Robin Wall Kimmerer’s ability to combine the scientific view of nature with a holistic interpretation [“Two Ways of Knowing,” interview by Leath Tonino, April 2016] was a tonic for my heart and mind.
Robin Wall Kimmerer provided an excellent analysis of our current state of environmental affairs. It’s not only Native Americans who have been colonized by the arrogance of science — we all have. Small farmers have been pushed off the land because their ways of living, like the Native Americans’, were deemed incompatible with the notion of “progress” and a proper education. The Amish have, like some indigenous folks around the world, more or less escaped being colonized by our modern consumerist ethic, in part because they have resisted being forced into our materialistic education system. They run their own schools and live lives that in many ways follow a standard articulated by Kimmerer.
Your April 2016 issue was the first I’ve ever read, and I really connected with Robin Wall Kimmerer’s thoughts on the effects of language on human perception of the nonhuman world. I remember my second-grade teacher’s bright red X over “who” in my story about a rescued cat, with “that” written in its place. She explained that animals, lacking souls, were “it” or “that”; only people, who had souls, could be a “who.” (No, it was not a religious school — just a 1950s public school in the South.)
For decades thereafter I rebelled against this way of speaking, even after I began publishing research papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The first time I sneaked “the calves who” into a scientific journal without it being edited out was a greater triumph than getting the paper accepted.
I love Brian Doyle for his wistful wisdom and wishful thinking in “The Sudden City” [April 2016], where he talks about how peaceably everyone behaved at Woodstock and sees that as a possibility for humanity as a whole. I remember Woodstock, too, but not as Doyle’s sister did. We were a boozy bunch of narcissists out for a constant high. The concert was merely a fine excuse. Greedy, toxic self-centeredness was our defining characteristic.
Peace seems unlikely given how rarely we manage to be kind to one another, but, like Doyle, I’m still hopeful.
Reading Heather Sellers’s essay “Unlocked” [April 2016], I was saddened by the depth of her childhood horrors. And as an educator, I was disappointed by the dismissive response of her school to what she was clearly experiencing. Or maybe it wasn’t so clear. We teachers see hundreds of students a day and frequently know little or nothing of their home lives. A child may successfully hide pain and suffering for years, as Sellers did. It’s my job to help children thrive, but that’s much harder if I don’t know what is going on at home. Sellers’s essay is a reminder for me to pay closer attention and connect with not just the child but the family, too.
I enjoyed Poe Ballantine’s account of his two-day wait at the Omaha, Nebraska, bus station [“No Longer on the Map,” March 2016]. Bus stations are depressing places even when you’re not already depressed, as he was. I’m always relieved when Ballantine’s down-and-out stories end with him digging himself out of despair and carrying on.
I once stopped for breakfast in Chadron, Nebraska, where Ballantine lives, on a rainy summer morning. Imagining the remote possibility of running into the author, I wondered what I would say to him. “I appreciate your work” seemed right. “Thank you for being you.”
I had to read Debbie Urbanski’s short story “The Portal” [March 2016] twice. With its fantasy world and multiple timelines, I found myself lost at first. But then I became immersed. As the boundaries between the dual narratives grew more fluid, I saw my experiences and thoughts reflected on the page. The fractured relationships of the couples in the story could have been modeled on my own marriage. I have thought — but never said — the narrator’s husband’s exact words: “Would it be the worst thing to want me?” I have even wondered if there is another world that my wife, like the narrator in the story, inhabits. I fear I won’t ever know.
Urbanski’s revealing, thoughtful piece reminded me of a quote from novelist Willa Cather: “The heart of another is a dark forest, always, no matter how close it has been to one’s own.”
I am stunned after reading Genevieve Thurtle’s account of the loss of her little Olivia [“Twenty-Three Weeks,” February 2016]. Our family is still reeling from the loss of a baby my niece delivered under similar circumstances at twenty-two weeks. Thanks to the author for putting this immensely sad experience into words.
The February 2016 issue illustrated for me just how much parenting has changed in the past fifty years. I must have been about twelve when my father bought a Model A Ford that was being used as a chicken coop. It was rusty, the engine was nonfunctional, and the floorboards had long since rotted away. My dad tied it to the rear bumper of his car and told me to climb in the Model A’s driver’s seat. My job was to steer it more or less in a straight line and step on the brakes when I saw the brake lights on my dad’s car. We traveled slowly on unpaved back roads. I bounced up and down on the hard bench seat in a cloud of dust and chicken feathers while the gravel road streamed by under my feet where the floorboards should have been.
A parent who did something like that now would probably be charged with child endangerment, but this was a rural area in the early 1960s. Kids my age routinely drove tractors and other farm vehicles. I wasn’t scared or traumatized.
My parents were concerned for my safety. My father would not have put me in that car if he thought it was too dangerous. He built my confidence by trusting me to do a grown-up job.
Janice Lynch Schuster’s interview with Raymond Barfield [“The Miracle in Front of You,” January 2016] was both uplifting and frustrating. His efforts to make the American medical-industrial complex more compassionate are encouraging, but he dances around one important issue that is central to the problem: that all U.S. citizens have a right to high-quality, affordable healthcare, but our current system falls far short of delivering it. Barfield touches on this but doesn’t close the deal: “These days risk managers and hospital administrators are at the top of the hierarchy, and physicians are becoming more and more a means of avoiding lawsuits and making money.”
Our profit-driven economy works well for delivering automobiles and toilet paper to the marketplace, but it’s failing to provide accessible and affordable healthcare for all. Barfield’s vision for a more humane system can be achieved only if we focus more on the patient and less on his or her wallet.
Raymond Barfield initially came across as someone with a bit of a God complex (not uncommon among doctors), but my perspective changed as I continued to read. It’s good to hear a doctor talk about the value of listening to all voices — patient, doctor, family, hospital staff — when making medical decisions.
Reading Gillian Kendall’s interview on abortion with Katha Pollitt [“It’s Her Choice,” December 2015], I thought, What bravery The Sun continues to display with its controversial choices. It’s more than just a magazine; it is a living, breathing organism. We readers are richer for being tested by it intellectually, morally, and spiritually.
Rose Whitmore’s essay “Swarm” [December 2015] resonated with me. I lost my father when an elderly neighbor struck him with his car. The first days were a blur of busyness and caring for my mother. Then grief settled over me, and it was all I could do to continue to run my law firm.
Life goes on, but grief has a way of slowing us down. I started finding feathers and filled a shoe box with different types. Like Whitmore, who believed the bees had come for her, I think the feathers came for me.
I have kept bees for more than five decades and understand Rose Whitmore’s fascination with the whirling vortex of winged insects in flight. Even to the seasoned beekeeper a swarm is an awesome sight — and a frightening one, I’m sure, to those unfamiliar with honeybees. Whitmore’s essay about the loss of a parent reminded me of a connection I formed with a fellow beekeeper.
My neighbor, whose seven colonies of bees were visible from my apartment window, was old enough to be my grandfather. One afternoon a swarm left one of his hives and swirled over my apartment. I followed it down the street, where it disappeared into a hole in the side of a house. I told the beekeeper, and thus began a relationship that lasted nearly ten years.
My friend eventually began to need help lifting the bee boxes and managing the bees’ seasonal care, and I assisted him whenever I could, especially after he was hospitalized and bedridden. It is part of beekeeping lore that when a beekeeper passes, the bees sense their keeper’s demise and fly away. Superstition or not, the day after my friend passed, a swarm issued from his backyard and left for parts unknown.