Far Out Isn’t Far Enough

1 Jun

Tomi Ungerer and his wife Yvonne left the rowdy stress of NY in the 1970’s on a distant punt that something calmer was out there. Taking their quite clear and abiding love for one another, along with a cat and Ungerer’s French wit, charm, insight and pivotal design/illustrative talent, to the wild coast of Nova Scotia they embarked on a life in the back of beyond.

For what has become a sort of popular trend (to leave a city behind and start killing and growing your own way in the world) it wasn’t, in the 70’s, the ‘done thing’ and so this beautiful diary of sorts, originally published in English in 1984, is even more remarkable as a beginning. A beginning of thinking differently about how to live. But also a beginning of our now more brazen attempts at going backwards.

My mother and I were talking about this earnestly the other day: is it possible, in evolutionary terms, to ‘go too far?’
Can it be said that there are moments, moments of clear intention, beyond which we should not travel. Take for instance the meat industry – many of the issues raised with the current paradigm of farming, mass slaughter and animal abuse for human consumption are in their evolution. Evolved as they have to kill larger and larger numbers of animals to stock larger and larger supermarket chains (now resembling giant warehouses), they ‘dehumanise’ the process of conscious eating. I know various omnivores who find moral argument not with eating meat per se, but with the process of distance and waste now synonymous with the process of acquiring meat to eat. Or what about technology? God only knows how many feathers are ruffled the further into the future we go by the expectation we have of machines and robots to bare the heavy load; not just in manual ways but with our own friendships, communications and other aspects of our emotional spectrum. What Sherry Turkle takes umbrage with in her exacting book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other is the issue of us shirking the responsibilities of being alive, of being able to feel and to hurt; basically trying to avoid the innate yet often rewarding challenges of having to deal with each other and ourselves.

If this is the case, and there are thresholds that are not beneficial to cross, it seems that pre-industrial housekeeping may have been one of them. Ungerer goes from New York, the hyper-real city of money, status and ambition, to living in amongst some of the whitest most ‘backward’ people on earth yet each utterance including or explaining these people is delivered with honest acceptance (even when he’s referring to them drowning, drunkenly hunting, crashing cars, ‘nigger’ taunting or otherwise) that it seems some kind of basic humility and love is born out of hewing.

Perhaps the exhaustion and reverence that comes after a day mending fences, cracking open ice floes, settling chickens and bleeding pigs is a therapy we’ve foolishly abandoned. Outsourcing our basic requirements can leave us feeling lost; at first the thought of not having to plow a field or worry about crops seems like a break but we break so often now we no longer know what relaxing really is – because to relax first one needs to be truly tired. Now I know that if this were simply so all farmers would be philosophers but it does seem that although not the one answer to all life’s questions, living closer to the land and the seasons, doing as much ourselves as we can possibly manage, are things that have a deep repercussion for our ability to really connect with our own lives.

Ungerer’s book is a slow meditation on the peaceful and brutal daily slog, with humour and grace he and Yvonne work the land and meet the people face to face with no pretention, they care for their animals and exhibit great warmth in their interactions with the incredibly harsh environment. All of the entries are illustrated by the most subtle and moving drawings of a couple who chose to live differently and who, from out of that living, created an object of beauty which provides wise company on a wintry day and made me at least think about the disconnect of person to person and person to planet.

Tomi Ungerer is a children’s book writer and illustrator who, among tones of other more hefty achievements, also came up with the slogan ‘Expect the Unexpected’


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