I was very upset when Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle came out. That was supposed to be my dream, my book, my story. I wanted to live a happy sustainable lifestyle — grow all my own food, have my children toddle around the garden chasing chickens, generate our power from the sun. From our thriving homestead I would become a famous writer and Dylan would become a successful artist. We fantasized about him showing his work in galleries in Manhattan. I wanted to be the modern Henry David Thoreau, taking copious notes about our righteous, happy struggle to achieve a harmonious, close to the earth lifestyle in the modern world.
After six years on our Big island land, our lives were so far from this vision, and I was so upset about it that I couldn’t read the book. Since my professional work is all about locally grown foods and building the community food system, everywhere I went someone would ask me, “Have you read Barbara Kingsolver’s book? It’s called Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, or something like that.”
“Miracle”, I would grit my teeth and say “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.”
I would dissemble. “No. I haven’t had time to read it, yet.”
Barbara Kingsolver had her whole family on board with the sustainability experiment. Her husband and daughter were fellow researchers, writers and participants. At our land and home, neither husband nor son was partnered with me on the sustainability project. And even the animals conspired against me.Barbara Kingsolver had her whole family on board with the sustainability experiment. Her husband and daughter were fellow researchers, writers and participants. At our land and home, neither husband nor son was partnered with me on the sustainability project. And even the animals conspired against me.
Dylan lived to surf, not to farm, and I spent many hours perched on a cliff watching him pump his muscular arms as he paddled hard to catch a big wave. Catching the wave, he would cut back and forth on the face, long, wet hair flying behind him. Then he would kick out of the wave, or wipe out, and I would watch anxiously, waiting for him to come back up from the roiling surf as he got pounded by wave after wave. He always came up. And then paddled back out again for another.
Dylan came home from surfing one day dripping wet, and with a gash in his nose, dripping blood. The surf breaks in North Kohala are off the rocks and rough, it was not unusual for him to come home bleeding from some part of his body. He would typically patch up a cut on his foot, arm or leg with duct tape.
“Let me look at that,” I said.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. Pressing a dingy looking rag to his nose.
“Get that off of there,” I said. Taking a closer look. “You’re right, it’s not that bad. But I’m pretty sure you need stiches, no duct tape for this one. Let’s go.”
The doctor at the emergency room disinfected it and gave it a few stiches. It was no big deal.
A few days later Dylan had a sneezing fit while working at a construction job. At first he thought it was from the dust. As the day went on he started to feel off. He came home that evening, said he felt like he had a cold or flu, and lay down on the living room couch. This was unusual for Dylan. While any minor discomfort sends me to bed or running to the Doctor, Dylan never complained about his body or got sick.
One week went by and he still didn’t feel well. Two weeks. One month. One year. Three years. He lay on the living room couch for three years.
It was like a male version of sleeping beauty, it seemed that he had a mysterious spell cast upon him. One day he was strong as an ox and then next day he lay down to sleep for three years.
Our best guess was that his inner ear was damaged, from the nose injury, his sneezing attack, or both. But, the doctors could not figure out what was wrong with him.
I am good at logistics and kicked into high gear. Making doctors appointments. Doing research on the internet. Finding specialists. Driving him to doctors appointments. Finding out what was wrong with him and trying to find a cure became a second job for me. He had medical insurance, but there were co-pays. He worked for himself as an independent contractor so there was no disability insurance when he could no longer work. We lost his income. Being the local foods girl was not exactly the gravy train. Doing non-profit community work was financially fine when we had two incomes, but now expenses were high and income was low. Half my possible productive work time in a month was spent on Dylan’s medical project.
Dylan was not a person who liked change, he liked to keep things steady. He was about minimizing, scrimping, making do, keeping things the same. He dug into one position and wanted to stay there. Steadiness has its benefits. He was loyal. He was a good father to my son. He was not emotionally erratic. He never changed his opinions or positions. You knew where he stood. For years. And years.
I, on the other hand thrive on change. I am all about newness, growth, change and opportunity.
I saw his illness as an opportunity for growth. It was something we were experiencing together, whether we liked it or not. But Dylan did not want to learn any big life lessons and did not want to interact emotionally. We took our power struggle and controlling mother/resistant son pattern into our dynamic around his illness.
Me: Let me schedule a massage for you.
Me: Let’s meditate.
Me: How about you try acupuncture?
Me: Let’s listen to a wellness CD together.
Me: How about…
Dylan: No. No. No.
I was tired of resistance. I was tired of him resisting my efforts to turn our land into a Permaculture paradise and I was tired of him resisting my efforts to help him heal.
I put up an aqua blue post-it note on my desk that read, “Lord, help me not to resist anything that comes my way.” Remind me not to ever put up a post-it note up like that again.
With Dylan’s capacity for arguing with me about household matters somewhat diminished, I decided to try to make some headway myself. I wanted to demonstrate my local foods credentials to my community by having something to offer my neighbors and colleagues when they handed me a basket of bush beans or a hand of apple bananas.
The fencing, irrigation and ditch digging for tree planting was too difficult for me, so I decided to raise chickens. After all, chickens are the quintessential animal of the sustainable homestead. They also have the benefits of being funny to watch, they produce eggs, and you finally understand every phrase about chickens you have ever heard.
You are such a chicken.
The rooster makes all the noise, but the hen rules the roost.
I bought Top Hat chickens. They are especially funny to watch because they have feathers that stick out of the tops of their heads that bob around when they peck and walk. I thought I could manage feeding and taking care of chickens. I shouldn’t have counted my chickens before they hatched.
Dylan and my son Kai declared the chickens my chickens and wanted nothing to do with them. No laughing at their funny chicken heads. No feeding them.
I made beautiful sunny side up eggs, fried eggs and eggs Benedict.
“Look at these dark colored yolks. So nutritious,” I said, “Nothing like fresh eggs!”
“Yeah. Whatever,” said Kai.
“You can just buy eggs at the store,” said Dylan.
They were careful not to show any excitement about eating the eggs, lest they be pressed into feeding service.
Ever the over-doer, I was not content to just feed the chickens and collect the eggs, I wanted to hatch my own chicks, instead of ordering chicks through the mail like everyone else does. I thought it would be more sustainable. More circle of life.
I let the hens sit on their own eggs (letting nature take its course) and once the chicks hatched, I brought the cute little things into the garage to incubate. I set up a light in a box. It was very cute. Everyday I would do downstairs and change their water and feed, pick up and hold the cute little chicks.
I felt like I was really making progress in the sustainable homestead department.
Unbeknownst to me, the chickens and chicks had contracted tiny, invisible bird mites. My fun chicken experiment turned into a total Mitemare. The bird mites invaded the chicken coop, the chick’s incubator box and my entire house. What does a bird mite look like? Think tick, but smaller than the head of a pin, so that you can’t see them. Invisible to the naked eye.
Dylan had been debilitated on the couch for two few years when the Mitemare struck. For the last two year I had been financially, emotionally and physically supporting our family of three, plus the dog and the fucking chickens. I was already on my last good nerve before I had thousands of little invisible bugs crawling all over the place.
Bird mites like to parasitize one person in a family, usually the woman. They decided to latch on to me and were crawling all over me. On my skin, in my eyebrows, on my face. (Dare I say it?) In the hair down there. They were all over the house, concentrated in the places that I frequented —office, bedroom, dining room. The most maddening thing about bird mites is that you can’t see them. I know this sounds crazy. If I hadn’t been through this and subsequently gave solace to numerous friends and neighbors who had the same experience, I might think I was crazy, too.
Dylan did think I was crazy. Since he wasn’t the one being parasitized and he couldn’t see them, he decided that the experience was not real. Many of my experiences and feelings in our marriage were not validated, but this one took the cake.
“There are no mites. You are making the whole thing up. It’s in your head,” he said.
The only thing in my head at that moment was red rage. I had a firm grip on reality, this was a man with a mysterious, undiagnosed illness, that I (and his doctors) were beginning to think was in his head.
I acknowledge that I may be hypochondriac at times—thinking I have a brain tumor when I have a headache, for example. But making up that small bugs are crawling all over me for three months, spending thousands of dollars to have the house fumigated, washing every article of clothing we owned numerous times and jettisoning all of my furniture is not something I would do for a little bit of love and attention.
Dylan could barely move off the couch to brush his teeth or shower. All around him I was trying to get rid of the mites, while he lay on the couch insisting that it wasn’t real.
“Please stop. Please stop. Don’t you understand that this big drama isn’t good for me? Why are you doing this to me?” he moaned.
I understood that it wasn’t good for him, but I still couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening.
I fought the mites by myself for two months. Continuously vacuuming, washing and bagging the clothing, sheets and towels of three people and a dog. I got rid of the chickens. I ripped out carpet and threw perfectly good furniture down the trash chute.
I called my girlfriend Leone and croaked, “Help.”
“Have you eaten?” she said.
Leone came over and found me lying on my big grass lawn, crying uncontrollably, the entire contents of the house strewn around me on the grass. I hadn’t slept the night before. I had been rubbing a lint roller all over by skin to try and get the mites off and I was itching like crazy. She fed me a sandwich. Left me some crackers and dip in a Tupperware. Assured me that I was not crazy. Even my car was infested with mites. She even lent me her clean, mite free, sky blue BMW for a night so I could escape. I went to a cheap hotel by myself, slathered my body in pyrethrum cream, popped a Lorazepam and had a decent night’s sleep.
Three is a hard number of people. Two can take sides against the one. I was the controlling mother. The disciplinarian. The mover and shaker. The idea generator. The person who needed help with the problem created by her chickens. Dylan and Kai were united against me. I had two resistant sons.
I couldn’t even get my son to wash the dog without a huge fight. I realize that this is typical teenage behavior, but the situation was extreme. Mommy had small bugs crawling all over her, Daddy was a zombie and I was on the verge of losing my fucking mind.
I gave it all I had, but the tiny mites were stronger than I was. We had to get out of the house.
I boarded the dog, rented a car, and moved the family out of the house to stay in a string of cheap hotels for a month while the house and cars were fumigated as much as possible, given laws about pesticide use.
I went from being a no-chemical person to someone who would have taken a bath in DDT if I thought it would have worked.
The day we moved out of the house and into our first hotel was the day that the word “divorce” was first introduced into our marital lexicon. Dylan used it first. Then my son told me that he hated my fucking guts and explained to me all the reasons why. I wondered if being a wife and mother really were thankless jobs. I felt hopeless and adrift.
My son followed up by telling me that he smoked pot and that I should just accept it. I told him that I smoked pot, too. Fuck it. Mommy is tired of hiding in the bathroom blowing smoke out the window and I didn’t have a bathroom or a window right then anyway. We smoked our first joint together. Some people might not consider smoking pot with your teenage son to be good parenting, but it was the right thing in the moment, a small bit of bonding in the turmoil.
Maybe I should have just driven off in Susan’s wonderfully comfortable blue BMW and allowed my husband and son to be wholly consumed by invisible mites. But I stayed and fought.
Abandoning the premises, consistent fumigation and non-stop washing of everything washable finally broke the mite cycle.
Too bad the Mitemare was closely followed by a tick explosion (in every corner, crawling up the walls) that came back with the dog from boarding. We are told that the Lord never gives us more than we can handle, but in the middle of the mite and tick clusterfucks, I felt more like I was flying off the handle.
We were back in our house. Dylan was back on the couch—a new couch, a gift from my fairy godmother girlfriend Leone—and I was stuck in the role of caretaker and provider to someone I didn’t much like anymore. And he didn’t like me either. Before he got sick, I was already counting the years until my son graduated from high school and I could leave Dylan. But the pressure cooker of the Mitemare had amplified our frustrations. The gloves had come off, voices were raised, true feelings were surfaced.
The first year we were on that land I grew a bumper crop of pumpkins. I made pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup. We shared the bounty with the neighbors, had people over for pie and ice cream. I took it as a sign that we would always have many friends and abundant harvests.
Every year afterwards I tried and couldn’t grow pumpkins again. They would flower and then die on the vine. I tried to grow many things, but those pumpkins were the only thing I ever coaxed out of that barren land and marriage.
I wanted shared hopes and dreams. It’s not just sweat, soil, water and sunshine that makes the land grow abundant and beautiful. It’s common vision, partnership, support, love and communication. These things make a place beautiful, a relationship work. Eight years in that big house and on that land, and it was never my home.
So, Barbara Kingsolver, you had Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I had dead animals, limp vegetables and I really, really needed a miracle. We had love, land, money and strong bodies. We didn’t know how to properly care for and nurture those things. Instead, we wore each other down to the ground struggling over who would rule the roost.
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