I keep my boughs from growing
On the side you stand
So our branches won’t clash
Or fight for the sun
Your branches batter mine
Demanding more, more, more
We live in a state of siege
We strive for a state of love
I can only love you through our roots
Which nourish and protect
Without hindrance or distraction
I turn away
So I can love you
Where your grasping limbs can’t reach
Hard and swift
Your branches grasp
And stillMel Baggs, written gradually in hir mind & on paper between roughly 2013-2018, for someone sie’s known most of hir life
Swift and sad
I turn away
And dig deep
Bear in mind, I remain firmly convinced that the ninth circle of hell is located somewhere in Fletcher Allen Hospital. Or maybe hospitals in general. And I don’t even believe in hell. There’s a lot of great people working there, and I encountered many of them this time — including lots of nurses wearing bright red pins saying “WE’RE WINNING” — but a hospital is a hospital.
And I was stuck in a room I’d previously been massively delirious in towards the end of a five-week stay from hell. This room:
I was forgetting things. Things like the redwoods. I knew they existed but I couldn’t remember them. I was forgetting who I was. Large chunks of my normal thinking were falling out. And I couldn’t fucking remember the redwoods. I knew I should know them, but I didn’t, and it frightened me.
It reminded me too much of the blank delirium. The kind where white blankness fills up more and more of the world until the world goes away, and you’re lost in the snow. I didn’t want to be lost in the snow.
So I was looking out the window one day and I saw this:
There was a child running and playing down there. I wondered how the hell you get down there.
A wonderful LNA — i’d name her, but I don’t want to invade her privacy — made it her personal mission to figure out how to get down there. I heard her asking around all day. She finally came in with a post-it with written instructions on how to get down there. It involved a lot of weird back routes. They don’t make it simple. The hospital is actually several unrelated buildings kludged together by a maze of corridors, with that unexpected garden in the middle of it all. I’ve explored a lot of the corridors, but I’ve never found the entrance to the garden.
Anyway, when my evening caregiver arrived to visit, the LNA and I were ready with a wheelchair to get me down there. She went over the instructions with him, and he pushed me down. We found it pretty easily, she gave good directions. I’d actually been very close to the entrance before, and never known it.
It turns out it’s this place called Peter’s Garden. It didn’t take much thinking it out to know that Peter must be someone who died.
You can read more about Peter and the garden here, it includes a link to a Powerpoint of the construction of the garden. From what I understand, he died in his forties of cancer and his family and friends raised the money to put the garden in. I heard later that the chemo ward overlooks the garden directly.
Anyway, I got up and walked around a little.
When my feet touched living soil, I could remember the redwoods. I could feel my body. I could remember who I was. I could feel the way things connect together again.
I still have big holes.
I still have gaps in my head that didn’t used to be there.
But something happened in my soul.
In the middle of that hell place, there’s life. There’s dirt. There’s plants. There’s beauty. There’s dead plants. There’s amazing flowers. There’s REAL.
Someone put it there, someone made it this way on purpose.
I’m really grateful to whoever decided to do that. And to the LNA who made sure I could get down there when I was losing touch with everything that mattered to me. It gave me back a lot of strength in a really scary situation. It got me through a night where every time I closed my eyes I thought a bunch of black blobs were coming to eat me. It got me through a tense, scary morning with an uncertain future.
The gaps are still there, the tenuousness of my health is still there especially now that I’m out of the hospital, the uncertainty is still there, and I’m not working with all the thinking I should need to survive what’s in store. But I can feel who I am, where I come from, and that can mean the world.
This is an excerpt from a book by Terry Pratchett. It’s called The Wee Free Men. It’s a children’s book set in the Discworld universe. Children’s books are where a lot of wisdom about the world is hidden. If it’s the right kind a children’s book.
“Oh, they’re around…somewhere,” said the Queen airily. “It’s all dreams, anyway. And dreams within dreams. You can’t rely on anything, little girl. Nothing is real. Nothing lasts. Everything goes. All you can do is learn to dream. And it’s too late for that. And I…I have had longer to learn.”
Tiffany wasn’t sure which of her thoughts was operating now. She was tired. She felt as though she was watching herself from above and a little behind. She saw herself set her boots firmly on the turf, and then…
…and then, like someone rising from the clouds of a sleep, she felt the deep, deep Time below her. She sensed the breath of the downs and the distant roar of ancient, ancient seas trapped in millions of tiny shells. She thought of Granny Aching, under the turf, becoming part of the chalk again, part of the land under wave. She felt as if huge wheels, of time and stars, were turning slowly around her.
She opened her eyes and then, somewhere inside, opened her eyes again.
She heard the grass growing, and the sound of worms below the turf. She could feel the thousands of little lives around her, smell all the scents on the breeze, and see all the shades of the night.
The wheels of stars and years, of space and time, locked into place. She knew exactly where she was, and who she was, and what she was.
She swung a hand. The Queen tried to stop her, but she might as well have tried to stop a wheel of years. Tiffany’s hand caught her face and knocked her off her feet.
“Now I know why I never cried for Granny,” she said. “She has never left me.”
She leaned down, and centuries bent with her.
“The secret is not to dream,” she whispered. “The secret is to wake up. Waking up is harder. I have woken up and I am real. I know where I come from and I know where I’m going. You cannot fool me anymore. Or touch me. Or anything that is mine.”
I’ll never be like this again, she thought, as she saw the terror in the Queen’s face. I’ll never again feel as tall as the sky and as old as the hills and as strong as the sea. I’ve been given something for a while, and the price of it is that I have to give it back.
And the reward is giving it back, too. No human could live like this. You could spend a day looking at a flower to see how wonderful it is, and that wouldn’t get the milking done. No wonder we dream our way through our lives. To be awake, and see it all as it really is…no one could stand that for long.
Tiffany draws her strength and everything she is, from the land she was born on. In her case this is The Chalk, the Discworld equivalent of the Chiltern Hills chalk country that Terry Pratchett himself was from.
I also draw my strength and everything I am from the land I was born on. It’s a place called Redwood Terrace. It’s very small, and even people who live nearby have rarely heard of it. But it means everything to me, and to the few other people I’ve heard of who were born there.
Everything described in the passage is something I have experienced with Redwood Terrace. That is why the place is sacred to me. That is why no matter where I go, I have roots that go down right into that soil. And I may live in Vermont, but a part of me is always in Redwood Terrace. It doesn’t go away with distance.
The photograph at the beginning of this post is actually a wall hanging I made. I designed it, and I crocheted it. It is my tribute and reminder of the soil the forest floor in Redwood Terrace. I also keep a jar of that because my connection to that dirt and everything under and inside of it it is that important. I’ve heard of someone else from Redwood Terrace who does the same.
I won’t say a lot more. Because there’s a point where you’re trying to talk about something that doesn’t really have words. And if you put too many words on it you just confuse people including yourself. But Terry Pratchett did an incredible job of writing around an experience that I have had with Redwood Terrace. And that other people I know who have that kind of strong ties to a particular place, they’ve experienced similar things as well. The book may be children’s fantasy, but the description is something more real than you’ll get in a lot of nonfiction. You find that in a lot of children’s books if you know where to look.
So this is really the heart of my existence. It’s not something I always talk about. But it is always there.
I need a couple of feeding tubes, and sometimes a chest port, to stay alive. One of the feeding tubes drains fluid out of my partially paralyzed stomach so it doesn’t overflow into my lungs. The other feeding tube goes straight into my small intestine, and you put all the food, water, and medication in there. That bypasses my stomach, which doesn’t empty properly so most things just sit there or backflow into my lungs instead of being used. People can need feeding tubes for lots of reasons, but in my case it’s to get around the fact that my stomach resembles a dead-end street. Luckily you don’t really need your stomach for digestion. Small intestines do it just fine.
There’s a lot of things people don’t understand about feeding tubes, but one of the objections I hear most often is that living with a feeding tube is ‘unnatural’. It’s modern medicine run amok, going too far, keeping people alive who’d be better off dead, and lots of other cheery bullshit. And the very idea creeps people out because it’s supposedly artificial, unnatural, and disturbing to even think about. It’s hard to know where to begin with that kind of thing, but I have a lot of objections to the idea it’s unnatural.
First off, human beings using technology to keep each other alive is the most natural thing we could possibly do. We are built to have compassion for each other, to take care of each other. We are built to solve problems, both alone and as groups. We pass on our knowledge and build on it from generation to generation. We are skilled at making and improving on technology. These are our natural skills, our natural instincts, and there is little more natural for a human being than using them.
Feeding tubes also aren’t that recent an invention. They date back at least to ancient Egypt, where they were tubes stuck up people’s butts to try to get food into them that way. Butt feeding tubes were the norm until people started figuring out how to use a tube down the throat to bypass the windpipe on the way to the stomach. They used those for everything from torturing and force-feeding prisoners to making picky children eat food they didn’t want. Butt tubes were still around though. When President Garfield was shot, they were able to keep him alive for awhile using a butt-based feeding tube.
It wasn’t until anesthesia made surgery possible and antibiotics reduced the infection risk, though, that people really made headway with the kind of feeding tubes I have. These are implanted through a hole (stoma) directly into the stomach or intestine. When done properly, these days, this is reasonably low-risk and reversible. The hole heals if you take the tube out. Even while the tube is in, it’s perfectly possible to eat by mouth if you’re capable of it. Nothing about the tube itself will prevent you from doing that, only whatever condition is making feeding difficult in the first place. So if you have the feeding tube and don’t need it anymore, you can get used to eating again before having it removed.
It may be obvious that I have a problem with the way people divide things into artificial and natural. Lots of animals use tools and technology. Lots of animals do things to solve problems. We’re not different there. The things we make are just as natural as the things beavers make. Whether we, or beavers, cause problems with the things we make, is a completely different question. But just the act of making things isn’t defying nature. It can’t be. That’s not possible. And it’s perfectly in line with every natural human instinct out there.
But for people who find what human beings do hopelessly unnatural… here’s this other thing that happens:
In case you don’t know what you’re looking at, that’s a couple of Douglas fir trees. One of them is a regular tree, the other is a stump. The stump is alive. Even though it has no leaves to make food out of, the stump is still completely alive.
How is this possible? The roots of the two trees are connected. The tree sends nutrients to the stump, so that it doesn’t have to make its own food. This can keep the stump alive indefinitely. This happens all the time. It’s tube feeding for trees.
Douglas firs, like the redwoods depicted in the wall hanging in my first photo, are a social species of tree. Many social species of tree connect at the roots, either directly root to root, or through a network of roots and fungus. They can send signals, nutrients, and other chemicals through the roots. They even show preference for family and for trees that — however trees decide this — are friends. Just because they’re a social species of plant and work very differently from us, doesn’t mean they don’t share with humans the desire to help each other survive.
I mean, I’m talking in terms that sound very human, but there’s no real words out there for saying what trees want and how. All life wants to be alive, though. For social species, that often involves helping each other out. That goes no matter what kind of life form you are and how different you are.
I’ve never met even the most ridiculous nature purist who’d claim trees are unnatural. And if it’s not unnatural for trees to use their time and resources to feed each other when they can’t make their own food, it’s not unnatural for humans to find ways to do the same. Including feeding tubes.
So don’t call my feeding tube unnatural. It’s as natural as the redwood forest in the crocheted wall hanging next to me in the first picture. And using technology to help each other survive is one of the most natural things human beings can possibly do. All these tubes and machines don’t have to horrify you. I’m a living stump, not the living dead.
You can read all about the history of tubefeeding and more in Complete Tubefeeding: Everything you need to know about tubefeeding, tube nutrition, and blended diets by Eric Aadhar O’Gorman. I’d recommend the first half of the book much more than the second half, however.
The first half is well-researched information on tubefeeding in general. The second half reads like a cross between a sales pitch for blenderized diets and regurgitated Michael Pollan stuff. I use Osmolite for my main nutrition and supplement it with blenderized vegetables to get things you won’t find in elemental formulas. But when you’re reading along and the book starts referring to food the author thinks is bad for you as “edible food-like substances” and all the recipes specify the vegetables need to be organic, seriously? I don’t want orthorexia when I already can’t eat, thanks. It does tell you how to properly blenderize food for a feeding tube, though. It focuses on G-tube feeding and doesn’t mention the steps you have to do (like using a chinois) to make sure blenderized food can’t clog a longer and narrower J-tube, though.
If you’re interested in the social lives of trees, the following TED talk may be of interest:
Here is a link to a page with a transcript: How Trees Talk To Each Other.
Books regarding plant communication, cooperation, and senses:
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. This is a combination of personal observations from decades in a German woodland, and scientific discoveries backing up those observations. Living stumps are described in detail.
What A Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz. This one describes the sensory experiences of plants in a way that is pretty easy for a layperson to understand and dispels many popular myths about plant senses. The things described are in line with the scientific knowledge at the time the book was written in 2012, most of which is likely to surprise people. There is a lot of bullshit out there about plant senses, this is the real thing as far as we know right now.
Do not confuse these books with The Secret Life of Plants, which is largely garbage. Be careful of information that comes from that particular book, it’s made its way into popular understanding but most of it is nonsense or misleading at best.