Choice Meat

By H. Jay Burns, editor

This issue reflects the College’s ongoing Bates Contemplates Food initiative in myriad ways, including eight profiles of alumni who produce food in Maine.

Here on campus, a recent BCF event was food writer Michael Pollan’s lecture in the Chapel. A few hours before speaking to that overflow crowd, Pollan talked informally in Chase Lounge about his writing focus.

In the late 1980s, he got interested in the “messy places where humans and nature can’t be kept from each other.” Food was one of the messiest places, he found, because humans can never retreat from this engagement with nature. “You can’t be Thoreau in your vegetable garden,” he told the students. If you try, you won’t take steps to protect your food — “you won’t firebomb a woodchuck,” he said, alluding to his famous attempt to drive the rodents from his Connecticut garden, as chronicled in his 1988 essay “Gardening Means War.”

In Walden, Thoreau throws in the trowel on his large-scale bean field after one season because he doesn’t believe it’s right to tell nature how to behave. Pollan calls Thoreau “defeatist” for his backpedaling attitude toward food production. “We are in nature,” he told the students. “We’ve been implicated in nature for a lot longer than you think.”

His references to Thoreau, woodchucks, and firebombing sure got my attention. In high school, I used a .30-30 rifle to kill a woodchuck nibbling on broccoli in our vegetable garden — a great shot, really, as the rodent was more than 100 feet away. The woodchuck’s death brought no reprimand from my father, both a Thoreau disciple and avid gardener.

Like Pollan, he had long since revised Thoreau’s operations manual while retaining its essence. For example, Thoreau burned tree stumps for heat. We would drive from our Waterford, Maine, home to the nearby Paris Manufacturing wood factory. Out back, workers dumped kiln-dried blocks of hardwood, which we hauled back to Waterford in our Chevy truck.

Gwen Lexow, who teaches the first-year seminar “Into the Woods: Rewriting Walden,” understands very well that we all make certain accommodations as we live our lives. Her students, however, haven’t figured that out yet. They tend to condemn Thoreau for not staying on the straight and narrow when he chooses his less-traveled path. “They call Thoreau a hypocrite,” she says. “It bothers them immensely when they find out that he lunches with his mother and that he goes back to the village.”

Lexow helps her students move past that monolithic stopping point. “Their a-ha! moment comes later,” she says, as they read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. “They realize that even within a simple life, nothing is simple.”

The seminar, she says, “mirrors the students’ first semester. They arrive thinking it’s their chance to ‘get out from under the man’ intellectually. But it’s not so easy.”

At Walden, Thoreau does kill a woodchuck that has “ravaged” his beans, and then eats the meat. I tossed my dead woodchuck into the woods.

H. Jay Burns, Editor