Enclaves of Firelight

Two years ago, one of my students turned in an assignment splattered with blood. I held the paper by one edge and extended it back to him, explaining that I could not accept it in this condition. His eyes remained cast down; in his culture, it is considered disrespectful to look directly into the eyes of anyone in authority. “It’s just pig’s blood, Miss,” he replied.

I teach high school English in a slaughterhouse town with a large population of immigrants who work three shifts at the local pork processing plant. My classroom is filled with their children, some who have traveled through burning deserts to get here, and others who were born in Burmese and Thai refugee camps. My first three years, I traveled a round trip commute of 65 miles to and from work. Mornings, I watched the sun rise over the hills of Central Iowa farmland to paint the land apricot, often rolling down the windows to listen to the twitter of birds coming from clumps of cattails circling prairie ponds. But this Eden disappeared when I passed hog confinement barns lined up at a crossroads. The smell in the air, what one imagines might be the scent of Hell, is referred to in these parts as “the smell of money.”

Last summer, local news showed the inside of a hog confinement barn. The roof had blown off in a tornado. The terrified pigs were packed shoulder to shoulder over grates that filtered their waste into a pit below. Since then, my cravings for bacon have faded and my waffling between carnivorous and vegetarian diet has come to a halt. But arriving to work during the school year, I had to set aside my heartbreaking thoughts of the lives of these pigs in order to focus on teaching what the system mandates. I couldn’t speak about the suffering of pigs; for my students whose parents work at the pork processing plant, the life of pigs cannot matter because the death of pigs gives them an American life far beyond the daily struggle in refugee camps or the fear that grips tiny ranching communities dominated by drug cartel violence. I was uncertain how to teach my students that hog confinement is a symptom of a disease wounding our Earth, a disease perpetuated by the corporate agricultural complex.

Fields of corn, eerie in their rowed perfection, each stalk with its three or four bug-free ears, and fields of soybeans, each pod a tiny manger for agribusiness messiahs, cover much of what was once tallgrass prairie and woodlands in Iowa. Every year, more trees from the last woodland vestiges are bulldozed and burned for yet more GMO corn and soybean crops. My students, many who work summers detasseling corn in the fields, and their parents who bear the emotional and sometimes physical scars of grinding poverty, cannot be concerned with the death of the land either.

Recently, a friend remarked that Iowa corporate agriculture surely cannot last, maybe another century before the agribusiness of growing fake food product ingredients and food for doomed livestock kills the land for good. I think a century is a stretch; another 30-50 years might be more realistic. Last year, I read Ted Koppel’s book, Lights Out: A Cyber Attack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. Koppel posits that our national grid, comprised of three main linked systems across the US that are for the most part unprotected, will be hacked and chaos will ensue, as a vastly unprepared America will experience massive water and food shortages.

Despite my fear of such a scenario, I have wondered what life might be like if the grid goes out. While initially it will be excruciatingly difficult for humans, it will be better in the long run for the land and animals. We would be forced to build smaller enclaves as communities in order to help one another survive. The only light we would have at night would be firelight, and even that’s an iffy prospect since our wood is disappearing. I wonder if my students, now lost in the glowing matrices of their school laptops and their cell phones, will be able to adapt. Will they gather together and build communities with those of us from the previous generations who are still left? Will they look back on the life they once knew and realize that unless the land and trees are saved and animals are treated as fellow living beings rather than commodities, humans are sure to continue to experience a hell of their own making? This year, I can’t hold off any longer. I will teach them about the injustice of hog confinement operations, non-organic GMO crops, and corporate agribusiness practices, using Thoreau’s Transcendentalism as an enclave of firelight to connect them to this land and all its creatures, so they can begin to truly understand Earth’s ongoing plea.