a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Red dirt coats my snow boots. My hands are numb with cold and my back aches from working over a long white folding table tucked next to the red canvas-covered side of a yurt. Woodsmoke rises from the yurt’s chimney, its scent mingling with those that rise from pigs, ducks, and five-gallon buckets brimming with the guts of three North Carolina deer.
I look down the folding table over Ziploc bags, knives, and venison steak at the huntress working beside me. Breathing out a puff of the chill December morning, I say, “I have never seen this much steak before in my life.”
Three deer provide a lot of steak. A lot of bone, hide, viscera, blood. The group that I am living with is keeping our hands busy for this week-long hunt, in part because we set an uncommon intention: to treat the deers’ lives with ritual and reflection, much of it invented on the fly. The crew is as unconventional as our mission. Our host is a burly and bearded Carolina native. He owns the farm where our group stays, knows the town, and though his personal relationship to the hunt is not meditative, he teaches the new among us with an unexpected gentle patience. The hunt’s leader and spiritual guide is his foil: butch, slim, articulate, and serious. There’s a young gun safety instructor from Vermont here to teach as well. Then, there are three women participants, paying clients here to engage in what our leader calls “the sacred hunt.”1 I’m the cook. While the huntresses and teachers spend hours each day in the woods, I keep a home. I prepare meals, keep the campsite tidy, and cultivate the hearth fire. I create a calming space for women engaging in a fraught and charged new experience. I do this for them as well as for the three deer who arrive one by one in the back of a pickup truck, trailing warm blood into the pine duff. They each in turn hang by their back legs from trees to be skinned and gutted and quartered, illuminated at night by the moon. When I head to the dark hedgerow to pee under the stars I catch the bodies out of the corner of my eye and my heart jumps to my throat. Once I remember what they are, I calm down and am able to sleep well on the surface of the Earth. I know that for this one long week, our group of relative strangers will allow the soil to show us how to provide for each other. We take this lesson home with us, filling enormous coolers with more meat than I’ve ever seen in my life.
After each long day in the North Carolina forest, we gather in the yurt for a communal meal. I am unfamiliar with how eager each ingredient will be to nourish us in its own way, so I am a hesitant server for the first few meals. Soon, I dish it all up proudly: duck eggs gathered from our muddy front yard, cooked over-easy, yolks running into sautéed mustard greens from the fields out back. Rich bone broths with tender meat melting into them, balanced by cider vinegar and brown sugar. An enormous heart braised in brine then chopped fine and added to a thick and sweet stew of onions, green pepper, tomato, and coconut milk – sharp greens tossed in at the last moment, served over rice. Liver cooked in a mountain of onions and cubed potatoes, shockingly tender, the potatoes overwhelmed by savory drippings and the onions caramel and sweet across it all. Winter squash wrapped in tin foil and thrown into the coals of the wood stove. Steak, seared and rare.
Sated and finally warm at night we pile onto the one bed in the yurt, sipping tea and sucking on Hershey’s Hugs. Two tall candles flicker on the deer altar while we take turns reading aloud from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass.2 A biologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Kimmerer weaves stories of her childhood and motherhood with lessons from the plants she was raised by.3 She connects her own experience with myth, history, and plant ecology, presenting a braid tied through with her central theme: the gift.
The gift as she writes it is an economy, a way of managing the home.4 She suggests one must notice the gifts the world offers, give gratitude for them, and most importantly, pass the gift forward. It’s an economy in which everything we need to survive is a freely given gift from the Earth. Our responsibility follows: we are to give back to the Earth and to others around us. Food is freely given and taken. We exist as all other organisms, within a food web. To emphasize the importance of gratitude in this equation, Kimmerer tells a story she told to students on the subject: after many years of plenty, people forgot to be grateful to the corn and suffered consequences for their selfishness. She says “several students in my audience yawned. They could not imagine such a thing. The aisles of the grocery store were always well stocked.” 5
I arrive in the North Carolina forest ignorant, like Kimmerer’s students. I am full of questions, without any hunting experience, at the beginning of my own journey to discover who I am in the tangled web of our food system. Last year I lived in Vermont, where I was learning to farm vegetables. Growing plants is very different from hunting deer, but these two ways of living are both bound up in the tension between the gift economy that Kimmerer describes and her students’ worldview of a commodity economy. Both the vegetables and the deer force me to ask what to offer to an earth that gives boundlessly. And both throw my years of living in the world of commodities between the aisles of a grocery store into question. They give me these questions in the form of a gift of preposterous quantities of food.
One day in early fall a friend and I are walking basement hallways at the University of Vermont, looking for a door to match the number written on the outside of an old seed packet. Inside the packet is a key to a storage room. Inside the storage room is a walk-in cooler where our student farm has been keeping our excess carrots while we build a new refrigerator unit. We stack twenty-five pound bags of carrots into the wagon we brought. Five to a layer, four layers high. We make two trips. After loading the van for the drive back to the farm, I stand with my hands on my hips, arching my back to stretch it. “Well,” I say, “That’s the most carrots I’ll ever see in one place.”
And before that, in early summer. The sour cherries are in full fruit and I pick alone for an afternoon, staining my fingers and teeth, until my five-gallon bucket is full and the generous tree looks utterly untouched. I feel my sunburn and my full belly and watch the sinking sun reaching over us all and wonder if I will ever feel so satisfied again. I think to myself, if the earth laughs in flowers, it loves in fruit.6
In moments in both Vermont and North Carolina, I am struck by the realization that this Earth loves me back. It is a sensation I did not know I craved. I remember crying for a fallen backyard tree, but I didn’t think to thank it for the paper I drew its pictures on or the house that kept me warm. I didn’t believe the forest knew I existed. I learned instead that people exist outside of Nature. Nature is unfeeling and we take from it what we need to live. I learned a paradox: like Kimmerer’s students, my grocery store has always been fully stocked. But I also learned that there isn’t enough food to go around. I believed all of these things. And then I moved carrots. I harvested tomatoes. I broke wild mushrooms off rotting stumps. I butchered deer.
Of course I had experienced so much bounty. I’ve been to the grocery store.
But I had never farmed or hunted. Never lifted a crate of watermelon, or casually eaten a beefsteak tomato in the field, or thrown into the compost the mountain of winter squash that would have rotted if it couldn’t be eaten or preserved that day. Though I have walked by that much food at the grocery store, I had never before seen it.
I use the grocery store in North Carolina to supplement the venison, eggs, greens, potatoes, broccoli, cabbages, onions, and garlic offered to us by farm and forest. I buy cow milk and almond milk, peanut butter, chocolate, vinegar, spices, bread, pasta, rice. Oatmeal and brown sugar. Butter and coffee. Pale-yolked chicken’s eggs. Sweet potatoes. At mealtime, we bless it all with gratitude and laughter.
But I do not walk the aisles of the grocery store with the same exuberant awe and quiet wonder with which I gather bags of dewy mustard greens. I do not lay my hand on the carton of milk the way I do the one-antlered deer, stroking bloodied thick fur and marveling over its unique life. I do not imagine miles of wheat, each stalk lifting like a sunrise from the dirt. For this, I can’t blame the far-away Holstein or the world-weary farmworker. I create or deny Kimmerer’s gift in the specific way I interact with my food. She says “it is human perception that makes the world a gift.” 7
So, too, does human perception make the world a commodity. Something at the grocery store is missing. It’s been stolen from all of us: human perception at the grocery store is shaped by those who make a profit turning the gift of food into a dollar amount.
This everyday bounty is a feat of modern design. In his chapter Checking Out of Supermarkets8, Raj Patel tells how the grocery store as we know it in the United States reached its modern form. It all began, he argues, with the invention of self-service in 1916. Since then, we have gained the “freedom” to choose whatever we’d like from a plethora of browseable options. Patel describes this as a false freedom. It was not invented to improve lives but rather as a way for store owners to cut costs and increase profits. Owners did this in part by taking the story away from the food on their shelves. “Through a studied manipulation of space, geography and employee communication rights, the only possible point of contact between the person eating the food and the person who grew it became the label on the tin.” 9 Nowadays, billions of dollars of market research and analysis create grocery store configuration. Shelves are shaped to to make the buyer into a particular isolated individual, picking out commodities disconnected from the Earth. Complex, controversial, and expensive fights between players in the food world10 determine precisely where on a shelf each product is placed. As Patel points out, we don’t choose what we buy freely. Rather, “consumerism today has constructed us.”11 The struggle for profit has created our choices.
Kimmerer struggles against the constraints of this false freedom in one of her essays. She journeys into a shopping mall and imagines that she is foraging, trying to take the mindset of the economy of the gift with her out of the forest. She tries to enact the gentleness, feel the gratitude, and remember the origins of the objects she shops for. When she fails, she reflects, “It’s so obvious, but I didn’t see it, so intent was I on searching for the lives behind the products. I couldn’t find them because the lives aren’t here. Everything for sale here is dead.” 12
And suddenly I see the paradox. I see an unexplained contradiction that has always been there, like a skinless deer hanging in the moonlight, tugging at my attention from the periphery.
I am eleven years old, wearing dirty shorts and a too-big t-shirt in the backseat of my mother’s minivan. We are driving south on a winding two-lane highway and I am feeling the unique childhood emotion of summer camp’s ending. For four weeks, I lived in the forest with my friends, playing and swimming and growing together. We campers helped prepare our meals, served, and washed up. We had vegetables that we picked ourselves at most meals and best of all, milk from our own cows. We held hands and sang a grace before every meal, holding a moment of silence before we ate.
The minivan pulls into a grocery store parking lot; we need lunch and snacks for the long drive home. Walking into the air-conditioned store, I feel my skin crawl and my throat close up. I don’t want the packaged cupcakes or shrink-wrapped sandwiches. I want to go back to the woods.
This childhood memory illuminates the paradox of death and bounty better than any of the books I’ve read. I’ve felt this feeling before, of trying to connect the living bounty of farm and forest with the dead bounty of the grocery store. Not-quite recognizing. Alienation. It is uncanny.
An uncanny object or experience is one that is only just different enough from reality to make a person uncomfortable. Robotics professor Masahiro Mori explores the ways humans react to strange and familiar objects by defining the uncanny valley.13 If a robot looks nothing like a human, it does not elicit any emotions. As it becomes more and more human-like, we feel an increased affinity toward the robot, finding it endearing or cute. This affinity grows until the robot becomes too similar to humans, at which point our emotions plummet negatively into the “uncanny valley.” As the robot becomes most like us, it becomes most detestable.
In another example, Mori notes that the phenomenon of the uncanny valley also occurs based on the way that something which appears human moves. The zombie, for example, looks human, but its movement is foreign and wrong; it is uncanny. At the lowest point in the valley is the most abhorrent of all: a corpse. It looks alive, it looks human, but it is neither. Our minds react in strange ways. We feel fascination, disgust, confusion.
After acclimating to true bounty, the fluorescent paths of the grocery store feel like a haunted house. All the steaks are lined up neatly. The fruit is eerie in its Stepford-style uniformity. The colorful boxes of packaged treats tap into my evolutionary coding and beckon me towards color and sugar. There are so many options, and each option is the same. Rolling my cart through the funhouse of imagined human desire, I wonder if bounty can be designed to death. I wonder what happens to our ability to give thanks when we forage in a graveyard of plenty.
Between leaving Vermont and arriving in North Carolina, I help a farmer friend slaughter her turkeys for Thanksgiving. An assembly line of friends and community members gather. We finish the long day with sore backs, tired arms, bloodied clothes, and again: more meat than we have ever seen before. Each bird passes through each of our hands, transformed step by step from alive to dead, from individual to meat. This transformation is not sudden. It doesn’t occur when the turkey’s eye closes or when its feet are removed or when the feathers are plucked or when the body is bagged and labelled. Working like this, we all hold both the living turkey and the dead turkey in our minds. Even as we settle it into a saleroom freezer, the bird is always both. Seeing the living animal in the sealed and frozen bag makes my skin crawl for a moment. And it also floods me with gratitude. It makes me want to return the gift.
Perhaps this is why it took the heart of a deer, which beat only hours earlier, laying heavy and potent on my tongue, for me to again crave a blessing with my daily meals. Perhaps this is why I saved and ate the stems of broccoli and greens of turnips all summer. Compared to these gifts, intimately connected to an infinite web of life, the grocery store’s bounty is dead. Maybe my gift in return for my full belly is the blessing of the uncanny aisle. To see that though it has been killed, it once lived. Understanding this, I might see even that neon and processed store as both alive and dead, might honor its living and its dying and perhaps someday refuse the corpse completely.
 Curious? Check out www.mountainsongexpeditions.com
 Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013.
 Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 22: “I once heard [a native teacher] introduce himself simply as ‘a boy who was raised by a river.’ A description as smooth and slippery as a river rock. Did he mean only that he grew up near its banks? Or was the river responsible for rearing him?”
 Movement Generation is an incredible organizing coalition connecting labor and environmental movements through an intersectional lens. They remind us that the word “economy” literally breaks down to “home” “management.” Find everything you need to know to live at movementgeneration.org
 Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 188.
 From Hamatreya by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Earth laughs in flowers,/to see her boastful boys/ Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;/ Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet/ Clear of the grave.” Accessed February 06, 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52341/hamatreya.
 Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 30.
 Patel, Raj. Stuffed and starved: the hidden battle for the world food system. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2012.
 Patel, Stuffed and Starved, 222.
 Edwards, Phil. “The hidden war over grocery shelf space.” Vox. November 22, 2016. Accessed February 06, 2018. https://www.vox.com/2016/11/22/13707022/grocery-store-slotting-fees-slotting-allowances.
 Patel, Stuffed and Starved, 223.
 Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 198.
 12 Jun 2012 | 11:36 GMT. “The Uncanny Valley: The Original Essay by Masahiro Mori.” IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering, and Science News. June 12, 2012. Accessed February 06, 2018. https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/the-uncanny-valley.