Jennifer Trudeau was named our featured author this month for her recent nonfiction contribution, "Yellowstoned," as well as her fiction piece, "Without Biting the Fruit of Knowledge."
When I was seven or eight, I took a notebook and a pencil under a tall white pine in our front yard in northern Michigan. I hid under this wide tree, a tree with fringed branches that touched the grass. It was summer. Nobody could see me under there. I lay on my stomach, writing. I remember how the ground smelled, three or four inches under my nose, warm soil. That’s my first memory of writing, directly connected to the earth.
Later I earned a master’s degree in writing from a private university in Los Angeles, a long way from that tree. Not me, though: I continued the practice I’d begun under my pine, cranking out poems lying face-first on the beach next to the Pacific. It took years to get the sand out of my hair. Last September I wrote with a pen in the shadow of the Grand Tetons, lying on the soil over the mega-volcano that is Yellowstone, digging my toes into the dirt, belly to belly with the earth. Perhaps drawing something up out of it. I was raised in the city until that summer with the notebook, when we moved to a country farm for a while, so I’ve always been equally at home in either environment. Until I was 10 we lived in that truly rural place, a place that’s rural to this day. We bought our milk for a dollar still warm from the cow. It came in a glass gallon pickle jar. My mom made butter from the cream we skimmed off. Sometimes our neighbors would let us come watch the milking. We got eggs from them too; they were fifty or seventy-five cents a dozen, I believe, with a mix of brown and white shells, all sizes. This was not too long ago. Often our neighbor’s wife let us help gather the eggs, or gorge ourselves in her raspberry patch.
I had two brothers and a sister. Years later I got three more, another two brothers and another sister. We swam in a river with fish, or in a deep rock quarry with a cold-water spring. Our chores included feeding the animals twice a day and weeding the garden. We grew tomatoes, corn, potatoes, peas, carrots, green beans and wax beans and something called Swiss chard. The potatoes were my favorite. I loved digging them up, like buried treasure. You never knew how many you’d find under one plant. Sometimes there’d be tiny ones, like grapes. The roads were unpaved and passing cars raised clouds of dust.
We raised chickens and rabbits and pigs and our own beef, and butchered them all eventually -- distressing for a child, but something which demystified death for me at a young age. My mother slit throats and administered fatal shotgun action with dispatch, a natural assassin. That’s our warrior lineage; she’s a full-blooded Mohawk. She’s been a nurse for many years now; her killing days predated that career, maybe inspired her change of course into medicine.
Mom always understood me and ministered to me particularly, maybe because I was a special case, or maybe because I really was my mother’s daughter. All that mortality seemed perfectly acceptable to me. She’d cut the heart out of whatever unfortunate animal she’d just greased and drop it in a glass jar with some water and let me take it to school. Looking back, I can see a bit of incipient scientific curiosity manifest in that action, my mother’s as well as my own. None of the other kids was ever as captivated as I was by the cow or pig organs. Come to think if it, this may have been the beginning of my life as an outcast.
I remember always having an interest in the natural world, the earth and its life, its secrets and scents and messes and matter. That intrigue was evidenced also in my willingness to gut the chickens Mom decapitated, reaching in with my bare hands, examining their insides as I pulled them out in one solid handful. Eggs were forming in some of the hens, small yellow globs, all sizes, like the potatoes. It seemed saddest to me that we’d interrupted the eggs, that now they could never completely be eggs. I held them, squeezed them and smelled them. My brother had pickled whole eggs, shells and all, in vinegar; they’d turned rubberish. The unlaid eggs felt like that.
It was all incredible to me, an exquisite education. I still think so. I suppose I was a freakish child, since I also remember taking a picnic lunch to a cemetery by myself around this same time, and once carried a dead weasel to school (the whole thing). Mom moved on to human autopsies.
Not long after leaving that house with the great pine for the city again I won my first writing competition and was published. I think I was twelve. I was given more dead animals to explore in my progressive city school, but they stank of chemicals that burned my nose and were hard and gray and had clearly been dead a long time, and had the consistency of the pickled eggs, rubberish and unreal. They might as well have given us steaks. The urban education of life and biology was grossly inferior to the one I already had.
At the University of Michigan as an undergrad I won a couple of writing awards, nice because they paid rather a lot. As a grad student in California I wrote as a technical journalist for NASA for a while, and helped judge a poetry competition.
I suppose I could only have been a serial killer or a writer, with that background.