Image Credit: James Cochran
Monday morning we were up at the big rock we call Everest, with all the girl dolls, gathering.
My older daughter, Elsie, was explaining why her dolls build their houses by hand. “They’re hunter-gatherers. I don’t want them to see backhoes; I want them to grow up and start their own tribe.” Backhoes, she added, might scare the dolls.
There are a dozen dolls in Elsie’s tribe—actually, eight dolls and four animals. Most are factory-made, which reminds me of how my brother, as a kid, asked my mother where his stuffed rabbit came from and when she said “Probably a factory,” he named the rabbit Factory. One of my daughter’s dolls, though, was sewn by a friend. All but one were gifts to our family.
The world is very full of factory-made gifts, pieces of factory-made gold ribbon that may be repurposed as dolls’ belts, and cheap factory-made baskets that dolls can use to gather wild edible plants.
Elsie made the doll Lucy eat stickweed flowers. Grace ate a hickory nut. Duck harvested some wild onion using what Elsie called a pewter spoon. The boy dolls, meanwhile, were down the hill hunting with spears made of colored pencils, and at some point when we weren’t looking, Bitta the bear killed a squirrel.
As Elsie, age 6, and Rosa, 3, played the hunter-gatherer game, I sat on the rock and took a big spiralbound sketchbook out of my backpack. While I drew a redbud pod and a sprig of chickweed, Rosa came over and drew some thorns on the lower part of the page. I was glad—this was exactly what I’d imagined when I bought the oversized book, that it could be on my lap and accommodate two or three of us drawing at the same time. And that we could be creating, together, a document of what we do all day.
Elsie was gathering small bits of plant matter, a different plant on behalf of each doll. She gathered from what was all around us, the familiar elements of our seven acres. Invasive privet. Stickweed, greenbrier, wineberry, grapevine, young poplar and cedar trees, older walnut and hickory, some oaks, the occasional pine. Deer trails, deer poop, squirrel nests, walnuts smashed open on the big rock by squirrels who ate the meat and left the dark shells to stain Everest in the rain.
We live here and we don’t. I’ve learned about most of the plants I just listed from dwelling on this property, but there’s still so much I don’t understand—where the deer actually sleep, or how to find turtles, or what this place looked like a generation ago (very different, I’m told). I drop in and out of literacy. I don’t need to know much or any of this information.
As I said, this was Monday morning. February 20, a weekday in what is officially Elsie’s first-grade year; she’s a homeschooler, and we don’t use a curriculum. We let things unfold.
The day was warm, the kind of eerily balmy weather that elicits kneejerk comments about climate change. Some people are grimly unnerved by the warm days and others just shrug and try to enjoy the sun. The girls asked to take off their coats, then shoes, then shirts. They peed on the leaves.
Why are they asking me if they can take off their shoes? I thought. Have I been too controlling about shoes? I had time to sit there and wonder; I looked at what I’d drawn, I felt the sun on my back.
Bunny collected redbud bark. Alice ate “wormwood.”
When I’m with my kids, there’s an almost continual internal process of questioning and adjustment that goes on in my head. How should I respond to what she just said? Do they want my input now? Are we using our time well? These days, as they become more independent and ask for less engagement from me, I find myself with little ponds of semi-free time, and one of my frequent questions to myself is “What should I be doing?”
That’s different than “What should I do?” which implies crisis response, some action that is necessary, therefore sharply defined. My question is “What should I be doing?”: a softer realm of possibilities that overlap and gently compete. I can draw, read part of something, check email, ask a question, talk, put on music, watch them playing, clean something, walk back and forth across the house. There is time and not-enough-time; usually nothing is urgent, and rarely does anything get neatly finished.
Elsie said the girl dolls needed to visit the creek, so we packed up our stuff.
The path down from Everest is one of the first ones my husband made after we bought this place a decade ago. At the bottom of the path is the big flat rock where the boys were hunting, and as I walked I heard Elsie in front of me, shouting, “Bitta killed a squirrel!”
Change of plans. Necessary action. The girl dolls had to gather herbs and flowers with which to stuff the squirrel. Bitta had already gutted and skinned it. The squirrel was, in actuality, a bright yellow knitted banana with a lengthwise slit, perfect for filling with plant matter, and the girl dolls, lent motion by Elsie, set about harvesting what they needed. Elsie chattered to me as she worked, describing divisions of labor: “The boys do the hunting and fishing, and the girls do the gathering. Sometimes the youngest boy dolls help the girls, like Chang is helping the girls right now. The girls do the sewing and knitting and the boys make the spears.”
I asked a few questions that amounted to “Why the obsession with gender?”
There weren’t any big answers.
My husband earns almost all of our money. And clears all of the paths.
One of the boy dolls, it turned out, had a pocketknife. This was something he and the other boy dolls had saved up money for and bought in town. He was using it to cut up leaves for a salad called “podafette.” Elsie told me the knife had to be oiled now and then with coconut oil, which the dolls obtained by bartering with a king from Florida.
“Oh, so they go to Florida now and then?” I asked. “How do they get there—do they walk?”
“This is kind of weird,” Elsie said, “but they take a taxi.”
I quit my job when I had Elsie. I do work part time, from home, but mothering is my main occupation. There is another occupation, too, one that began long before I had kids and continues to hold considerable power over my time, or what I think I should be doing. That is the work of country life: growing a sizeable garden, envisioning and planting edibles like berries and fruit trees, tending and butchering chickens, rehabbing old sheds, canning tomatoes, researching questions like how to skin a rabbit or which of the weeds in the lawn we can eat.
John and I together have made an amateur study of such questions; we have learned a lot and we have much more to learn. He wants to figure out how to hunt deer and I tell myself I should know more about herbs. There is an enormous body of knowledge, ancestral and human and largely pre-industrial, that we are slowly working to access, and we will probably run out of time to master it before we die, because we grew up in and remain engaged with a factory-made world.
Elsie was now telling me that the boy dolls raise silkworms and the girls weave the silk.
As the game went on I started to recognize its many sources—various things we’ve read together, like the Little House series and two picture books about aboriginal people in Australia. One of the most impressive details from these books was a photo of a large snake, called a carpet snake, being pulled out of a hollow log for food. Another drawing showed an aboriginal man killing a snake with a bite to its head, and “a quick tug” on its body.
Even in fantasy, our life is tamer than that. The “squirrel,” when fully stuffed, got trussed up with multicolored acrylic yarn. We went down to the creek with a fresh supply of clementines and a few crackers from Trader Joe’s. I helped Rosa climb down past the thorny plants next to the water; she had already been scraped up enough for one week.
I was already thinking ahead to our Friday library visit—should I look for books about other hunter-gatherer groups? Island of the Blue Dolphin, where the girl survives alone with no civilization to support her? Or maybe we should read that Sally Ride biography tonight, for an example of a woman who did a job that people thought was for the boy dolls?
Elsie, meanwhile, was constructing a fishing pole for Bitta out of sticks and yarn. Chang got set up on a rock with a plastic bucket, “gathering water.” Rosa walked into the water in her sneakers, then took them off and waded barefoot. She is famously hardy, constantly stripping off clothes; she’s untamed and unashamed and gloriously fills out her skin, sensual and mobile. Just hopping from rock to rock occupied her for a considerable time. She spent fifteen minutes or so singing at the top of her lungs on a mossy boulder.
I settled after a while into a state that often envelops me, pleasantly, at the creek. I feel deeply satisfied watching my children with their feet in the water, or seeing them dwarfed by the deep cleft through which the water flows. I talk sparingly and find myself easily intuiting when to let them balance independently, and when to step forward and offer my hand. My thoughts quiet down at last. I know—and this is one of the only times this ever happens—that this is exactly what I should be doing.
The girls started to play together then, tossing Gletsue into the deeper pools. She was the perfect doll for it, made entirely of plastic. We all watched her float facedown in the slow currents, never slipping into the quick ones that would have pulled her toward the waterfalls. After a while I couldn’t help it; I said “Can she breathe?”
Elsie pulled Gletsue out and wrapped her in a red-and-white raincoat.
We went back to the house, ate some lunch at a miniature table, and looked up hunter-gatherers in the encyclopedia.
Instead of school, it’s this mixture of information and experiences that I’m seeking to offer my girls. An ideal marriage of representation and reality; the buffet of life that includes water around their ankles, breezes sliding down the ravine, and also the tools—pocketknife and encyclopedia—that let humans grow out of our immediate earthly surroundings.
Like many people, John and I are making efforts to grow back toward the earth. I don’t know if my girls will ever feel they need to do that, as in crisis, as in “What should we do?” There are crises, so many of them, that probably stem from being separated from the planet on which we evolved—everything from freakishly warm weather to the parents we see in the ballet school waiting room who ignore their three-year-olds while engrossed in their phones. I don’t want to judge unduly, but I think children need their parents’ presence. Or I think that parents need to look at their kids, to be fascinated by their kids. But not obsessed with their kids. I don’t know what any of us should be doing, actually. Everything I do every day is a guess. That’s how it is when you live a life your ancestors couldn’t begin to recognize.
The paths we walk on to access our seven acres are imagined and cleared by John. The paths we all walk on that tell us what we should be doing are usually laid down by someone before us. Says the book, “On walkabout, aborigines follow the same paths their ancestors traveled long ago.” A girl named Amprenula is shown getting water from a spring and digging turtle eggs at the beach. Her male cousins spear fish; her mother shows Amprenula how to weave baskets from bark.
Once again I restocked my backpack and we struck out away from the house and the creek, heading toward a spot the girls only found a few weeks ago. This winter John’s been slashing away at a new zone on the other side of our yard to make more room for fruit trees and gardens, maybe some beehives, and his removal of grapevines and privet made way for this amazing discovery, something we hadn’t known we had title to: a grove of Osage orange trees that grow in giant arcs, rainbow shapes, making a magical canopy that the girls can easily climb.
Elsie scrambled up right away and hung the stuffed squirrel from a high branch, to cure. She pulled loose bark off the tree and as she did, dust puffed into the air. “This is paperbark dust,” she said. “It preserves the meat.”
I sat on the ground and got out the sketchbook again, and drew some walnut shells, and Rosa sat next to me and drew a hawk with enormous wings snatching a chicken away.
Moments of success: I sometimes know that keeping my kids out of school is the right thing to do. Or at least that no school would make room for this game to happen, or love Rosa so much while she draws her hawk.
We hadn’t known this Osage grove was here, though it’s been “ours” for ten years, because we’ve gone slowly in clearing and changing the land. Our property is no virgin wilderness—it was logged a generation ago and is full to the brim with invasive species—but nonetheless, I felt when we moved here that we had no right to change it until we’d lived with it for a while. It wasn’t easy to get to know, being choked with vegetation. So we’re still discovering it, and when we clear—when John clears—he does it with hand tools, not big machines.
The education question is similar. We don’t want to push into our kids’ minds with a bulldozer, or to dictate what should be learned and when. We are betting that they’ll learn by seeking what they need, as long as we’re attentive and constantly suggest possibilities, and also if we know when to keep quiet.
There’s no real way to know if it’s “working” or what that would mean. I think it’s gentler than school, which follows an industrial model, but to claim it’s “natural” is like putting that word on a package of pretzels. In truth, the choice to homeschool is another contemporary invention. And it’s one of my privileges, too, as a certain kind of woman in a society that has rocketed past its hunter-gatherer origins.
Dappled shade; I found some tiny electric-blue feathers on the ground.
Elsie explained that the king in Florida provides shells, cotton and gold in exchange for pewter, salt, granite, and sandstone. “He’s friends with our tribe. He gives oranges, mangoes, and olives that his peasants grow. He’s benevolent so they only have to give him a little of what they grow.” The dolls, she added, are helping him fight off other tribes who hunt and gather on the king’s land without permission.
We took a break under the Osages to read a comic book called Bean Dog and Nugget: The Cookie.
The more I thought about this game, the more I loved it. It was now late afternoon. We were back on our deck, back in civilization, in the last of the day’s warm sun. I started writing notes and thoughts about the hunter-gatherer dolls. Soon, Elsie noticed and added words of her own.
“They’re trying to avoid modern things, like buying nuts and meat, cars, and lawnmowers. They cut grass with knives.”
The game was turning into a document. Every doll provided its own quotes.
Chang: Oh. Oh, hi. Uh, my name’s Chang and I’m a hunter-gatherer and today Gletsue fainted when we went to the creek because she stayed underwater too long, so bye.
Doll: Oh, uh, my name is…Doll! And um, Mommy just pulled me away from these herbs I was watering because I needed to do the interview so bye, I need to go water the herbs.
“I like that they made a salt mine and a pewter mine,” said Elsie. “I get enchanted when they use trees for shelter.”
I wrote “I want to help them grow into the actual atmosphere of this current earth productively straddling periods and understandings. We actually have no well-defined way to live on the planet. We’re unanchored. Everything that gives my daily life meaning (success/failure, order/disorder, happiness/unhappiness) is mostly predicated on constructions that are counter to a basic relationship with the surroundings, the ground.”
What we need to know has changed. We find ourselves in a world whose antecedents have melted away, and the terms of survival are shifting all the time. Actions we think are wholesome might just be a distraction from what should be crisis response; neither accepted paths nor intuition has the authority to truly tell us what to do, or what to be doing.
Bitta: Being a hunter-gatherer is hard work but it’s fun. It’s satisfying. You don’t have to use up much of your money. Goodbye.
Sitting on our couch, reading about Australian aborigines with Elsie, I’d tried in vain to help her understand the number 50,000. That’s the number of years the Australian aborigines have dwelled in their home.
On that scale, the conditions we live with are absurdly recent, and the turnover among successive lifeways has been bewilderingly rapid, so maybe it’s no surprise that Elsie’s notions about Stone Age living are a little muddled with the agrarian model and with the homesteading skills we work on as a family. Nor does she yet notice the complexities: Amprenula’s factory-made shorts, or the plastic jugs with which she scoops the spring water. Or the invisible web of power dynamics and global history that necessitates the subtitle “Vanishing Cultures” on the cover of the book, and which is currently warming the planet even as it gives me the leisure to sit here and wonder what kind of job I’m doing as a mother. And when do we break the news about climate change, or the world being very full of garbage?
Should I keep dropping hints about girl dolls who want to learn hunting, when I myself don’t want to hunt?
What should I be doing?
Elsie was using a rock for a cutting board and an espresso spoon for a “pewter knife,” cutting up some plants. Rosa was gardening naked.
For a few more minutes, the sun lit up the deck, the mountains, our gifts and possessions, our questions, the world that is upside down and so full of paths.
Erika Howsare is the author of How Is Travel a Folded Form?, published in 2018 by Saddle Road Press, and FILL: A Collection, co-written with Kate Schapira and published in 2016 by Trembling Pillow Press. Her sixth chapbook will appear from Dancing Girl Press in 2020. Erika’s poetry and prose appear in Fence, Verse, Conjunctions, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Millions, and LongReads. She lives in rural Virginia, where she works as a journalist and posts photos of the ground at erikahowsare.com.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.