Fields, Named and Unnamed 🦃

Figure 1. A pair of wild turkeys crossing Turkey Slope toward the easement two-track, May 14, 2022.

A few weeks ago, a friend who guest lodges at the one room Wonder Hollow Moon House from time to time sent midday a text to A. and me mentioning that a lone chicken had found her way to the “the road by the high property.” And this eyes-up, helpful message as if on bended arrow pointed me back to a passage only a few days earlier from Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural. Berry was visiting Peruvian potato fields and attempting to describe in detail all that he saw there.

In this field, which could not have been larger than two acres, were twenty-two people, including a few children and two babies. In sight, in and around the field, there were also nine dogs, seven pigs, twelve sheep, nineteen horses, and fifteen llamas and alpacas, The name of the field was Tronco, Tree Trunk.

Nothing better reveals the long human history of the Andes and the topographical intimacy of Andean agriculture than this naming of the fields. In his book on the Vilcanota Valley, Daniel W. Gade wrote that “almost every parcel [of land], no matter how small, has a name to identify it. Property is identified by the names of the individual parcels and not by surveyor’s measurements which are in most cases non-existent. Every field…and every enclosure has a name, many of them plant names, reflecting their immediate natural environment” (20).

Once there, lingering in that frame where I leaf and find the page, stare at the words, mull them over, I began to consider again the correspondences between this named field and that named field, the importance of these locative references, ad hoc and informal as they tend to be in my own everyday life. You see, “the road by the high property” didn’t immediately click for me. Where now? I wasn’t sure what it referred to. But once we discussed it, A. and I between us sorted out that it probably meant the middle right of way, halfway up the climbing two track between Turkey Slope and the chanterelle patch. This switch from “the road by the high property” to places we knew in common, owing to our having gained an indexical handle on sharing these field names over time, helped us grasp where, exactly, the hen in question, be it Cinnabon or Tiny Honey, had wandered.

Field naming questions also happen to come up all the time in the academic discipline I consider as much of a home base as one must claim to carve out a career path. Interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity being in great if blurred fashion for the past twenty years, I continue to accept that identifying my own work with Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies, generally, holds both true and reasonably specific, tempting as it has been in some contexts to untether and float the smokier alternatives, “interdisciplinary scholar,” or “transdisciplinary nomad,” or “Sophist.” But Rhetoric and Composition/Writing Studies, even if you shorten it to RCWS, is kind of a spillway, as naming goes. The slash used to stake its hold between Rhetoric/Composition, but the double-slash is just too much algebra, especially when we pause on the question of hospitality and remember that this discipline’s name is usually paired with a sign that says, “Welcome.”

Over the years, I have encountered folks who reject the conjunction and who call the field only “Rhetoric” or only “Composition.” Are they territorialists or purists? I couldn’t say. Some would have us crumple and toss “Composition” into the dustbin of time, rending it gone, replaced instead by “Writing,” because people know what writing is. Some would have us ditch “Rhetoric,” because it is too caught up with pedicuring the carved marble feet of ancient Greek statesmen and philosophers. No matter how much thoughtful effort goes into pluralizing the tributaries, ethos, pathos, and logos roll on. Were we to entertain for a few more lines–on the controversial if minuscule (I think?) demarcations sequestering technical and professional writing, or scientific and technical communication, or business communication, and so on and so on–we can see the free-wheel spin, and each in our private moments yearn for something more like Tronco, Tree Trunk, for RCWS. On second thought, this name wrangling, even if it diminishes wide-stance footing in English Departments, gives us something to puzzle over, an old riddle about the impossibility of calling a river any name at all, since you can’t stand in the same river twice, thanks to Heraclitus.

I’ve curlicued this entry, commonplace book style, into a good enough for now stopping place. I have more to say about field naming, about Young, Becker, and Pike’s jump to particle physics and wave, particle, field–distinctions requiring a microscope–to make sense of repeating patterns. I’ve been in this field for 25 years, depending on how you want to count those early years when I was an idealistic MA student teaching composition, and so by now I might have expected to be able to say I teach and research in an academic discipline you’ve possibly not heard of, called Never Head Of It. To be continued, as such: wave, particle, whatsit; Berry’s poem “IX,” and a short yarn on underlying conditions (for fields more-so than human health).

According to Conditions 🐿️

Writing in early summer 2024 has been an exercise in patience, haloed for session after session with a feeling that the timing is not quite right, and so the ever-reliable maxim surfaces again, “Drive according to conditions.” The timing slips because I have been fine-tuning a set of documents with a deadline next week, readying for travel to Michigan for Is.’s graduation, and lingering in that waiting place for feedback on something whose revisions can only take flight thereafter, and also waiting while waiting for go-ahead (or decline) on a chapter I proposed, anticipating a May decision. My point is, rhythms are allowed to wobble; laminar wishes swirl, betrayed by entropy. And so I chip away at other things. Mow the holler before traveling. Install a fabric dust barrier and some squirrel inhibiting hardware cloth in the side shed. Pick the season’s first black raspberries. Spritz the garden with neem oil. Turn the compost. Dab the exposed pressboard edges of a countertop a bonding agent engineered for uncooperative surfaces. Check email, but not too often. (180)

A Five-question Series

The latest bulletin from The Common Table reached subscribers last Wednesday, May 29, this time announcing an article titled “Food Thinking.” The article’s premises were inviting, in that it works across a few theoretical beacons, Anna Tsing, Horst Rittel, and Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, to expand the thesis that food studies is suited to dusting off design thinking, reviving again those dimensions of design thinking that have worn thin or blinked out. You’ll find good stuff there, worthy of reading and worthy of returns, on mindsets, or questioning attitudes; with such practiced, inquisitive dispositions follows something almost ritualistic in noticing taken-for-granted interdependencies, in a feel for the organism, whether the corn plant or the baby bok choy leafing dark green hopeful from the raised beds where we planted them in mid-May. I don’t quite identify with design powerfully enough to prefer that same language (or field of specialization), but I did read in this piece something akin to a foodwise network sense, an atoll whose cartographic attempts I imagine would be delicious and intriguing at once. And this, in turn, relayed me to look around at more of The Common Table, to explore a few of the other recently published pieces beyond “Mother’s Hand Taste,” the piece on Jiwon Woo’s ever-fascinating work about son-mat, which I wrote about a few months ago and also explored in the spring semester with students who were taking Food Writing.

There is much to admire, appreciate, and learn from at The Common Table. I found especially standout the series “On Food and Education,” which follows the pattern of five-question interviews. The five questions invite responses from a host of respondents, and each is featured in elegant, readable posts, organized with the questions as the governing structure. The five questions are

  • How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline or tool to someone who might think that means just cookery lessons?
  • What are you doing/have you done to change understanding related to food?
  • Who are you trying to reach and teach and why?
  • Where would you like to take your work in this field; what are your goals?
  • What is the big-picture perspective in terms of the future of food education and where is it coming from?

The repeating pattern causes me to find the series more inviting as a series; there is so much good stuff here. It got me thinking, too, and again, about the substitutive interplays with food, writing, and visuality, about how this interviewing format, because it is simple and consistent, coheres multiple responses and fashions them into a genre unto itself. Semi-structured, multi-phase interviews have, as I conceive of them, ascended as the interview method that has the best chance of summoning in-depth perspectives, yet these strictly structured, one-phase interviews, like we find in The Common Table‘s series, offer just as much for the researching writer’s repertoire. I suspect that part of what explains my quiet, unchecked bias in favor of semi-structured interviews is that academic publications rarely publish in plain view the uncut and unfiltered responses from interviewees. This is a meandering way of expressing my own realization that the value of the strictly structured interviews has been skewed by wading too deep for too long in academically styled prose. What would a five-question series on writing be? Or visuality? What would the questions be? Who would be the interviewees?

So many pieces in the five-question series prompt new ideas and invite thoughtful responses, such that it is hard to choose one as a paragon, though I suppose “On Food and Education: Marije Vogelzang” rises to the top because I have already bookmarked it for a future section of Food Writing. Her response to the first question strikes connection with our lesson on apple and orange mindfulness, the day when, with Thich Nhat Hanh’s guidance, we linger, slowing down with a piece of fruit to listen for the crunch or to test edges as we pull a Mandarin orange apart, segment by segment. Vogelzang’s lists are rangy and uncanny, playful but not self-consciously so. I love this as a model for the inventional copia generated from something simple, ordinary, everyday. That this piece strikes in so many directions—and all from the repeating five-questions—is why I am holding onto it, tagging it for returns in my teaching, my writing, and my glimpsing thoughts for what would one day be a striking feature in a rhet/comp journal, perhaps.

Feta

Feta, the Scandinavian Elkhound.

We’d been watching the Montgomery County Animal Control website for a few days, figuring right now to be as good as any time could be for taking the leash on a new pet, a guardian of the chickens who would not succumb to predator instinct nor terrorize the cat, Z. I dragged my feet on an impulse-trip to the shelter on Friday, but on Saturday, sure, why not?, and so we drove across town. We’d seen the profile of a Great Pyrenees who was by breed and age and temperament a promising prospect. The shelter also happened to be hosting an event called Purricane, what I understand to be a kitten season adoption and fundraising extravaganza made even funner-sounding by blending ‘purr’ and ‘hurricane.’ We witnessed it not as so much storm-like but as heavily trafficked with kitty oglers such that were it up to me, I might have gone with Catectacle. Catectacle drew a magnificent crowd.

The foot traffic boded poorly for really meeting a prospective foster dog. The shelter hallways were golldamn, devil, bustling, and most of the dogs mirrored the energy, which was filled with possibility, nerves, anxiety, and barks of all sorts. We met the Great Pyrenees, and then as A. was lingering with her, I walked a round to have a look adjacent, like we did back in the olden days when libraries had books on shelves and we browsed by looking not only for the focal book but also looking around at its near neighbors. As I did, I spotted a dog who quietly and smartly seemed to be telepathizing something like ‘I’m the one.’ A Norwegian Elkhound, she presented as sagely and warm and hearty, like she remembered her great-grandmothers were Scandinavian wolves and that this shelter scene was only temporary. Her self-control under the duress of the raucous shelter ambience suggested a different kind of interiority; I want to be careful here because it’s not as if I am some kind of dog whisperer, but I had a feeling just by pausing with her, looking at each other, that there was more to her than was common. A good feeling, an I-could-get-along-with-this-dog feeling. I was surprised when I went back to A. and said there was another dog here worth of a look that she said she’d already sent a photo of this Elkhound to her mom because it reminded her of her childhood dog, Pepper, who also happened to be a Norwegian Elkhound. A. was thinking that I was hard-set on a Great Pyrenees, but since I wasn’t, the Pyrenees-adjacent, serendipitously glimpsed dog elicited even more interest from us.

Saturday’s click meant Sunday included housewarming and yardwarming efforts: complete the foster-to-adopt form on their website, order and assemble an outdoor pen, and revisit the process that would allow us to have a trial period before committing, as aggression toward Z. or the chickens would be a deal-breaker. The form asked for a list of childhood pets: Cookie, Brandy, Peppy, Sheba, Jake, Kelly, Mushroom, Fang, Pigeon, Max, Tony, Cujo. Not all of these were dogs; Kelly and Mushroom were cats, and Cujo was a guinea pig. But mostly, in those years, dogs were the pet of choice.

We’d been lightly considering for several months a tandem, two dogs, one named Salty and the other Cousin, but fostering two dogs at once was, as the real and pragmatic conditions came into view, just too complicated. With everything else lining up as it did, we were green lighted to pick up the Norwegian Elkhound and bring her home on Monday afternoon. The folks at the shelter had given her the temporary name, Snigglefritz. And we talked some about the decision either to go ahead with calling her Cousin, or, instead, to spend some time with her and for us to come up with other possibilities later. By Monday night, we were thinking either Saga or Feta, both being two syllables with a hard second consonant that would not sound too much with the names of Z. or the chickens. Is. confirmed by text that Feta was a good choice, and so that’s it.

Feta commonly refers to a simple, crumbled, brine-based cheese. Languages being many, in Norwegian, which I don’t know about you but I can plausibly suppose a Norwegian Elkhound more or less comprehends, the word ‘feta’ translates to ‘fat’ in English. Given the troubling ways this pejorative association tracks, we can instead say she is a Scandinavian Elkhound, generally Nordic, possibly Icelandic. But then there is the similar phrase, “fytti faen,” which a lookup tells me is Norwegian for a milder version of “fucking hell,” translated roughly as “golldamn, devil.” Should I be worried about this secondary connotation? No. It’s just enough to not want to shed the Norwegian valences altogether.

We’ll continue for another week in the maybe phase, but after a day it has already become a maybeprobably phase and by tomorrow could be a Feta is where she belongs stage. She’s an astonishingly kind, patient, subdued canine, a creek wolf with Diogenesian quirks who wades in until the water is almost touching her belly, then sits, solving for just-right depth. And golldamn, devil, does she shed. A lot. Guess it’s a seasonal thing, winter coat loosing its blankethold. Creek currents willing, I’ll introduce Feta as friend and flock protector, and, in time, I suspect, as much more.

A Norwegian Elkhound (named Feta) wades in a small creek.
Feta wading in the creek.

Both Are Main

I finished reading Michiko Aoyama’s What You Are Looking For Is In the Library (2020) a couple of weeks ago, just as we in SW Virginia were crossing over into regreening season. The book was a rewarding digression at the end of an otherwise steeply-stepped semester, steep due in part to a heavy reading load for an awards committee I agreed to serve on, and due in part to the added-on role of interim PhD program director, a ‘yes’ whose reassigned time pays forward in Fall 2024. Structurally, What You Are…Library is a lightly interstitched episodic, with each of the chapters following a character from their life’s path maze to a local library where an aloof but intuitive librarian abides serendipity as a finding aid for recommending books. The recommendations are usually a combination of the patron’s at-directed line of inquiry and the around-explored one-off, which, in each case, turns out to deliver greater meaning than expected. WYALFIITL was an enjoyable read, and I appreciated especially the hodology of it, in that it is a pathfinding book whose characters are on mundane journey’s, negotiating the small uncertainties that come with career paths and life’s choices. She also felts small gifts, handing them off as pin-crafted tokens; each of these elicits added meaning, as the wayfinding plays out.


I don’t have an immediate, obvious connection in mind bridging this passage to anything I am working on, but in this excerpt, Aoyama captures the interwined character—for plants—of the aboveground and belowground. I was reminded of it while at Compost Fest a couple of weeks ago. While on the native plants tour, the guide said something like, “Trees are people, too.” It wasn’t such an outlandish or unexpected humanistic refrain, and yet with this passage from Aoyama in mind, we have what we need to fathom trees as more-than-human:

The third chapter is entitled “Below the Ground,” with subsections such as How do worms work? Where do roots grow? How much of a plant is in its roots? I find this chapter deeply fascinating. As I gaze at an illustration of a tree and its root system, with the earth the dividing line between what is above and what lies below, I am struck by a thought: most of the time we humans only look at the flowers or fruit of a plant, because we live aboveground. We switch our attention to belowground only when the roots have a particular interest for us, as in the case of sweet potatoes or carrots. Yet from a plant’s perspective, aboveground and belowground are equally important and in perfect balance.

Humans only see what suits them most, and make that their main focus, but for plants…

Both are main.

Michiko Aoyama, What You Are Looking For Is In the Library (2020), p. 95-96

Bill, Another Time

“It is as if life were just a dream placed in the window to cool, like a pie, then stolen” (13).

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, Lorrie Moore

Although I can’t believe it and the words don’t come readily, I thought I should try to peck a few lines on the sudden, tragic loss this week of Bill Hart-Davidson, a great and giving friend and colleague and mentor to countless people, and to me. He died on Monday, unexpectedly, due to a cardiac event while out for a springtime run.

Throughout the week I’ve read and deeply appreciated the memories others have recounted on social media (mostly FB), accounts repeating in the sense that nearly every one of them underscores Bill’s kindness and generosity. These qualities with Bill seemed predispositional, baked in, more settled than even a first principle, call it an ur principle, or a fiber of being. He was kind, generous. To me this meant that he always treated me better than I expected, or deserved, to be treated; he listened for and understood better than I could, the filaments of my ideas. This in turn sourced his encouragement; it felt almost like he could, by listening as he did, describe your meandering, nascent ideas back to you more lucidly than they had existed before. Almost a superpower in academia, we could call this regenerative listening, to take another’s criss-crossed wayfinding and to plant a few low-key pathway lights.

After I learned on Tuesday about the unfathomable lightning strike of Bill’s untimely death, I heard myself describing him to a few people who I see most days and who could tell I was carrying on, academia-in-April-style, with a sharp and heavy pain: he lifted others by the hundreds, juggled fire and more, threw disc golf with the love of his life in their magical backyard, ran and biked and yet never appeared tired, played bass, never missed an EWM tournament pick ’em, and associate-deaned so wholeheartedly and with rare optimism that we were all better for it.

I don’t remember meeting Bill before 2009, but he was then and there in that moment, my first semester at EMU, what was a short drive down I-96 from MSU, a fast friend, thoughtful and engaging and abundantly convivial. In truth, he was more the longtime friend of Steve K. and Steve B., two of my new-at-the-time EMU colleagues. They would golf, for example, and oftentimes invite me, but I wouldn’t go, golf not really appealing to me. But this hospitality extended to so many other occasions: a lunch meeting at MSU that spring (of 2010) to talk with Malea Powell about whether NCTE could be persuaded to preserve the infrastructure (or at least the data) from CCC Online Archive, or New Year’s Eves at The Compound throughout the 2010s when I could tag along and enjoy seeing again so many of the MSU WRAC crew. There was a time when, at EMU, I was hailed from across the parking lot as Steve (which Steve, nobody could say), and this was a low key running joke Bill and I shared, how to be friends with the Steves while not surrendering overmuch to Stevenesses.

In April 2011, I flew on Spirit Airlines to the Atlanta CCCC. I stayed only a couple of nights, crowding into a roomshare with Bill and Steve K., claiming the rollout couch, and making the most of the conference on a spare budget. The trip back to Michigan was by car, twelve hours along I-75, with a stop-off in Lexington, Ky., to visit with Jim. On that drive, we came up with plans for what would be the first of several WIDE-EMU conferences, a local, free, one-day conference on a football-free Saturday in late September or early October, hosting first at EMU, then alternating, MSU, EMU, MSU, EMU. Bill taught me the value of these affordable, accessible structures of participation, about how articulating them made them so, about how they sewed connections, rapport, goodwill, and senses of belonging to something bigger than only local programs and institutions in isolation could offer. Proof of concept was among Bill’s maxims, and WIDE-EMU proved again and again the richness of low cost sociality for the field.

When I took to the mid-career job market in 2017-2018, Bill had just blurbed Network Sense, a continuation of the ways he’d steadfastly encouraged that work over the years, and I asked if he would be willing to write a letter on my behalf, which he did. Later, when I was sitting with a difficult decision–one of the most difficult decisions of my life in that it would require me to move 500 miles away from Is., who was then in middle school, he was there, available to talk on the phone, to weigh pros and cons, and to think across those sometimes hard to follow dotted lines from minutiae to the biggest of big pictures and back again. He was more generous with me than I deserved or could ever repay. And I always felt like had I asked for more–of his time, of his perspective, of his guidance–he’d have given it. Is there any purer form of friendly mentorship, or uplift than this?

Recently Is., who is now a high school senior, committed to MSU and so will be in East Lansing this fall, dormitory living, a first-year student, middle of the mitten verdant as only a new Spartan can be. All those years ago, I grew up an hour north of Lansing, and with a wish for return, also because I don’t mind at all the long cold gray winters, I’d given my best attempts over the years to find and follow a path along the Red Cedar River, first as a PhD applicant, then as a professorial one, kindly and gently declined in each case. In addition to witnessing Is.’s beaming green about the years ahead, among the things I most looked forward to about her being at MSU was reconnecting with Bill, catching up with him for a beer or over lunch, talking, listening, being excited about ideas, feeling smarter than before; I’d been so looking forward to this as the best-of East Lansing, taking some reassurance in knowing that Bill’s friendly, timeless wisdom was nearby.

I know I am not alone with the magnitudes of upheaval felt across the past several days. And through that jarring sadness, especially for those who loved him most, for his closest colleagues, friends, and former students, especially for the Steves, especially for L. and L., all of whom deserved more time1I remember a time, probably at the #beerrhetorics gathering following one of the WIDE-EMUs, when someone asked Bill whether he was working on a book, and his wry response was that he was, that it was for the time being called Otra Vez, a phrase that was especially flexible for sometimes meaning ‘another time,’ sometimes meaning ‘again,’ sometimes meaning ‘anew.’, in Bill’s memory and honor, I wish for clearings mapped in soft hewn outlines to allow for the fitfulness of grief, and for remembering well and again every, every of the best parts.

Notes

  • 1
    I remember a time, probably at the #beerrhetorics gathering following one of the WIDE-EMUs, when someone asked Bill whether he was working on a book, and his wry response was that he was, that it was for the time being called Otra Vez, a phrase that was especially flexible for sometimes meaning ‘another time,’ sometimes meaning ‘again,’ sometimes meaning ‘anew.’

AIlingualism

By omitting a space and setting it in a san serif font, AIlingualism piles on ambiguities. On page or screen, it might tempt you to see all lingualism, the heteroglossiac babelsong, much like Adriano Celentano’s Prisencolinensinainciusol might tempt you to hear Anglophone snippets in what is stylized nonsense. “AIlingualism” sounds like eye-lingualism, I suppose, or the act of entongued seeing, which without going into the subtleties of synesthesia might be as simple as tracing tooth-shape, fishing for an offshed hair from a bite of egg salad, or checking the odontal in-betweens for temporarily trapped foodstuff. Hull from a popcorn kernel? When did I have popcorn? A similar phenomenon would be something like “retronasal olfaction,” which Michael Pollan describes in Cooked, as the crossover between senses, the role of olfactory processing within experiences of taste, or where smell and taste commingle and coinform.

Yet I mean something altogether different with AIlingualism. Used to be the over-assisted writing revealed itself owing to too many thesaurus look-ups. You’ve betrayed a faithful expressive act because we could almost hear Peter Roget himself whispering through your words. But thesaurus overuse is a lesser crime than the wholesale substitutive “assists” that walk us nearer and nearer to overt plagiarism: patchwriting, ghost writing, essay milling, unattributed quotation, and so on. An assist from a thesaurus was usually keyed to a smaller unit of discourse, which in turn amounted to petty ventriloquism. But as the discursive magnitude increases, so too does the feeling that the utterance betrays the spirit of humanistic communication, that fleshly-terrestrial milieu where language seats, swirls, and percolates, elemental and embodied. I think this is close to what Roland Barthes characterizes as the “pact of speech” (20) in “To Write: An Intransitive Verb” (1970) from The Rustle of Language (1989).

AIlingualism creates phrasal strings from a vast reservoir of language, not the ‘Grand Vat’ but in the vaguest of terms, a large language model, or LLM, whose largesse blooms on the shoulders of other people’s language–papers, books, discussion boards, social media chatter, and utterances in whatever additional ways collected and compiled. Not that utterances have shoulders. But they do, at their genesis, stem from beings in contexts, and although the writing itself is a technology that rebodies utterances, LLMs as an extractable reserve and pseudo-sense-making melange yet further extend that rebodiment. To invent with the assistance of artificial intelligence is to compose in a way uniquely hybridized and synthetic. Language games, in this case, work by different but non-obvious rules. AIlinguals, or users of LLMs to write, suspend the pact and engage in pactless speech.

It isn’t so much the case that pactless speech of this machine-assisted sort is destined to be disappointing, underwhelming, detached from terrestrial contexts, or otherwise experientially vapid. I can’t say I am in a hurry to devote any time to reading AI writing, other than comes with the shallowest of headlines glancing. And now that we’re solidly a year and a half into this “summer” (or buzzy hot streak) of AI, it continues to hold true that most everyday people are still puzzling over what, exactly, is assisting when a writer enlists the assistance of AI. AI is as often as not fumbling along with poor customer service chat help, with returning Amazon orders, and with perfunctory Web MD advice (“Have you tried sipping chamomile tea for your sore throat, Derek?”). It is helping to offer safe-playing might-rain-but-might-not weather forecasts. Looks up; no rain. And in this sense, it still functions, albeit within my admittedly small and mostly rural lifeworld, innocuously.

In a section called “5. Creatures as Machines,” Wendell Berry puzzles out a series of questions that, though they appeared in Life Is A Miracle, which was published in 2000, might just as well have been about ChatGPT:

Is there such a thing as a mind which is merely a brain which is a machine? Would one have a mind if one had no body, or no body except for a brain (whether or not it is a machine)–if one had no sense organs, no hands, no ability to move or speak, no sensory pains or pleasures, no appetites, no bodily needs? If we grant (for the sake of argument) that such may be theoretically possible, we must concede at the same time it is not imaginable, and for the most literal of reasons: Such a mind could contain no image. (47)

Such a mind could contain no image. AIlingualism propagates pactless speech; its intelligence can generate but not contain an image. Its memory is contrived (or dependent upon contrivance), not organic, fleshly, or pulsed neurologically. This is the greatest and gravest indicator of all: still, it better than holds on. AI is ascendant, picking up steam. What can this mirror about the world we’ve built, grinding along with its paradoxically gainful backsliding, AIlingual utterances–today–amounting to no more and no less than the throat clearings, ahem ahem, of commercial science and militarism. Of all the possible energias to put to language, to sacrifice our tongues to, these? Ahem ahem ahem.

May Contain Additives

“The abstractions of science are too readily assimilable to the abstractions of industry and commerce, which see everything as interchangeable with or replaceable by something else” (41).

Life is a Miracle (2000), Wendell Berry
Image by Hans from Pixabay

Strangely, since questions surfaced and circulated about chlormequat chloride in oats (and in, increasingly, in the bodies of people who have eaten those oats) a couple of weeks ago, it hasn’t been easy to find, much less to follow, that story’s diffusion. The Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology published the Temkin et al. article in February, and then USA Today‘s Mary Walrath-Holdridge authored and published a piece soon thereafter, “Study finds chlormequat in Cheerios and Quaker products: What to know about the pesticide.” When I mentioned in ENGL2014: Food Writing last week that I do still eat oatmeal most days for breakfast, only that I now take each spoonful with my fingers crossed, several new questions arose: What even is chlormequat? What effect is it having on mice? Why are we only just learning about this now? Is chlormequat chloride used on all oats? Just the cheap stuff? Just the stuff not otherwise labeled organic? I didn’t have many sure answers, but I said I would look into it and report back. So this is some of that; that, this. A writing teacher’s porridge, unsweetened.

Chlormequat chloride is a “growth regulator,” and something of a stalk straightening agent, as I understand it. An applied chemical, chlormequat chloride guides the oat plant (avena sativa) to an ideal form: vertical stalk, perpendicular to the earthen plane; no slouching; optimum height. The 2024 Temkin et al. article found that chlormequat chloride showed up in the urine samples taken from 77 out of 96 people (83%). Evidently, we don’t know a whole lot about the effects of chlormequat chloride on humans, but we can with a little bit of plausible extrapolation pause with concern for the what we do know about the animal studies in which chlormequat chloride does observable harm.

So while I tell myself I am eating delicious, nutritious oatmeal, I am probably eating something more like oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or oatmeal+a pretty good chance of chlormequat chloride. I make the cross-my-fingers joke as a way to cope with these unavoidable and late-discovered, later admitted additives; it’s not like we can confirm the presence of chlormequat chloride visually, much less pick it out. Still, we must eat.

Oatmeal+chlormequat chloride, or how about we call it CC oatmeal, is merely another in a continuous stream of announcements about additives. Earlier this spring there was the cinnamon+lead recall, which I remember hearing about and wondering, how does something like that sidewind beneath notice such that we only learn about it when preschoolers begin exhibiting lead ingestion symptoms after snack. This week, Lunchables, a popular Kraft Heinz snack pack, have been in the headlines again, as Consumer Reports announced that these convenient miniature meal kits contain nearly the maximum allowable daily limits for sodium, lead, and cadmium–and this comes within a year of Lunchables ascending to the status of a bona fide lunch unto itself in the eyes of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines.

These formulations–oatmeal+chlormequat, MTCI cinnamon+lead, and Lunchables+cadmium–are biochemical realities. The cinnamon was recalled. But the Quaker Oats and Kraft Heinz Lunchables examples elicited the predictable corporate hedges along the lines of “our products are wholesome, verified to be safe and entirely obliging of all FDA standards.” It’s a well worn path and a familiar refrain, and rather than make this about corporate (ir)responsibility, I have been thinking about it in terms of how it figures into food anxiety, insinuating doubt and causing everyday consumption habits to punctuate, as an underscore would, with uncertainty. How much should we worry about this?, was another question I heard not long ago. I don’t know. The ‘this,’ is it really only CC oatmeal for today’s breakfast? Tomorrow’s? I simultaneously understand ‘this’ as also much bigger, about food processing and industrialization, a dying planet, a broken world. I really don’t know. And can only come up with maybe we learn to grow oats again. Maybe we track down some brown sugar and a dash of fuckitol. Maybe we continue to cross our fingers.

Friendly Silence

A Meal at Google
When I visited Google, I shared a silent meal with some of the people who work there. Afterward, they wrote to me and said, “Never before in that cafeteria have I had a meal that wonderful. I was so happy. I felt so peaceful. Nobody said anything in that whole room full of people. Everybody was quiet from the beginning to the end of the meal. In the history of Google, that’s the first such meal we’ve ever had.” (55)

Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat (2014)

I understood by mid-January that the Spring 2024 semester was probably going to rise tempestuous and run roughshod over the time I had been devoting to more regular reading and writing rhythms. It wouldn’t quite be right to say that the reading and writing went altogether dormant; it just shifted, as it is prone to doing, to other things. Even as I had a mid-January deadline for a chapter and as I was tuning plans for the classes I would teach (one a first run, the other a second run), I said “yes” to reading for a book award committee, and “maybe-could” (interpreted as yes!) to another reading-heavy committee. Both sets of reading have lit up the mix board, so to speak. It still feels good to read and read widely, to experience that silent symphony of serendipitous this paired with serendipitous that. Clicks of comprehension are oftentimes almost clicks of invention.

Yet, piled up, deadline-driven reading blankets a semester with an even deeper entrainment. Entrainment, Jenni Odell explains in Saving Time, names the exteriority of temporal regulators in a life. Too much entrainment, though, begins to feel like all of one’s time is planned for you; and so we become busy-busy, and morning noon and night governed. Asynchronous communications, such as text messaging and email, can (and oftener and oftener do, in my experience) function as entrainment reservoirs, brimmed with extras to fill in so the endo-calendar is always chock full. Administering writing programs for a decade braced me for treading again into the brittle psychosphere, a not infrequently brainfogged arena machinated by entrainments which are backed up by reserve entrainments, as when I said yes to the committees, and as when I agreed to be interim director of the PhD program.

Yet, I did say yes. Was not coerced. And I had a pretty good idea of what was ahead. The known trade-off in this is a kind of self-regulated, inevitable quietude in other areas, for example, like having less of a say here, engaging only intermittently on Facebook or Instagram, responding more slowly to texts about social engagements, drawing less, and quietly waiting for sweet flashes of downtime to consider again saying yes to anything more. Another way to approach this would be to underscore that these rebalancings of time amount to sourcing one’s own equanimity; it does little good for me or anyone in my everyday orbit to witness any apparent suffering brought on by a set of circumstances I clear-headedly agreed to.

Now that it’s April and my song is getting thin, I am taking some relief in knowing that these committees are wrapping up, and my interim term lasts only for another month or so. The last day of classes is April 30. And the reading, piled so richly high and smartly wide ranging as it is, has given me a lot to think about, including a more refined sense of possibilities for a class I am due to teach in fall.

Under the quiet, busy din of the semester, though, I have begun to understand the trade-offs in one sphere of activity dialing up, while another sphere of activity dials down, and how, throughout these adjustments–both self-set but also heavily entrained–I am perceiving the silences, lags, intervals of evident inactivity as friendly silence. A decade ago, I would have instead felt some low-level stress marked by tidal entrainment. Friendly silence (and its corollaries in composure and patience) clocks a lesson slow learned.

Whirligig Oubliette – Tournament Pick’em Invitation ?

It’s March again. For the 20th year in a row, March means it is time to squander 30 minutes daydreaming about NCAA men’s basketball tournament glory by participating in the Earth Wide Moth Tournament Pick’em, Whirligig Oubliette, such a delightful torture as it is. So little has changed: we’re still using Fibonacci scoring with points increasing round by round (2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21). You’ll also receive bonus points for upset picks (+1 point for upsets in the first round; +2 for upset picks thereafter). 

Everyone is welcome to join, so pass along the invitation. You still have a few days, but time is running out for getting your pets to eat treats that will alleviate decision fatigue, or finding a friend in western Kansas who can talk you out of rooting for the Big Sky champion. What even are athletic conferences anymore?! 

So, sign up! It’s free to join this year’s group on Yahoo!, Whirligig Oubliette (ID#35970). If you have questions, you can reach me via email at dereknmueller at gmail.com. Invite your friends, deep fakers, frenemies, faux-frenemies, Great Lakes ystäväs, mud daubers, crows and crow feeders, dumptruck drivers, electricians who fix broken switches on short notice, flyers of homemade kites, people who convert VHS videos to digital formats for a living, banjo strummers, night sky oglers, Bluetooth dentists, orderers of fancy cupcakes for classes, youth baseball coaches, corn chip finishers, etc. The group has space for the next 49 who sign up. Egoless, impermanent stakes: reputations are made (and quickly forgotten) right here.

Yahoo! Tournament Pick’em
Group: Whirligig Oubliette (ID# 35970)
“20th annual.”

Firm up your selections any time between the selection show on Sunday evening, March 17, and first tip of the round of 64, sometime around noon EDT on Most People’s Birthday, Thursday, March 21. ”

Updated: Congratulations to Patrick, who won by a suspiciously wide margin. On the bright side, Duke lost somewhere along the way. Be well and suffer not, friends, until next March when we do this again. -Derek