Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Killing

Here in the country death is close. If they are lucky the old die peacefully in their houses or their children's -- or, if they are not lucky, then in squalid nursing homes in town. They are buried back in the valley in their ancestral church and a banquet is held after the burial. They are hardy spoken of as being dead, and they have a strange immortality, joining the pantheon of those who have gone before, those who remembered the old ways. They have their eternal life in the memory of their families as they decay under the ground.

Their deaths are spoken of in half-whispers at their otherwise loud and bustling memorial meals, and if the passing was particularly hard the women clustered in the kitchen may speak quietly and hold each other while the men sprawl proudly at table. The matter of the person actually being dead isn't much spoken of by the men when the women aren't around, so when they do speak it will be with a studied gruffness that neglects that fact and raises the gone to their timelessness, especially in the eager ears of children listening to the old-timers' tales. The women may grieve and console publically without reproach, but for the men it not so straight-forward.

Then there is the regular killing: chickens are beheaded for Sunday dinner, turkeys and other fowl for special occasions, cattle and pigs slaughtered, groundhogs kept out of the garden with a shot to the head, pets shot after being hit by a car.

Similarly, the killing that hunting necessarily involves is not spoken of. I grew up with the silence: the men left long before I awoke and came back with a dead deer in the back of the truck that evening and I would hold the flashlight while the carcass was cleaned, but when we went back to the house after hanging the deer in the barn we changed out of our clothes in the basement, washed our tools and hands, and didn't speak much of it when we sat down to dinner except to give the basic facts of size and where it was shot.

There was no boasting in the silent company of my uncle and grandfather. After your first deer there were no words of congratulation, just a simple acknowledgment of a clean shot or a many-pointed buck. The killing was not something to be boasted of because it was all understood: the dark, silent hours sitting miserable in the cold, the quickening of one's heartbeat as a deer came into sight, the carefully-placed shot, the struggle in the cold wind to drag the heavy, dead deer down a mountainside in the deepening twilight, the quick, neat work with knife and saw to butcher the animal and hang it. We have all done it. There is nothing to say to one another, no need to complain. And that is what makes hunting acceptable to me: there is no blood-lust, no glorification of a man with a gun killing an animal at a distance. It is done for the pleasure of doing something well, for the love of nature and the woods, to sit all day and truly pay attention to one's surroundings, to have earned the right to fire your gun and feel the satisfaction of having done so.

It is strange to be a woman in all of this. It is something that women do not do. It is cold, miserable, unpleasant work, and there is a distinctly masochistic streak in the uncomplaining suffering, where even suggesting that one is uncomfortable is simply not acceptable. You have to act like you are happy to be out there, to be cold and wet and stiff. And perhaps, after decades of doing it, one does enjoy it, or at least gets to the point where one can ignore it. But I am not surprised that men do not encourage their wives and daughters to go out with them. There is a very old-fashioned air of protecting women from the unpleasantness of hunting in all of this silence: keeping from them the screams of the dying animal, the blood, the staring eyes. I have joined, at least in part, in the solidarity of men - woken up at 4:30 am and stayed long after dark for the messy work of slaughtering. And when we go back to the house and eat the hot food prepared for us I don't speak of it either, and I feel the strange urge to keep all this knowledge close, to protect someone (though I don't know who) from it.

It's a strange, foolish feeling that arises despite all my strong opinions on gender equality, this desire to embrace the freedom of men that comes only at the expensive of women. It makes me long to rejoin my shipmates as Ben, to man a gun in the summer heat uncomplaining, and then come back to camp and enjoy all the silly niceties of women gossiping and giving me cake. It makes me grimace with my own hypocrisy to say it, but under such circumstances the company of women is charming instead of foolish, a relief instead of a burden, because I can stand on the outside of the female company that I have never felt fully part of. But it makes me despise returning to being a woman, and after joining the men and treating a woman as a delicate piece of china to be carefully cared for I have no interest in being treated that way myself.

At the end of the day it is a hollow, dead-end choice, and we all suffer when we are confined by old notions of gender, be we men in our silent prisons who end our lives with a pistol, unable to speak our feelings and find healing, or be we women who through a lifetime of ill-use and neglect accept a life of passivity, self-sacrifice, and negation. It's hard to take off my suspenders and unqueue my hair at the end of the day, but my escapist fantasy of being Ben cannot ring true. If I long to be a man to escape being judged a woman I do neither gender credit. I value patience, reserve, tact, and humility, but men don't have the monopoly on those virtues any more than women have a monopoly on being emotional and short-sighted. It's too easy to let my escapism become the misogyny that I am eager to grow beyond.

Intro #2

Hi, I'm the other half of TestudoMeles, one RMB. Book conservator and binding historian by trade; my hobbies include backpacking, hunting, sailing, reenacting, sewing, calligraphing, lifting weights, singing, farming, commuter bicycling, waiting for the bus, and hanging out with my roommates and partner WAKnight in our tiny apartment.

WAKnight and I have spent years talking to each other about all the things we've been thinking about on long roadtrips, backpacking trips, quiet evenings at home, and so on that we decided to have a blog. And thus we are here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why We Study History

This blog is going to talk a lot about history.  As a reenactor, freelance student and participant in public discourse, history comes up a lot in my thinking and my speech.  So I might as well start with why I bother with history in the first place.

To start with, more intelligent men than I have touched on the subject.

But here are a few reasons that resonate for me.  The first two are often discussed and are less interesting to me, so I'll dwell on the last.

1) Historical myth is the basis for our popular discourse.  Be it the absolute stupidity and cowardice of appeasement or the waste of the first world war or the tragedy of the civil war, history comes up all the time when we discuss current events or more general values.  Knowing what's a distortion and what's mostly true is useful.

2) "The past is never dead. It's not even past."  Seemingly long-dead institutions and attitudes shape the world around us, understanding them is important to understand the present.

Duh, right?  I don't think the last reason is as often talked about, though.

3) History is the science of the particular.  This both offers positive lessons about the importance of studying specifics and negative lessons about the dangers of universal statements.  This takes a bit more explaining by way of contrast to philosophy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Nothing makes me question my own rhetorical devices as much as when I see them abusively used against my own opinions.  Probably the worst offender is telepathy, where you tell someone you don't agree with why they believe what they do.  Sometimes it's mere strawmanning, but that's the easy case. Sometimes telepathy is less of an all-out bad faith attack and just an attempt to pigeonhole opponents into your own worldview.

To use an example, this post was inspired by the fact that certain bloggers can't seem to stop making definitive-sound statements about what religious people believe and why they believe it.  After all, there are a few billion of us the world over, so saying that you know why people believe in God and a hundred somewhat related propositions is pretty presumptuous. It doesn't come off well in part because believers (like yours truly) can examine their own reasons for belief, find that they are not the reasons the telepath proffers, and then dismiss the telepath's entire argument.

Disproving someone's else's claims about your inmost thoughts is among the easiest things in the world, up there with offending Bill Donohue and making Rousseau sound ridiculous.  But after you've explained to the someone else in question why you actually believe proposition X, the telepath in question might then claim that you're just in denial about your true reasons. This is mostly an illustration of how useless the whole exchange is.  People believe things for complicated reasons, and people that believe different things than us believe them for reasons that can be hard to understand or to shoehorn into our own worldview.  Rhetorical telepathy is generally a bad idea because mind readers we ain't.

Yet I still intend to get at why people believe things when I write for this blog.  To use a couple of easy examples, Lost Causers are generally attached to a traditional (problematic, to say the least) view of 'the South' rather than to a specific set of historical facts and many climate-change denialists are generally more worried about the political consequences of climate change science than the methodology of the science itself.  They won't say it, but a combination of their other statements, their affiliations etc. makes the underlying cause clear.

But I have to check myself and not get too quick to jump to gun.  If you see any telepathic bullcrap, call me on it, okay?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Hi Everyone.  Welcome to the blog.  This is a joint effort between myself and my real-life partner in crime RMB.  We will probably add other friends occasionally as well.

This was originally conceived of as a way to record and share some ongoing conversations that the two of us have.  Topics of these include the usual blog gamut of religion, history, gender, RPGs, books, etc.  Maybe things will get more focused as we continue.  Or not.