At the beginning of September, I set off on a new adventure: I’m traveling around the country over the coming months, living and volunteering on a variety of small-scale organic farms through WWOOF. This essay is about my second stop: a small vegetable farm in Liberty, Kentucky.
The way I assimilate anywhere is by walking. Wandering on a treasure hunt without a map is how I pad my own path home, pocketing whimsies along the way: tiny wildflowers, snapshots of sunlight. But the first time I tried to traipse around my neighborhood in Liberty, Kentucky, the local dogs didn’t like it.
Some simply barked from their front lawns or cowered and growled from a few feet away, like they knew I was an outsider, and my mere presence was a threat. A pack of three loose ones came chasing after me, including a large pitbull that leaped up with its paws at my shoulders and bit at my forearms and calves.
I tried to speak smoothly and sweetly — “Okay, okay, I’m leaving, okay, okay, okay, oww, okay” — and eventually pried myself away, heading back from the direction I came, heart racing. Was the beast being playful or menacing? Regardless, there were teeth involved. On my phone, I Googled, “what to do in case of aggressive dog attack.”
Use a stern but gentle tone of voice, said Google, so I’d done that right. Avoid eye contact. Put something between you and the animal, like a large branch. Back away slowly, rather than turning your back.
“They’re not pets here,” explained my farm host, B, who’s originally from New Jersey. “It’s not like, you know, the East Coast. People just let ’em loose, let ’em run out in the street.” She told me about the time her mom (who lives here with her) ran over a mutt that bounded out after her truck. “Wasn’t her fault,” B said.
She prefers cats, and she owns eight of them. Mittens has four white paws and a mysterious leg injury, so she walks timidly as if tiptoeing and is perpetually terrified of any human who comes close. Jasmine spills her furry corpulence into a cardboard box on the front porch, where she naps all day as if in a wine-induced stupor. Frankie mews and claws for attention, popping his face into my food when I eat lunch outside at the picnic table. The cats are decidedly treated as pets, given playthings and beds and two platefuls of raw chicken every morning and evening, but still without the tenderness I’m used to. If they fall ill, tough luck — it’s too expensive to treat them. One disappeared months ago, and its skeleton showed up somewhere in the front garden. The bones are still sitting there, B mentioned casually.
There’s a lot that’s different here, aside from the animals. On one of my first days, we were weeding around the thorny blackberry bushes when B told me about the homophobia she has witnessed in this part of the country. She recounted an encounter at a barber shop in town, where a handsome young man boasted about the gay neighbor he wanted to knock out with his fists. She just nodded her head and avoided engaging with him, she said.
She told me the story as if it was shocking enough to be a story, but not shocking enough to necessitate alarm; as if the whole incident was an unfortunate fact, but a fact nonetheless.
Is silent compliance any better than verbally agreeing with a stranger’s bigotry? What sort of response spoken from a salon chair could possibly begin to upturn another person’s prejudiced worldview that is so confidently proffered, so deeply entrenched? I kept the questions to myself and searched for words bigger than horrifying/terrifying/awful, but I found none, so I said, “That’s horrifying. That’s awful.” I probably said “wow” a few times, too. I don’t remember. It was difficult to know what to say. I suppose I used a gentle tone of voice. I avoided eye contact, busying myself with the weeds. I slowly backed my way down the garden bed.
We’d moved onto the next patch when the conversation shifted to guns. “Everyone” here owns them. B has a pistol, but she’s shopping for her first rifle. Her friend is helping her choose one with the best features.
I told her that I don’t believe in guns — I think what I said, actually, is that I “have a hard time with the concept of guns” — but I respect her rights and preferences. I began to question that respect when she started talking delightedly about how lax the rules are in Kentucky, how you don’t need a permit. “You can just walk into Walmart to get one, and they’ll wrap the thing up for you and have a security guy carry it out to the parking lot, and then they hand it to you, and it’s yours.”
“You mean, you can’t hold it inside the store, but they trust you once you’re right outside?” We were facing each other on hands and knees on opposite sides of the berry bushes.
“Yeah,” she said. “I guess, yeah.” She’s glad they make it easy. She doesn’t want the government snooping into her personal history. She just wants the thing for self-defense.
Trying to find a stern but tempered response while tugging grass between the brambles, I told her that I think the lack of regulation is deeply problematic and background checks are crucial. I referenced the thousands of gun deaths in the U.S. each year, including mass shootings like this summer’s massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, but also multitudes of common killings.
I did not do this eloquently or convincingly. I didn’t have the specific statistics to offer. I felt the need to say something, but I was unprepared with what to say or how to say it. How do you stand your ground while standing on someone else’s ground?
“You gotta be able to protect yourself,” she replied, entirely unfazed by my bumbling posturing. There are only a handful of cops in this whole Kentucky county. If someone breaks into her house — or, if a nuclear catastrophe happens and the economy collapses and people come to loot her property, which she anticipates occurring in the near future — she wants to be able to shoot.
“I think I’d rather die,” I said.
“Really? You’d rather die?”
“Yes. I’d rather be shot than shoot.”
“Hell, no,” she said. “I’m saving myself. I’d shoot.” The wrenched weeds were piling up behind us with their mud-clumped roots facing the sky.
“You got a boyfriend?” she asked later that day as we were finishing up. I was removing my gardening gloves, which were pricked with thorns.
“Nah,” I told her. “Doesn’t make sense to date while I’m traveling.”
What I should have said was, “Nah, but if I had a partner, that partner might just as likely be a girlfriend as a boyfriend.” What I should have said was, “Actually, I’m bisexual, just to be clear and correct your assumption.” What I should have said was, “You know that story you told earlier about the homophobic stranger? Do you ever wonder whether you should have spoken up?”
But I didn’t. It didn’t even occur to me until the next day that I’d surrendered a crucial element of my truth to keep the peace, without even realizing what I was doing. As if to avoid being bitten, I had shifted away slowly; I had avoided eye contact; I had shielded myself behind the shrubs and my own nodding complacency.
She was only being playful. She was just being herself. If I’d said what I should have said, she wouldn’t have minded — she would have been curious, probably, and then let it drop.
But some part of me interpreted danger. I, too, am an animal.
I propped my computer on a pillow to stream the third and final presidential debate from bed on Wednesday night, hugging a mug of Sleepytime tea. I watched our two candidates confidently (and combatively) procure their positions on gun rights, abortion rights, and immigration — and I physically squirmed at the views offered by a particular one of them.
At the same time, I tried to remember how many people’s perspectives oppose mine. When I heard nonsense, they heard common sense; when I heard practical and positive policy, they heard alarming and unacceptable ideals. Someone’s safety is someone else’s threat.
There’s a reason I’m taking this year to travel around the U.S., instead of adventuring abroad. There’s an undeniable allure to foreign culture — though globetrotting has its own challenges, it’s easier to romanticize the differences we don’t have to own, with oceans and gulfs like moats between land masses to clarify the “us” versus the “them.”
(According to some, those boundaries ought to be even clearer, and building a certain wall would do the trick. When I imagine it, I picture stony bricks piled up to just past six feet tall: the perfect literal rendering of a metaphorical facade, a callous and stony-hearted separation that’s fated to someday crumble.)
Within this one “united” country, the barriers between conflicting realities are flimsy and bizarre and entangled, and it’s tempting to pretend that the polarities aren’t there at all, that the “us” isn’t full of “other.” That’s what I want to dig into: the complex differences rooted in my native soil that I’ve never seen up close. I want to develop a more holistic understanding of the snarled knots of shared history underneath America’s common ground. I want to find the tiny stems where we align, particularly during a presidential election season when I think we’re all learning just how disparate we really are.
Our solutions and answers spread across the map, but we seem to connect at the questions:
How is this mess possible? How didn’t we see this coming? How can half of our country be like this? Are we going to get out of here alive?
And also: Is silent compliance any better than verbally agreeing with a stranger’s bigotry? How do you stand your ground while standing on someone else’s ground?
There’s an important cultural transformation happening, though precipitated by tragedy and trauma and catastrophe: We are engaging with the questions. We are donning our gloves and reaching into the twisted thorns.
We are celebrating people who speak up and who say, “This is not okay. This was never okay. This cannot continue this way.”
We are learning who we aren’t, or who we don’t want to be. We are learning who we are.
When they taught us about diversity and democracy in elementary school, they forgot to say, It’s hard. There will be battle. Playful or menacing, there will be teeth involved.
But there are always teeth involved when there are animals involved: On the playground at recess, where classmates disagree on the foursquare rules. At family Thanksgiving celebrations, where aunts argue over the best cranberry sauce recipe and mother-in-law sends sharp jabs at new husband. In the office, where colleagues skewer one another in pursuit of the same promotion. It’s hard enough to get along with our friends, our families, our coworkers — what, exactly, convinces us that it should be easy to agree compatibly with 325,000,000 other Americans?
It was never supposed to be easy. This mess was always there. We just weren’t digging into it. We weren’t speaking it out loud.
I’ve been in Liberty for over two weeks. I walk every day, and I now carry the same big branch each time. It has a knob at the top that fits nicely between my thumb and palm.
The dogs bark. They leap. I avert my eyes to the ground and calmly outstretch my stick. I try to let them know I’m innocent. I’m a little out of place here, yes, but I’m just exploring. I’m only here to ask questions. I came to learn.
It turns out, that biting one was just trying to entice me to play. Still, it bites. Still, I walk. It’s how I assimilate. It’s how I pad my own path home.
And that’s exactly what’s happened here: since I’m not at home in these strange surroundings, I’ve found home in myself instead. It’s as if the misalignment with my environment has helped show me where I stand. It has given me my own grounding.
I had a startling realization on one of my walks the other day, once I’d gotten past the dogs: I think I’m beginning to truly like myself for the first time; to know myself and to respect myself. I’m starting to recognize my tiny braveries, like the fact that I’d rather deal with a few aggressive dogs than surrender my daily walking practice. Like the fact that I don’t give up without a pacifistic fight. Like the fact that I can always find the whimsies: the tiny wildflowers, the snapshots of sunlight. Like the fact of my openness and the fact of my empathy for people who could otherwise be enemies.
The fact. The fact. The fact. The fact. These are the facts I know for sure, even if I’m still practicing verbalizing them. These are my roots. These are my truths, when all the rest is question.
The reason you’re supposed to carry a stick isn’t just to use it as a weapon if necessary. It’s to clarify your territory. When you hold it out in front of you, you appear bigger and more in command of your personal space, signaling to the dog, “I don’t want to steal your terrain. This is my own area, right here, and it’s where I want to stay.” If you’re calm but assertive, the simple barrier between you and the dog tells the dog that you’re neither threatened nor threatening.
Unfortunately, carrying a big branch to a polling station is not going to have the same effect. It won’t work at the office or at home, either, when the disagreements reveal themselves or when one person’s safety is someone else’s threat. We are animals, yes, but complicated ones. We have to use our words.
What might help is to remember where you stand. When you’re certain of your own strength, you feel less threatened. When you’re grounded, there’s less of an urge to be defensive. Speak gently.