Salatin likes to say his cows and chickens have a really, really good life, right up until the last minute or two. And then it is over, quickly and relatively painlessly."

We wade into these waters very hesitantly, because what people individually decide to eat is a personal choice, even though it may have very impersonal consequences. People, understandably, can be quite sensitive about being told what they should or shouldn’t eat.

Recently we seem to detect a bit more stridency in the tone of conversation when it comes to eating meat. The nastiness used to be pretty much one-sided, with surly comments coming from the meat-eaters directed at those who abstain. Now it has flipped and seems to be coming more from aggressive vegans concerned about climate change. George Monbiot recently opined:
Rainforests, savannahs, wetlands, magnificent wildlife can live alongside us, but not alongside our current diet.
Monbiot cited studies by scientists at Florida State and Oregon State universities that tallied the damage:

The consumption of animal-sourced food products by humans is one of the most powerful negative forces affecting the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems and biological diversity. Livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss, and both livestock and feedstock production are increasing in developing tropical countries where the majority of biological diversity resides. Bushmeat consumption in Africa and southeastern Asia, as well as the high growth-rate of per capita livestock consumption in China are of special concern. The projected land base required by 2050 to support livestock production in several megadiverse countries exceeds 3050% of their current agricultural areas. Livestock production is also a leading cause of climate change, soil loss, water and nutrient pollution, and decreases of apex predators and wild herbivores, compounding pressures on ecosystems and biodiversity.
Reluctantly, since we have lived half our life on either side of this choice, we feel a need to wade in.

One might think that more women are vegans than men, but in fact the opposite is the case. We think, without much science data to support it, that vegans tend to be more of an urban phenomenon than rural. We wondered why that might be.

Watching our chickens scramble for food scraps thrown to them off the kitchen porch, we think back to Lassie and the TV shows those of us at the cutting edge of the Baby Boom watched. Lassie’s house always had chickens in the front yard, even though it was probably on a sound stage in Burbank.

Many of the other shows in American children’s television c. 1950 shared this same rural bias. The Howdy Doody Show (1947-60) followed the success of other puppet theaters like Kukla, Fran and Ollie (1947-57), Time for Beany (1949-1955), and Rootie Kazootie (1950-54): it was a Western. Howdy and Buffalo Bob were cowboys. Chief Thunderthud and Princess Summerfall Winterspring were Indians. Clarabell, well. That’s another story. 

Hopalong Cassady, The Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger and Gene Autry were all rural ranchers — trying to make an honest living but being cheated by banksters and railroad land grabbers. Even the Mickey Mouse Club, which came a little later, was as often out on the ranch with Spin and Marty as in the soda shoppe with Tommy and Darlene. Captain Video (1949-1955) was urban, but that was because it was sci-fi, and everyone in the future lives in cities.

The move from rural living to urban living was made possible by cheap energy, automobiles, and the globalization of food. Chances are, if Hopalong, Cisco or Roy herded their cattle to market, that market was near a railroad that took the herd to Omaha or Chicago where they were sent up ramps into factory abbatoires, processed at the rate of a freight train per hour into frozen steaks and hamburger and sent immediately to New York, San Francisco and abroad.

The limits to eating higher on the food chain are dictated by the same limits as traditional kinds of farming with hoes and water buffaloes — it comes back to population size. A good system for a village of 300 may not be possible, or responsible, at the scale of 300,000 or 300,000,000. A pastured poultry or Salad Bar Beef operation like Joel Salatin has at Polyface Farm in Virginia can feed thousands of people, but it cannot feed millions. Cities require very large foodsheds with very big energy requirements for transportation, cold storage and delivery. Joel can truck his meat to Washington DC, but it would take many thousands of Polyface Farms to provide for that entire city, and that’s only its meat. That is also a lot of trucks and refrigeration storage units.

This is what comes to mind as we listen to discussions about grasslands and carbon farming with pastured animal production. Can the world’s population, now over 7 billion, soon to be swept to 9 billion just on inertia, offer grass fed beef, dairy, poultry and eggs to everyone as a climate remedy? Is it faster, more reliable and more profitable than, say, tree planting?

Too often this debate turns to polemic as both sides talk past each other, but having lived in both worlds now, we think it worth looking at the evidence for meat in the diet and the arguments for restricting or excluding it. If that bores you, or you have heard it all before, then see you later.

Morality is a ruthless companion. Vegan advocate Peter Singer wrote:
It is at this point that the consequences of speciesism intrude directly into our lives, and we are forced to attest personally to the sincerity of our concern for nonhuman animals. Here we have an opportunity to do something, instead of merely talking and wishing the politicians would do something. It is easy to take a stand about a remote issue, but speciesists, like racists, reveal their true nature when the issue comes nearer home. To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages, or veal from calves who have been deprived of their mothers, their proper diet, and the freedom to lie down with their legs extended, is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbors not to sell their houses to blacks.

But Singer can be hoisted on his own petard. When eating plants he is ignoring the millions of living and recently deceased species he slaughters. Who is the specieist?

We kill lifeforms by the millions with every spoonful we eat, whether it is Provençal bouillabaisse or a wheatgrass smoothie. Many of those swimming around in that spoon have eyes that look up at you, and given the opportunity, would attempt to escape. This is as true of breathing, or having pores in your skin. We are what we absorb, but for the vast majority of those being absorbed, life ends.

Our ancestors separated from their herbivore brethren about 7 million years ago. Whether our interest in eating animals outweighs their interest in not being eaten (assuming for the moment that is their interest) often turns on the vexed question of animal suffering. Vexed, because it is impossible to know what really goes on in the mind of a cow or a pig or even a hairless ape. But since we humans are all basically wired the same way as a pig, we have excellent reason to assume that their experience of pain feels much like our own. Michael Pollan agonizes over this:

For any animal, happiness seems to consist in the opportunity to express its creaturely character – Its essential pigness or wolfness or chickenness. Aristotle speaks of each creature’s “characteristic form of life.” For domesticated species, the good life, if we can call it that, cannot be achieved apart from humans – apart from our farms and, therefore, our meat eating. This, it seems to me, is where animal rightists betray a profound ignorance about the workings of nature. To think of domestication as a form of enslavement or even exploitation is to misconstrue the whole relationship, to project a human idea of power onto what is, in fact, an instance of mutualism between species. Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans imposed on animals some 10,000 years ago.

Rather, domestication happened when a small handful of especially opportunistic species discovered through Darwinian trial and error that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own. Humans provided the animals with food and protection, in exchange for which the animals provided the humans their milk and eggs and – yes – their flesh. Both parties were transformed by the relationship: animals grew tame and lost their ability to fend for themselves (evolution tends to edit out unneeded traits), and the humans gave up their hunter-gatherer ways for the settled life of agriculturists. (Humans changed biologically, too, evolving such new traits as a tolerance for lactose as adults.)

Joel Salatin likes to say his cows and chickens have a really, really good life, right up until the last minute or two. And then it is over, quickly and relatively painlessly.

But if omnivores need to consider where their meat comes from, vegans need to notice how they grow their grains. Almost all grain production currently depends on large quantities of nitrogen — 100 megatons per year — produced in fertilizer plants. Fertilizer is mostly produced from natural gas, which is a finite resource. It could be made from coal, but at the current rate of use, global coal reserves would run out quickly.

The only alternative is to introduce nitrogen into the soil by growing legumes. Peas and beans produce some nitrogen but the plants that fix the largest amounts of nitrogen from the atmosphere are forage plants like clover and lucerne. Apart from some innovative attempts at leaf protein extraction, we cannot eat these crops, and that is a key reason why more grazing ruminants could be needed in future, as gas, potash, phosphate — and artificial fertilizer — peak. Clover grown with grass produces healthy beef and lamb and can indefinitely put enough nitrogen into the soil to grow grain crops three years out of four. Animals get that field every forth year, or, more permaculturally, we do shorter rotations and keep building soil all the time.

Consider: 73 percent of British farmland is considered not suitable for crop production and is growing grass. But with demand for chicken masala and chicken tandoori increasing every year since 1950 and demand for beef and lamb falling, well over a million acres of grassland in the UK have been converted to grain production to feed the chickens. Before Brexit, even larger areas of land were growing chicken feed for England across the Channel. If all Brits were vegan, the island could feed 200 million without imports.

No need to panic, say the Brexited Brits, we can frack fertilizer gas from the Midlands and offshore and turn our grasslands back to grain, as in Roman times. Plenty of chicken tandoori, and we won’t have as many Poles and Romanians to eat it. What the frack could be wrong with that idea?

In his now viral TED talk, Zimbabwean ecologist Allan Savory says that after studying the question, no rational scientist can conclude that we have any other choice than to “do the unthinkable,” and increase the numbers of grazing animals, bunched and moving, in order to restore the balance of planetary ecosystem health, replace extinct wild herds and predators, and reverse desertification and climate change. He makes the meat diet a moral duty.

 For their parts, vegans point to the obvious disparities between who can afford to eat conscientiously grown meat and the cruelty implicit in the whole modern food system, vegetables and grains included.

We think both sides are missing the real problem. We outlined it here last week. Its the population, stupid. The whole modern food system was created because that is how you can feed 7 to 9 billion people, bunched in cities, as a proxy for Lascaux and Canyon de Chelly.

Simple as that. If you want the luxury of being either organically vegan or compassionately omnivore, you will need to reduce your own species’ numbers.

next week: The Vegan Paradox Part II: Climate

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Making the Grade in Population

"Activist saints who receive C’s on the population quiz: Ralph Borsodi, George Monbiot, Wendell Berry, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall."

Fourteen percent of all humans who have ever lived are alive today. Recent projections  of fertility momentum put global population between 9.6 and 12.3 billion by the end of the century. Of course that could no more be sustained than too many reindeer living on lichen on a small island.

A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Bradshaw and Brook, "Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems." DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1410465111)  looked at a number of different scenarios to gauge how long it might take the human population to plateau and then decline. The Yale Environmental Review commented:

Many of the findings highlight the strength of this demographic momentum. For example, the study found that if every unplanned pregnancy were avoided worldwide due to reproductive education, family planning, and cultural shifts, population would peak at 8.39 billion in 2050 and then fall to 7.3 billion by 2100, a level slightly higher than today. The study also found that implementing contentious population control measures such as a worldwide one-child policy, results in a population that wouldn’t fall back to present-day size until the end of the century. Another scenario looked at a hypothetical catastrophic mortality event equal to the number of deaths from the First World War, the Second World War, and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic combined. This event barely altered the long-term population projection.

Population tends to be the third rail for many environmental activists. They are okay talking about a one child policy for China, or lamenting the fact that Africa will more than triple its population by mid-century, but the idea of limiting their own family size seems to hold little interest.

Perhaps some role models are needed. Among the presidential candidates, Jill Stein gets a C. She has two children. Donald Trump receives a failing grade. He has 5. Hillary Clinton, with only one child, receives a B. To get an A she would have needed either none or a half child, perhaps one adopted from a one child family or acquired by marriage.

Top Marks: Leo DiCaprio (0); Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins (0); Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader (0); Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson (1);’s Bill McKibben (1); Greenpeace Executive Director Annie Leonard (1); Greenpeace spokesman Kumi Naidoo (1); and “population bomb” theorists Paul and Anne Ehrlich (1).

The US’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, Sierra Club, has a population mission:

The Global Population and Environment Program believes that healthy people and a healthy environment go hand in hand. We work to protect the global environment, preserve natural resources for future generations, and ensure healthy, thriving families and communities by promoting global reproductive health, reproductive rights and sustainable development initiatives.

And yet the Sierra Club’s president and his wife “attribute their ongoing passion for environmental activism in part to concern that their children (plural) inherit a healthy world.”

Pope Francis has yet to issue an encyclical urging Catholics to use birth control. Naomi Klein thinks artificial insemination should be a universal right.

Activist saints who receive C’s on the population quiz: Ralph Borsodi, George Monbiot, Wendell Berry, David Attenborough and Jane Goodall.

Top Marks: Rachel Carson (0); Henry David Thoreau (0).

Failing grades: Thomas Malthus (3), Helen Caldicott (3); Al Gore (4); David Brower (4), Jacques-Yves Cousteau (4); Garrett Hardin (4); Allan Yeomans (5); Aldo Leopold (5); and David Suzuki (5 children, 6 grandchildren).

Groucho Marx, on You Bet Your Life, questioned a female contestant who came from a family of 17 children:

Groucho: How does your father feel about this rather startling turn of events? Is he happy or just dazed?
Daughter: Oh, my daddy loves children.

Groucho: Well, I like pancakes, but I haven't got closets full of them ...

Many people are familiar with the Groucho cigar story, which is similar but a bit more salacious. Apparently that is an urban legend. Judge for yourself at Snopes.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Hot Rockin'

"All that is necessary to open up unlimited resources of power throughout the world is to find some economic and speedy way of sinking deep shafts." — Nikola Tesla, Our Future Motive Power, 1931

Like many in the Peak Everything/Age of Limits psychographic, we find ourselves rolling our eyes whenever we hear techno-utopians describing AI implants, self-driving Teslas and longevity DNA-splices. We know all too well that each Google search uses enough energy to boil a cup of water, and that the average cellphone adds one ton of carbon to the atmosphere each year - roughly 3 jet passenger trips back and forth between New York and Cancun.

The insularity of Silicon Valley leads to confirmation bias, to the point where someone like Kevin Kelly, in a recent Long Now talk, can describe the diversification of Artificial Smartness as "alien intelligences" without grasping that we have, right now living amongst us, vastly diverse typologies of intelligence in the biological world, but that our overconsuming, polluting technosphere is killing them off in the Sixth Mass Extinction before we even grok their quantum entanglement.

In Kelly's view we will soon be tapping into artificial, alien intellect like we do electricity or wifi. We will become cyber-centaurs — co-dependent humans and AIs. All of us will need to perpetually upgrade just to stay in the game. And power-up too.

Groan. The digital divide on steroids.

We've opined in many posts here that we thought a rubber-road interface would soon be upon this kind of techonarcissism. Limits will be in the driver's seat again. But oddly enough, it might not be the energy shortfall that pitches all that Teslarati into the ditch.

There is no shortage of energy and there never has been.

Take it back an Ice Age or two. So we discovered fire. Get over it! Being stupid apes, we have become completely obsessed with fire. So now we are burning down the house.

All around us there are much more abundant forms of energy than fire. Consider the gravitational pull of the moon that raises oceans. Consider the spin of the Earth, or the latent heat within its slowly cooling core. Who needs dilithium crystals? We travel through space aboard a dynamo.

Nicola Tesla
In the eight years since the post below was originally published in the summer of 2008, it has received a grand total of 68 page views, many of which were doubtless our own. Not wanting to see such gems disappear into the akashic records without at least a few more reads, we're republishing in this summer re-run series.

Bear in mind that Nicola Tesla was a steampunk. In Iceland we can see steam and hydrogen being generated by geothermal heat, but the Teslovian technology being applied -- pumped water and steam -- is inefficient and self-defeating. It sets up a depletion curve -- years to decades -- because it cools the magma. Apply today's dielectric alloys instead of steam and you can imagine live current from the temperature differential without cooling the Earth below. But have a look.

Hot Rockin'

Drill, Drill, Drill say the Republicans
Drill, Drill, Drill say the Democrats
Drill, Drill, Drill says McCain
Drill, Drill, Drill says Obama
It polls well.
And, meanwhile, the climate just goes to Hell.

It is interesting to see the major oil companies take on a really tough challenge, like drilling deep continental or deep ocean sites. In order to drill the Bakken formation, where gigatons of carbon deposits are entombed beneath the wheat fields of North Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, they are going to have to go very deep, into very hard and hot rock.

Even tougher challenges await Chevron's mega-well, Jack 2 in the Gulf of Mexico, or Petrobras' Saudi-scale Tupi or Carioca fields in the equatorial Atlantic off Brazil. Individual wells in those fields are expected to run $180 million to $200 million each, assuming Big Oil can even solve the impressive technical issues.

Engineers are estimating three decades will be needed to develop alloys for drills and pipes that can withstand the heat 2 to 6 miles down, with 18,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, and temperatures above 500° Fahrenheit (260°C).

Two years ago, Exxon Mobil and Chevron saw diamond-crusted drill bits disintegrate and steel pipes crumple when they attempted to tap deep deposits in the outer continental shelf. Anadarko Petroleum is successfully extracting natural gas under a mere 8,960 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico, where pressure measures 3,069 pounds per square inch, but it costs a lot to keep replacing imploded joints and ruptured seals.

Pumping oil from the Brazilian fields, parts of which are 32,000 feet (10,000 m) below the surface, will require drilling more than three times the depth of the Anadarko wells and almost twice the world’s deepest Gulf wells, in the Tahiti lease, which cost Chevron $4.7 billion to produce.

But here is the irony. At those depths, the heat is a constant. In energy output worldwide, it measures in the exoWatt range. It could power everything. And you don’t have to sail halfway across the Gulf of Mexico, down into the South Atlantic, or up to the North Pole to find it. Wherever you are on Earth, it is right below you.

We’ve known about this energy source, deep geothermal, for centuries, and we have known how to go about harnessing it, big time, for decades. In 1932, Nicola Tesla wrote in The New York Times, “It is noteworthy that ...  in 1852 Lord Kelvin called attention to natural heat as a source of power available to Man. But, contrary to his habit of going to the bottom of every subject of his investigations, he contented himself with the mere suggestion.”

Tesla went on, “The arrangement of one of the great terrestrial-heat power plants of the future (illustration). Water is circulated to the bottom of the shaft, returning as steam to drive the turbine, and then returned to liquid form in the condenser, in an unending cycle.... The internal heat of the earth is great and practically inexhaustible....”

Karl Grossman produced a piece on it for WVVH-TV in Long Island. You can see that on YouTube. An MIT study in 2007 estimated you could produce 100 GWe (the equivalent of 1000 coal plants) for less than the cost of a single coal plant.

So why can’t we see the forest for the trees?

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Grimace to Loathe

We are in summer re-runs now and have selected another vintage blast from the past. This was originally published to The Great Change on Friday, February 15, 2008.

Charlie Hall sent us this lovely graph, which has his handwritten scrawl over the page torn from Limits to Growth in 1972. As Charlie points out, "the Limits to growth basic model is right on track as of 2007. Most people (including most environmental scientists) think that the original LTG model has failed because the large oscillations did not come to pass. The original diagram did not have numbers on the x axis except at the ends 1900 and 2100. So no one seemed to have thought about the timing of things. The economists tore that model from limb to limb. In fact when we put a ruler on the axis and drew in some years the model seems to be right on track as of 2007 (the model oscillations are not supposed to have occurred yet)....

"Anyway how many economic models are basically correct 37 years later?"

We added the red arrow to help provide a sense of why it feels so chaotic now. We are at the critical crossing junctions of many of the lines. Unsustainable growth didn't.

Two other interesting takes on growth came across the transom from Jeff Vail and Peter Salonius. Jeff's is the first of three parts, Peter's the first of two. Jeff's theme is that human psychology drives growth and hierarchal systems, including all agriculture, demand continuous growth. Peter's theme is that humanity has been in overshoot of carrying capacity since we abandoned hunting and gathering in favor of crop cultivation 10,000 years ago and that all intensive agriculture, including John Jeavons' minifarming and Steinerian biodynamics, is flatly unsustainable.

While we savor these pieces, we recommend a nice dish from the Financial Collapse Survival Guide and Cookbook (free on Kindle Unlimited), such as Shiitake Joes, but with some small modifications to base the recipe entirely on foraged ingredients. More complete substitution tables are in the book.

Shiitake Joes

This is a very simple and timeless recipe that lends itself to a world of substitution for seasonal and local ingredients. When trying this out recently, we found an old jar of dried peppers marked “2004” that didn’t look especially hot. Wrong. The one tiny dried pepper we selected was more than enough heat for a double recipe of these, shared with a dozen friends.
Serves 6

One half cup finely diced wild onions, wild garlic or ramps.
2 cups rehydrated or fresh wild mushrooms, stemmed and diced
1 Tbsp oil, cold pressed from wild olives
1 tsp sea salt
1 3/4 cup wild tomatillos, finely diced
2 Tbsp fresh wild cilantro and/or Mexican oregano chopped finely

Immerse wild onions, garlic or ramps in hot water and let stand 20 to 60 minutes, then reserve the water. If mushrooms need to be rehydrated, immerse in the reserved warm water and let stand 60 minutes. Add tomatillos to reserved liquid in a small sauce pot and simmer until creamy. Preheat iron skillet. Add oil, onions and mushrooms and lightly brown. Stir in tomatillo sauce. Salt to taste and sprinkle on cilantro and/or oregano. Heat and serve on open-faced arrowroot or acorn flour biscuits or buns, or over wild rice.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Number 59’s Wall

— Te-lah-nay

When we first published this essay in September of 2009, our blog was in its infancy and to this day the post has received only 219 reads. Now, in 2016, with the dog days of summer upon us, we are setting off to find a nice beach somewhere and find it the perfect opportunity to repost this story, one of our personal favorites and one we shall tell our granddaughter some day. Likely we will take her to the Wall when we do.

The Wall came to pass from a series of events in the Nineteenth Century, beginning with the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which was opposed by our local Congressman of that time, David Crockett of Tennessee. A lawsuit for the Cherokee Nation reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832 and Justice John Marshall ruled in Worcester v. Georgia, (31 U.S. [6 Pet.] 515) that an indigenous nation was a "distinct community" with sovereign self-government and the power to engage in treaties with the United States.

President Andrew Jackson wrote that “the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.” He sent General Winfield Scott to effect the clearances while Congress busied itself passing fake treaties to paper over the ethnic cleansing.


A little girl named Tah-nan-kay was living with her people in the Euchee Nation of Northern Alabama at that time. They called themselves Tsoyaha yuchi, “the Children of the Sun from faraway.” Ironically, the Euchee had fought alongside of Andrew Jackson at the battle of Callabee Creek, in the Indian Wars of 1814, and were praised by the General for their gallantry and valor.

The Euchee language is a linguistic isolate, not known to be related to any other language, but there are similarities to ancient Hebrew and the Bat Creek Stone (Smithsonian Collection), removed from an East Tennessee mound (since plowed flat), contains a Semitic inscription of the first or second century C.E. which translates "For the Judeans." Carbon-dating has confirmed the linguistic dating.

We know that the Euchee were descendents of the original Mississipian mound builders, that they were decimated by European disease following contact with DeSoto (1540) and Pardo (1567) expeditions, and that their widely scattered villages were the consequence of that decimation and of being on the losing side of conflicts with in-migrating Muskhogean, Iroquoian, and Algonkian peoples.

The Euchee are now the oldest recognizable residents of the Southeast. There are only 7 native speakers left.
Tah-nan-kay and her sister, Whana-le watched from the bushes where their father had hid them when the whites, led by Hairy Face, who drank from a jug and walked crooked, came to their wasi. Hairy Face killed their family before their eyes, but, guided by their grandmother, the sisters, aged about 16 and 14, reached a canoe and went down the Singing River to the Muscle Shoals. There they were captured, removed to a stockade, and then put aboard a Navy keelboat going to Arkansas, with 20 Chicasaws, 12 Creeks, 11 Choctaws and 30 Cherokees. 

They were given necklaces with brass tags bearing numbers. Tah-nan-kay and Whana-le were given 59 and 60, which they understood to be their new names, the names the Shiny Buttons called them. They said the canoe was so large they could not hear the Woman in the Singing River. From West Memphis, they joined the long walk to Oklahoma. Many stories are told of that forced winter march, and of the more than 4,000 who died, and they will not be recounted here.

We have an artist friend, Bernice Davidson, who has done a series of public art monuments to the Trail of Tears. In one mural she prepared for Lawrenceburg, Tennessee,  she shows a long line of bedraggled men, women and children, some of them in manacles, being frog-marched through town by mounted cavalry. In every window and doorway there are white residents looking on, and they are crying. Those tears are not being shed by the proud and honorable peoples being marched through the town. They are being shed by the citizens forced to witness in shock and horror what their own government is capable of.

After a winter or more in Oklahoma, Number 59 resolved to return home. She told her younger sister that she had visited all the rivers and creeks in that place and they were silent. She did not know the birds. She was not a flower that could bloom in that place, like her sister was, she said. She had spoken to her grandmother in her dreams, and her grandmother had told her to return to the Singing River.

When the snows melted, she left Oklahoma and walked back. In her dreams, her grandmother told her to mark where the Blue Star rose, and to go that way under cover of dark, avoiding the roads and settlements, and especially the dogs around them. The hardest part about crossing creeks was not the swim, but getting through the cane breaks on the banks, which often had nests of the snakes that drum with their tails.

She observed a fox, who her grandmother had told her was very smart. The fox picked up a cane in its mouth and waded slowly into the river. The bugs on the fox moved up to the cane and out onto its dry ends to keep from drowning. Then the fox dropped the cane and swam back to the shore. 

Number 59 told her grandchildren many years later that she spent some months with a family who took her in at their settlement near the warm water (Hot Springs), and then, after she went around the “firefly village” (Little Rock), she met a Natchez Indian woman, named Wachetto, who had married a white settler named Pryor Donelson. Number 59 stayed with the Donelsons that winter. They arranged for a ferryman they knew to take her to Batesville, Mississippi, and from there she kept walking east. 

After she left, the Donelson’s boy, Jacob, discovered a small circular wall of stones behind the barn. Inside the wall there was a stone with the name of each member of the Donelson family, and one for Te-lah-nay, with the Euchee symbol of remembrance. 

Eventually, after more than two years on the trail, she heard the sound of the Night Singer (whipporwill) and Rain Crow (yellow-billed cuckoo) and she knew she was nearly home. Already there were many new white settlements in the 25 million acres of confiscated lands. When she found her home, she sat by the bank and listened to the low voice of the Woman in the River. After a journey of more than 700 miles, “I’ve come home, Grandmother,” she said. 

This story was told to us by her great-great grandson, Tom Hendrix, who sat on a folding chair inside the garage behind his house, as the rain fell in torrents. He showed us a basket woven by a Euchee in Oklahoma, and how precise the weaving was. We were just off the Natchez Trace in Lauderdale, County, Alabama, about 50 miles from The Farm. The story Tom told came from his grandmother and his uncle. 

He says he is not much of a storyteller. Tom’s Euchee name means the Stonetalker. For much of his life, he has been building a wall to remember Te-lah-nay. The wall is actually two massive walls, running nearly parallel, for more than a quarter mile through the forest. The outer wall, representing the Trail of Tears, is very straight and broad – 16 feet or more at the start, tapering to 10 feet, then 8 feet, then nothing. It ends in a tapered hook. The inner wall, representing the trail back for Number 59, is more idiosyncratic, weaving around trees, with alcove seats, prayer circles and small chapels, and many special gifts that have been left in the wall.

Stonetalker, now age 77, told us that each stone has been picked up at least three times. Once in the field, once from his truck, once from his wheelbarrow. He has been through many wheelbarrows, and his favorite, the one that lived longest, was named Fred and when Fred retired he had a special retirement party, dressed in a necktie and party hat. Fred is buried in the wall.

Between the parallel walls Tom has left some low stumps in the path. He says he leaves the stumps as “toestubbers,” to remind people of what it was like to travel at night in the forest.

Near where the wall begins the Nations have sent young stonecrafting emissaries to place sacred protection on both sides — rocks with eyes that look out to each person entering the path. 

At the guidance of a holy man from the Nations whose name we forget he built the prayer circle seven times before leaving it as it is now. Each time he thought he had it right, but the emissaries from the Nations came and measured it with their special sticks and said he had to do it again. He did that until after the seventh time, when they said it was right. “What was wrong before?” he asked. 

“Nothing,” they said. Each time was for a generation, first his great-great grandmother, then his great grandmother, his grandmother, his mother, him, his children, and his grandchildren. 

The inner wall is built with three steps. The ground is birth, the first step is life, the second is death, the third is rebirth. 

For the past 30 years, Tom has been building the wall, a little longer, a little wider, each stone, one stone at a time. He has been visited by people from many countries and many faiths. He works still. He says the wall does not belong to him, it belongs to everyone. It is wichahpi, "like the stars."




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