Confined animal feeding operations. Factory farms. For those of us who don't or no longer live in the country, these are the places we drive by on Sunday jaunts or pass on the freeway: acres and acres of buildings often partially hidden behind a row of trees. We know what they are only when the overwhelming smell of manure drifts in through our air-conditioning systems, and we speed up to get past as quickly as possible. Hundreds of cows or pigs, thousands of chickens, may be in those buildings. We might have a vague sense that we get much of our milk, eggs, and meat because of them, but we don't want to think about CAFOs very much.
Janet Kauffman's new book, Trespassing: Dirt Stories and Field Notes, makes literature out of this apparently very unpromising material. Yes, it is a literature of rage and advocacy, built as much on the need to inform and inspire action as it is on aesthetics, but it still has a deep imaginative relationship with the lived world. Kauffman, now retired after several decades of teaching at EMU, grew up on a farm and has continued to farm in Lenawee County since she moved here in the 1970s. In the last decade or so the factory farms have moved into south central Michigan and have begun to dominate rural life. "They say in Michigan you're never more than six miles from a lake or stream," Kauffman writes. "Here, I'm never more than six miles from a manure lagoon."
Because that is the problem. All of those animals produce the same amount of waste as a large town. The manure is not essentially different from human waste, yet it is treated much more casually. Liquefied and sprayed across fields in vast quantities, it leaches into aquifers or runs directly into streams and rivers. It kills the life in the streams and destroys the place — and a way of life that has grown up there.
Kauffman's Trespassing begins with a series of short stories about the people who work for these factory farms, who have to live near them, or who are doing the tough unpaid work of monitoring their effects on the local environment. The second half of the book has beautifully structured personal essays that, among other things, tell us a lot about how water flows through our southern Michigan landscape and about the assaults on these watersheds. It makes for a remarkable combination of genres that has an effect unlike anything else I have read.
Janet Kauffman is not sanguine about the possibilities of healing our blasted rural landscape. In fact, at times she seems to be stretching for the most tenuous connection to hope. But there are moments, exquisite because of their fragility, where she becomes a celebrant of what she fights to defend. Near the end she writes, "Homeland and habitat, every watershed is worth protecting. Worth celebrating. Water's in our blood, it's our lifeline, and it binds us. To stoneflies and stones, to skunk cabbage and clams, to rotting leaves and cooking cake."
Janet Kauffman reads at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Wednesday, July 9.
[Review published July 2008]